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Top Women in Franchising: Kat Cole, President and COO of Athletic Greens

The former president and COO of Focus Brands made a name for herself in the franchise industry after spearheading impressive growth for both Cinnabon and Hooters.

Kat Cole — described by Forbes as the “Erin Brockovich of the restaurant industry” — is an American businesswoman who became one of the franchise industry's most prominent executives while serving as the president and COO of Focus Brands, the parent company of CinnabonAuntie Anne’sMoe’sSchlotzsky’sMcAllister’sCarvelSeattle’s Best Coffee International and Jamba

Cole was born the eldest of three sisters in Jacksonville, Florida, and raised in Orange Park, Florida. One of the most defining moments of her life happened at nine-years-old when her mother divorced her father and raised the three girls on her own.

Following her mother's divorce, Cole began working at The Body Shop to help pay some of the family expenses before starting her career at Hooters as a hostess. During her first year at Hooters, Cole served as everything from waitress to manager to cook. She made such a strong impression as the Jacksonville franchise's best employee that she was invited to Sydney to train and motivate the new owners and employees at the opening of the first Hooters in Australia.

Around this time, Cole made a tough decision — she dropped out of college two months prior to earning an Associate’s Degree to focus on her career. “The reason it [dropping out of college] didn’t feel that risky was I had a compelling alternative,” she told Quartz. “I was traveling around the world so much, doing things I loved, and was clearly good at earlier than most people are.”

The decision paid off. Cole became Hooters’ vice president of training and development at just 26 and went on to grow the brand from approximately 100 locations and $300 million in revenue to 500 locations in 33 countries and $1 billion in revenue. She eventually earned her MBA from George State University without an undergraduate degree.

In an interview with CNBC, Cole describes the personal characteristics that helped her succeed as those that “seem to transcend industries and job titles,” such as the “delicate balance of courage and confidence, with humility and curiosity.”

In November 2010, Cole was hired by Cinnabon Inc. and was quickly named president in January 2011. During the first three years of her tenure, Cinnabon added 200 bakeries, created partnerships with grocery stores and restaurants like Taco Bell and Burger King, and became a global brand in 56 countries. Even more impressive, Cole spearheaded this growth during a recession. 

“We were in the worst hit venues for discretionary spending, and these franchisees are small business owners who had their life savings invested,” she told Forbes. “And many of them, much like small business owners today, and we’re seeing it again in a COVID world, did not have the capital strength to weather the storm…I knew I needed to be in the locations. I did nothing for the first 60 days essentially other than work in what we call our bakeries, our franchise locations. I rolled cinnamon rolls. I took out the trash. And I'm not talking, shaking hands and kissing babies. I was there for hours learning, listening, watching and asking questions.”

During that difficult time, Cole says she also made sure to always ask franchisees one question: “If you were me, the president of the company, what is one thing you would do differently to make this business better?”

Cole brought her collaborative approach to American television with an appearance on the popular television show Undercover Boss. In the episode, she worked anonymously in several of Cinnabon's retail and production roles, including at both traditional Cinnabon locations as well as a Cinnabon kiosk inside a Flying J truck stop in Virginia. At the time the show aired in 2012, she was 34 years old and the youngest CEO to appear on Undercover Boss. 

When it comes to her overall success at Cinnabon, Cole told Forbes that it all came down to being smart about taking risks and keeping franchise owners in mind. “So I really had to learn in my mind to deconstruct the brand into its parts, and which of the parts remain the same in certain markets, and which of the parts needed to be tweaked,” she said. “Maybe it was the music. Maybe it was some of the color palettes. Maybe it was the uniform standards in some countries. Certainly, menu items. I learned to break it into its parts and then work with a team to reassemble those parts in a way that still delivered a consistent brand experience but allowed the brand to stand tall in a completely different environment.”

In the winter of 2015, Cole stepped into the president role of Focus Brands, overseeing the company’s massive footprint of over 6,000 operations globally. Although that's a massive system, Cole says she aimed to take an approach of “think global, act local.” 

“That’s been the way of the world for quite some time,” Cole told Forbes. “That the best brands have very intimate, hyper-localized connections, whether they’re brick-and-mortar local or digital local. It is still a very personal interaction. And so add to that franchising. By nature of the model requires a very intimate store-level, field-level support structure. So we are already structured to have individuals who literally focus on a very small group of stores and can take a larger initiative and help figure out what about it must be slightly altered or evolved to fit like a puzzle piece to those local stores — that local market.”

Today, Cole is currently president and COO of the direct-to-consumer nutrition company Athletic Greens. She also recently joined the board of Denver-based Nextbite, which develops delivery-only restaurant brands and licenses them to restaurants to sell out of existing kitchens, as well as the board of directors of Slice, a tech platform focused on pizzerias.

Outside of work, Cole has also prioritized non-profit and humanitarian work. She worked in Africa for sustainable development of women and children in need, and she has also volunteered and advocated for many food service-related organizations. Additionally, Cole serves as a mentor to young women and entrepreneurs.

“Be your own hotshot,” Cole told CNBC. “Look at the situation as if it’s my first day and have the courage to step up and say, ’you know what, I have gotten a little complacent.’ It also puts a fire under my butt to get me to pick up the phone, get on a plane and go do things that maybe I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t completed that exercise.”