Written by Patty Rasmussen Tuesday, April 09 2013
Snapshot: Cheryl Bachelder, CEO, AFC Enterprises, Franchisor of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
2013 POW Award Winner honoree, Cheryl Bachelder, CEO, AFC Enterprises, Inc., the franchisor of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, had something of a gypsy upbringing. Her father was in business, requiring the family to move every three or so years. When she was a senior in high school, she stayed in California while the rest of the family moved to Hong Kong.
“In my family we joke about the fact that at 18 you’re supposed to leave home, but at 18 my family left me,” she laughs. “I had to grow up faster than most kids. I didn’t have a soft landing, unable to run home every weekend from college. I really had to take management of my life at a young age.”
Adaptability was one by-product of her childhood that stood her in good stead as she switched college majors from music to business. A natural extrovert, Bachelder thrived in the business setting where she learned to work hard and smart and developed a purpose-driven, results-oriented leadership style. She has worked in top management at such companies as KFC, Domino's Pizza, RJR Nabisco, The Gillette Company and The Procter & Gamble Company.
Womenetics: You say that servant leadership has been key to what you’ve been able to achieve. How did you become interested in servant leadership, and why do you find it to be an effective way of leading people and organizations?
Cheryl Bachelder: In my own career I’ve observed a lot of leaders in large corporate America and, frankly, have been desperately disappointed in the caliber of leaders of my generation, my peer group. That reached a crescendo for me about 12 to 15 years ago. I found American leaders self-absorbed and selfish, always focused on getting a bigger jet, more stock, bigger houses. It’s all about them. I’ve observed the impact that (attitude) has on the organization. No one is motivated by your personal ambition no one cares about your personal ambition. They care about a greater purpose, doing something that matters and working for someone who cares about them.
I started to wonder what it would be like if you led the way you want to be led, if you were the boss you wanted to work for. It’s a fascinating conversation to have with people – asking them to describe the ideal qualities of a boss. They always say, “They took time with me, took risks with me, they taught me and had my back.” Then I ask, “Are you that boss to someone today?” Their face freezes because they’ve never thought about it that way. That’s human nature. We’re wired to be selfish 2-year-olds. But we have to fight our nature and be the boss we want to work for.
That’s what led me to servant leadership because it’s the highest standard. It asks the question: Do you have a purpose for leadership that’s greater than your own ambition? Do you get up every day focused on serving those that have been entrusted to you?
And, interestingly enough, if you have a higher purpose and you serve those who are entrusted to you, the performance results are better. There are statistics on that. Servant- led companies out-perform the S&P over a 10-year period by 24 percent, that’s double the return rate that ordinary business performs.
It’s not just a “kumbaya” thing. It’s a performance strategy. It’s a powerful approach to leadership, well-received by the people that matter most, and it delivers superior results – that’s what we’re doing at Popeyes. We’ve left the industry in the dust with our performance results. But it’s how we did it that’s different, not what we did.
Womenetics: What was the big challenge when you got to Popeyes and how did you address it?
Bachelder: The real heart and soul of what turned the tide at Popeyes was the conscious decision to turn the franchisee/business owner into our number one customer and to serve them. That probably sounds obvious – we’re in a service business, they run our restaurants, they hire all the people. It sounds so obvious, but it is not obvious in our business. Many, many franchisors are constantly at odds with their franchisees. It’s not at all normal to love your franchisee, and that’s what we chose to do.
We started measuring the performance of our restaurants, sales and profits, to see if our franchisees’ business was healthy and to see if they were making a good return on their investment. Then we improved that every year of the last five. Restaurant profits are up 35 percent over the last five years, actual cash dollars taken to the bank by the owner. The return on investment of our new restaurants has gone from 0 to 28 percent, cash on cash return.
We served their interests; we provided for their livelihood and helped get their kids through college with cash. It’s not altruistic. Because they’re so profitable, we’re building the most new restaurants of anybody except McDonald’s. That’s what drives return to our ultimate shareholder. The (leadership) model works. You take care of the most important owner, they take care of your business and your business performs at a level well above the competition. And it’s very hard for your competitors to copy your relationships. They can copy everything else you do, but they cannot copy trust and the power of human relationships. Our franchisees give us the highest rating in trust and partnership of any other franchisor.
Womenetics: In practical terms, what did you do to serve your franchisors to create that sort of outcome?
Bachelder: The first thing we did was a listening tour. We asked them what needed to be done in seven cities. We talked to owners, restaurant managers and guests and asked, “What’s wrong at Popeyes?” Robert Greenleaf (founder of the modern Servant Leadership movement) says the most important trait of a servant leader is to listen carefully and learn continually. We didn’t assume we had the answers. We then took that feedback and acted on it.
The critical changes we made include building strong marketing, improving our messaging, media and our menu. We told the untold Popeyes story, and now we have a huge number of national ad flights that have doubled the awareness of our brand. That’s actually the job of the franchisor; we’re supposed to do all that, so when we did it, it meant a lot to our franchisees.
The second thing we did is that we asked (franchisees) to step up their game in running the restaurants. Our restaurants were notoriously slow, and we are a fast food place. They stepped up, and our guest ratings have risen over 20 percentage points on speed of service. Those two things have a huge impact on profitability. We also did a supply chain initiative that saved our system over $36 million over three years.
We measured things. Everybody says franchisees are emotional, but they’re emotional when there are no facts in the room. We measured sales results, speed of service and profitability, which all led to fact-based conversations instead of emotional arguments with franchisees. That improved the health of the relationship. Trust grew as we delivered on our promises and they delivered on theirs.
Womenetics: Can you point to a moment in your career that was a turning point in your success?
Bachelder: Many times the most catalytic moments in our career are the most difficult moments in our career. In 2001, I faced a business challenge at the same time I faced breast cancer. You talk about the moons all being aligned in the wrong order! Everything went up for grabs all at once. Work was very difficult, and the challenge of facing cancer reframed everything. I know for a fact that that time period re-shaped the way I viewed leadership. If you’re uncertain about how long you have to lead, it makes it far more important that you decide how you will go forward and how you will spend your days.
I took a career break from fall 2003 to fall 2007. I thought I would do boards, raise teenagers and be retired. But I actually examined my life and determined that I’m absolutely wired for leadership but that I wanted to go back and do it differently than I’d done it before. I wanted to build a case for purpose-driven leadership, which is my phrase for servant leadership. I wanted to go back with clear purpose for why I was doing what I was doing, very much focused on serving others, and see if I could build a business case that would drive performance in one company. I saw that as an opportunity of creating a certain kind of legacy and demonstrating that among my leadership peers.
That’s what I did, and I never looked back. I’ve had a blast – and still am. It’s further fueled learning how powerful it is to challenge yourself and others to approach the day through the lens of serving others. My friend calls it ‘leading for the sake of others.’ It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. It’s completely contrary to our nature; we can only aspire to it. I call it aspirational leadership.
Womenetics: Did you have any women mentors in your business career?
Bachelder: No, I didn’t have a woman mentor, and I wish I’d had any mentor. I regret that’s my answer. There weren’t people who took me under their wing. I had bosses, people who taught me skills, but no one to help me navigate the landscape of leadership. I wish I did because I saw how powerful it was in examples around me.
Today, I’m a zealot about mentoring men and women. I couldn’t be more passionate about it. It’s a gift we owe the next generation of leaders. Not only have I been given the opportunity to lead, but I’ve been given the responsibility to mentor others.
We have a Women’s Leadership Forum at Popeyes that they started themselves; they have a female executive sponsor to shepherd them. I participate in a lot of their activities because I want them to know me and want to be accessible. We formally started a mentorship program about six months ago.
Womenetics: I read that you and all your siblings are CEOs. What did your parents do right?
Bachelder: I’m not sure how conscious it was, but my parents definitely shaped leaders at the dinner table. It was primarily talking to us not about what we would do with our lives but how we would live our lives.
My father would, nightly, tell us a story of how he made a decision in the workplace. It was value-based teaching. My parents were phenomenal at the character development of leaders – honesty and taking seriously the gut-wrenching decisions that affected people’s lives. They didn’t mince any words about how difficult it was at times to make the right decision. Mother and Father together gave us many faith lessons at the dinner table, instilling in us that there is something greater than ourselves. When you’re 12 years old you don’t realize how great that perspective is, but you do when you’re 56.
My parents never said we needed to be a CEO, they only said we needed to be our very best. They were very strong on education, hard-working and living up to the potential you’ve been given. My personal purpose is to develop purpose-driven leaders with confidence and character. When I look back, that’s exactly what my parents focused on.
Womenetics: How did your upbringing, relocating so frequently, shape the person you are today? What strengths and weaknesses did you develop? How did you overcome them?
Bachelder: The obvious implication is that you became very good at starting fresh with people. I’m an extrovert. I was wired for the way we lived. I made friends reasonably quickly. I was very much a “jump in and get involved” person. It was much harder on my sister who was an introvert. It served me hugely well in giving me a real interest and affinity for people. I was fascinated with people because I’d lived so many places.
When I was a senior in high school my parents moved to Asia and further expanded our horizons. It developed an intense curiosity and interest in people. The down side of it is that I want to redecorate my house every three years! The suffering that comes with (the moving) is not having that “home sweet home,” not having that place you’re from, the girlfriend you knew in third grade. I don’t know a single person I went to elementary school with today. My husband has seven best friends, two of them he met in seventh grade. I don’t have that strong sense of place to go back to, but it’s made me passionate about creating family traditions and family occasions. I think that’s how I get my sense of place.
Womenetics: You switched from being a piano major to a business major in college. What was it about business that struck a chord with you?
Bachelder: I think what I discovered and loved most about the musical experience, and I’ll put it in musical terms, was bringing all the instruments and voices together as an orchestra. In my mind, I wanted to be the conductor, the leader of the orchestra.
For me, business was an opportunity to be an orchestra conductor. It’s an opportunity to practice all the instruments and get them refined in their pieces and then strike up the music and hear it all come together. I think of leadership in that fashion. The leader develops each functional area’s capability, teaches them to play their role in the piece. Then when everyone’s well-prepared, coached, developed and capable, the music plays beautifully. The results are accomplished. I really do think of my people as musicians who need to be practiced and prepared. I love the excitement of creating results out of that melting pot of talent.
More from 2013 Atlanta POW! honorees:
What advice does Susan Booth, artistic director for the Alliance Theatre, have for businesses looking for creative problem-solvers? Hire more artists.
Jamie MacLean, leader of Ernst & Young's Southeastern IT Risk and Assurance practice, has made investing in and retaining E&Y's female talent a priority for both moral and business reasons.
Think the golf course is the only outdoor networking destination? Susan Grant, EVP for CNN News Services, first caught wind of the newly established network while she was a secretary playing for Turner Broadcasting's corporate softball team.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD and Blue Ridge Country.