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Why This Former Starbucks Exec Is Set to Make a Big Buzz in Franchising

Michelle Waits, who previously held positions at Starbucks and illycaffè, recently joined the 340-unit coffee concept BIGGBY® COFFEE as chief marketing officer.

The business sector has historically been known to be a male-dominated industry, but the rise of women in franchising is changing that narrative. The number of women in franchising has significantly grown, from franchisees to franchisors to suppliers to everything in between. Today, there are countless powerful women leading the charge and contributing to franchising’s rich, diverse and inclusive environment. Their stories serve as inspiration for other women looking to climb the corporate ladder in the franchising industry. This month, 1851 Franchise is highlighting some of those stories for our “Powerful Women of Franchising” issue.

Michele Waits, chief marketing officer at the 340-unit coffee concept BIGGBY® COFFEE, is a prime example of a women leader making moves in the franchise industry today. 

“One of the big benefits of being a woman in business is that it allows you to become part of a very supportive group of people who face similar situations,” said Waits. “There are so many incredibly successful people out there who have overcome adversity, and a lot of them have been female entrepreneurs. There’s lots of inspiration out there, and there are a lot of people who are eager to be part of your cohort.”

With 25 years in brand management and over a decade of experience in coffee marketing, Waits is quite an inspiration herself. Waits started her coffee career at the very top, joining Starbucks as director and vice president of U.S. consumer packaged goods and food service marketing.

“I always admired Starbucks as a brand,” said Waits. “I heard Howard Schultz speak about building the type of company that he wished his father could have worked for and making sure employers were called partners and anyone working over 20 hours a week got health benefits. That is what led me to coffee. But there's so much romance in coffee. There's the art and the science. There's the agriculture side. There’s the historical context. There's the cultural and social side. Italians use the word conviviality. Once you get in it, it's hard to leave.”

In her first role with Starbucks, Waits drove over 100% revenue increase and a 25% operating margin improvement for U.S. consumer packaged goods (CPG) within two years, eventually moving on to become vice president of global product innovation, where she developed an entire second, billion-dollar revenue stream for the chain: tea. She rolled out tea bar concept stores, created a beverage new product pipeline and spearheaded the global launch of the Teavana brand. 

In her final role with the company, Waits took her efforts internationally as the vice president of Asia Pacific retail marketing. She led the regional product management and marketing business unit to deliver product and digital innovation, marketing campaigns, strategic plans, and consumer insights for the billion-dollar Starbucks business in 14 Asian markets.

“I spent 12 years at Starbucks,” said Waits. “Most of my background is in consumer packaged goods, which all started with my first role at Starbucks. That opportunity really opened up my skill sets and allowed me to focus on retail store marketing and really go deep on innovation. I also had the opportunity to lead the marketing department for our 14 Asia Pacific markets. It was a great experience really building the brand there.” 

After her tenure at Starbucks, Waits moved over to another coffee player, this time in the form of the gourmet Italian coffee concept illycaffè. Here, she acted as the vice president of Marketing & Commercial Support. 

“My focus was really around trying to build up that brand recognition in the U.S. market,” she said. “It is already so strong in Italy, but we wanted to bring that here.”

Two years later brings us to today, where Waits has recently stepped into the role with a new coffee juggernaut—BIGGBY® COFFEE.

“Its emphasis on being mission-driven and delivering a custom-crafted consumer experience is what makes BIGGBY® COFFEE so unique,” explained Waits. “We offer a combination of great coffee and friendly service in a simple and unpretentious way that, I think, is really consistent with what consumers want today. I have a lot of admiration for that approach.”

Currently, Waits says, her days consist of learning and listening. Reaching the unit count that BIGGBY® COFFEE has achieved in a profitable way has not been an easy feat, and she will be integrating her experience and ideas into an already-successful network and workplace culture.

Looking to the future, Waits will work to better crystallize the brand’s market position. 

“This is a brand that has grown to be so much bigger than coffee,” she said. “As we expand, we will work to clearly communicate our brand promise in a way that resonates with our customers. Digital marketing is a buzzword, right? And everyone's doing it. But we want to give our consumers the same great experience they have in our stores in the digital sphere because that's how they want to be engaged. Getting the word out and telling our unique brand story will really catapult us forward.”

“Michele brings a remarkable professional history to the BIGGBY® COFFEE team,” said Michael McFall, co-founder and co-CEO. “As we work to drive the brand forward, her insights will empower the marketing team to connect with our customers in a more individualized way, streamlining and modernizing our efforts.”

Looking back over her career, what would Waits tell other female entrepreneurs about her experience as a woman in the world of business? 

“The biggest impact has probably been being a working mom, which brings with it certain expectations for myself, and sometimes for others as well,” said Waits. “It has really made me need to juggle, be flexible, prioritize and be a lot more efficient than I ever was prior to being a working mom. The good news is that by prioritizing and being really honest with myself and my family about what I can and cannot do, we have aligned expectations. I’ve been able to not feel guilty all the time. That’s probably the part of being a woman that has been the most significant.”

Overall, when it comes to how Waits has gotten to where she is today, she says her approach can be summed up as “work the problem.”

“When something is thrown at you and your team, I really believe you should be saying thank goodness,” said Waits. “That's what a whiteboard is for. You break it down, work the problem and find the solution. We may not get the right answer the first time, but don't don't feel intimidated by the idea that you’ve never done it before or you've never seen it happen. If you take that mindset, you can really get anywhere you want.”