Not many presidents of multi-national companies can say they dropped out of college to pursue a career with Hooters, but then again, most executives aren’t Kat Cole. After starting her career in franchising while still in high school, Cole has soared through the ranks of the corporate world with po.....
Q: How did you get your start in franchising?
A: I started as a hostess at Hooters because I wasn’t even old enough to be a server. I originally wanted to become an attorney at an engineering firm, but shortly after starting college I began to get some pretty interesting opportunities to take on additional leadership roles at Hooters.
Q: What put you on the path to management?
A: At the age of 18 I was finally promoted to a server and was asked to help train new employees. After a while I was asked to go do that at other restaurants around the city. One day, a couple cooks walked out and I stepped up to help cook. Through that experience I fell in love with the back-end of the restaurant. When a shift manager quit, I took on that role and fell in love with operations as well.
I was lucky to have a general manger who believed in me even though I was very young. When there were jobs that needed to be done, she put me in leadership positions and gave me opportunities that other people may not have gotten. She saw something in me and trusted me with these leadership roles.
Q: You faced a tough decision early in life that would have a profound impact on your career.
A: By the time I was 19, I was asked to go open the first Hooters in Australia. After that I was given lots of opportunities to travel overseas and helped open the first Hooters locations on three different continents.
At that time I was faced with a choice – I could stop traveling and pursue my dream of an engineering degree, or I could quit college to pursue this exciting chapter of my life. So that’s exactly what I did. Once I did that and I was completely open the travel continued, and by the time I was 20 I was offered a corporate job in Atlanta overseeing employee training and development for the entire 250 locations. Nine years later I was vice president.
Q: What was it like being a young woman with a leadership role in the corporate world?
A: It was interesting. The funny thing was I couldn’t even rent a car. We tried not to make a big deal of my age because we wanted to inspire confidence in my business partners. It wasn’t talked about a lot and because of my leadership experience at home and in the work place I acted a lot older than I was.
It also helped that I had worked at almost every position within the restaurant. That gave me a confidence that I really knew what was going on at the front lines. That helps even a young person rise to the occasion in a corporate environment.
Q: Was a C-level position your goal when you started as a hostess?
A: When I was 19, I definitely didn’t think I’d become the vice president of a company. I’ve always had a sense of responsibility for my surroundings and I just fell in love with international business, multicultural business opportunities, franchising and travel.
Something about those activities really fed my soul, so I didn’t know right away I was going to be running companies but I certainly felt it was possible. In my early twenties, I began to meet more and more leaders in the industry and saw how they invested their time and money to build businesses. That’s when I knew I was going to be running companies.
Q: What was one lesson you learned during your time at Hooters that has stuck with you?
A: Always assume positive intent no matter where you are, who the team is or any evidence pointing to the contrary. People who do that consistently have an uncanny ability to work effectively with almost anyone in any circumstances and, as a result, move up the chain more quickly. By making your positive intent clear through action and tone, you’ll put your coworkers at ease and make working together more comfortable.
Q: You’re now president of Cinnabon, a subsidiary of Focus Brands, Inc. which itself is an affiliate of private equity firm Roark Capital. How is franchising different in that environment compared to the privately-held Hooters brand?
A: It’s been a big change from Hooters whose sole stakeholder is the CEO. Roark provides us with best practices and access to many other franchise brands. We can use those connections for benchmarks, to ask questions and to really learn from one another. For someone like me who is hungry to learn and evolve a brand very quickly, the ability to instantly connect with other leaders in the same space of QSRs or franchising is a special gift.
Q: Focus Brands has always put an emphasis on integrity. How have you experienced that during your time as president?
A: All of kinds of good things are going on at Focus but sometimes you make a mistake, and mistakes are when you get to see how deep integrity runs. If there is a bump in the road or a tough situation, there is such support from Focus to do the right thing for the right reasons, even if it’s the unpopular or expensive choice. It’s been awesome and it’s the reason I’m still here.
Q: QUESTION ABOUT GOALS OR REACHING NEW DAYPARTS
Q: How has your background helped decision-making in regards to Cinnabon’s international development strategy?
A: Focus has an incredible international division that develops and operates all of Focus Brands internationally. Cinnabon is the largest and lead international brand of Focus with 50 percent of our units overseas.
My international experience with Hooters has prepared me in pretty interesting ways. Because I grew up opening businesses overseas, I understand the unique challenges and opportunities that exist beyond our borders. Unlike some domestic brand leaders who may struggle with the changes that are needed to be successful overseas, I really get it. It’s fun to work together with the international division to see the changes that they’re making to the brand and it makes me appreciate what they have accomplished more than I think most people would.
Q: You’ve been involved in a number of organizations within franchising and the restaurant industry. Why is that important to you?
A: I met the leaders who would eventually offer me a position at Cinnabon through an event I put on with the Georgia Restaurant Association, so being involved is a really cool way to give back to an industry that has given so much to me. I’m an active member of the National and state Restaurant Associations as well as the International Franchise Association.
I also serve on the board of directors of the Women’s Foodservice Forum. The WFF is particularly special to me because at a young age it introduced me to people who gave me coaching, became friends and provided job opportunities. I got to meet people who would become my confidants during tough times and offer perspective someone my age would never have had.
Q: Unlike a lot of people in your position, you have a very active presence on social media. What role does that play in your life?
A: The reality is that most people today are living their lives online in addition to in person, and it would be an awful shame to miss an opportunity to connect with someone because you aren’t in the same spaces online. Right now I’m loving it – connecting with people, helping our guests and learning from those people who share their minds and hearts. I don’t think anyone should allow web connections to replace in-person relationships, but it’s a really fascinating conduit to eventual face-to-face relationships.
Q: Is there a single moment or achievement in your career that is your proudest?
A: It’s tough but I’d say being in a position where I can add value to people’s lives. Because of the role that I have, I’m in a position to influence investors and franchise partners, help develop employees and build a brand that people all over the world get to enjoy. I have a growing level of pride that through whatever series of luck, good fortune and work, I’m in a position now more than ever to influence people’s lives.