When the cooks quit, the Hooters waitress helped prepare the chicken wings. When the shift manager left, she jumped into that role. And when an opportunity to open locations abroad came up, she quit college. Kat Cole took advantage of every opening she could to rise up the ranks at the Atlanta-based restaurant chain.
Now 35, Cole is president of Cinnabon. The Atlanta-based cinnamon roll franchisor — 1,150 franchise bakeries in 56 countries — has been growing by extending its brand through licensed products with food and beverage makers (Kellogg’s, Pillsbury, Keurig) and restaurant chains (Burger King, Taco Bell). All told, the brand will hit $1 billion in gross sales this year.
Cole is where she is today because of how she faced up to early challenges. She has her mom and Hooters to thank.
Q: You learned an early lesson from your mother. What happened?
A: When I was 9-years-old, my mother came to me and said she was done with the marriage.
I remember asking: “What took you so long?”
My mom replied: “I thought it could be worse. How dare I take my three daughters into the unknown, where I don’t know where the money is going to come from?”
For a period of time, she convinced herself that she didn’t deserve to try to make things better. Then something happened and overnight it flipped a switch in her. She gained self-confidence and thought we all deserved better.
Leaders, whether moms or in business, are often on one side or the other. Some are comfortable. They don’t push. They don’t challenge. As a result, things stagnate.
Some other leaders have the opposite view. Yes, I am grateful, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be out there pushing my people to make things better. I saw my mom move from one end of that spectrum to the other.
Q: After your mother and father split up, things got tight financially. What did you do?
A: My mother’s claim to fame was that she fed us for almost three years on a budget of $10 a week. It was a lot of potted meat.
By the time I was 13, I was cleaning equipment at a gym. At 15, I got a job as a sales clerk at a Jacksonville clothing store.At 17, I started working part-time at Hooters, first as a hostess and then as a waitress.
By the time I turned 19 and was in college, I had learned to be a bartender and a cook at Hooters. When the cooks got mad one day and walked out in the middle of a shift, I went back with my manager and a few other employees, and we cooked the chicken wings. Then one day the manager quit and I was able to learn how to run a shift.
I treated that place like I owned it. I felt that every little touchpoint was going to factor into whether the customers came back. If they didn’t, that was taking money out of my pocket.
Q: You quit college to work at Hooters full-time. Why?
A: Because I had worked a lot of jobs there, I became a trainer. Then, the corporate office in Atlanta called my Jacksonville manager to ask for a top employee to help open the first location in Australia. My manager recommended me.
There were a million reasons to say no. I was in the middle of my second year of college. I had never been on a plane. I didn’t have a passport. But I told them yes.
In Sydney, I fell in love with the chaos of opening a new business. I stayed there for 40 days and then returned to college. About three months later, the company asked me to go to Mexico City to open a restaurant. I stayed there for about a month.
When I got back, my professors and college counselor said I was failing. I desperately tried to make both things work, but I had to drop out.
I remember calling my mom because I was the first person in my family to ever go to college. She was really upset, but she could tell I was happy. I had found my purpose — going to different cultures and figuring things out. I was 20 and I was starting to lead openings in different countries.
Q: What did you learn?
A: I learned through these openings that to earn the respect of the people you’re supposed to lead, you don’t come in and boss them around. You bring them coffee and help make their lives easier.
I also learned something important in Buenos Aires, shortly before our first opening there. One-hundred percent of the girls locked themselves in the bathroom and would not come out when they were getting fitted for their uniforms.
Finally, one of the girls let me into the bathroom so I could find out what was going on. She said, “we don’t want our parents to see us in this small outfit.”
We had to figure out what to do. Before any Hooters restaurant opens, we hold a “friends and family” night to work out some of the problems. This time, we kept it small and asked the girls to only invite their families. It worked. Their families got to see that this was a restaurant. It was all about the food and sports atmosphere.
The lesson is — always assume there’s just something you don’t know. I see so many leaders jump too quickly to blaming other people and creating a hostile environment.
Get shoulder to shoulder with people, not nose to nose.
Q: You were at Hooters for 15 years, gaining increasing responsibility while getting involved in restaurant industry groups. What happened?
A: I became the employee training coordinator for the whole company and moved to corporate headquarters in Atlanta. Then, as the company grew and changed, I kept taking on more responsibilities, including food safety and alcohol compliance, management training and then franchise development.
By the time I was 25, I was director of global training and development, and I was leading special projects.
At the same time, I got involved in nonprofit industry groups and started to network at a young age. I volunteered on committees, took classes, taught classes, spoke at meetings and took on leadership roles. I learned from executives in other companies and then applied it at Hooters. That helped me appear inside of Hooters to be a more well-rounded and experienced leader than I actually was.
It’s important to give of your time in nonprofit groups because it helps you get defined by something other than your job.
Q: Your work with industry groups also helped provide an unusual opportunity for you — getting an MBA without a college degree. How did you manage that?
A: I never felt smart. I always knew I was creative and could figure problems out. But I never thought of myself as smart, because I equated smarts with academic achievement. I always thought I was lesser than.
A mentor told me I could only go so far without an MBA. But I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. It’s very rare, but I found out you can get a waiver. You have to go through extra interviews, do better than average on the entrance exam and have people write letters speaking to your practical business experiences.
Because of all my nonprofit work in the industry, including for the Women’s Foodservice Forum and the Georgia Restaurant Association, I got exposure to some of the industry’s most respected people, like Ted Turner. He and others wrote letters and I got into Georgia State’s Executive MBA program.
You never know when all the volunteering will come back to help you one day.
Q: What other lessons did you learn at Hooters that you’re using at Cinnabon?
A: As I moved up in Hooters, I learned more acutely the importance of choosing the right franchisee, especially internationally. If they took the franchise in a direction you didn’t want them to go, it was very difficult to reel them in.
I learned that you can always recover from having a mediocre business model by partnering with a great person. But you can never recover from the wrong business partner, even with a great business model.
Q: Obesity has become a major health concern. Isn’t Cinnabon adding to the problem?
A: Cinnabon is one of those brands that people love to hate and hate to love.
People try to resist being bad. You know, it’s OK if you’re bad once in a while. We don’t promote this as a meal. We don’t promote this as something you should have every day. We’re in venues where people typically only visit once a month — in a mall, airport, casino.
Everyone gets a cheat day. But it better be worth it. We are still serving the same hand-rolled, high-quality cinnamon roll that we did 27 years ago. We tell people this is not healthy, it’s fun.
Cole’s remarks were edited for length and clarity.
Each Sunday, the AJC brings you insights from metro Atlanta’s leaders and entrepreneurs.
Business editor Henry Unger’s “5 Questions for the Boss” reveals the lessons learned by CEOs of the area’s major companies and organizations. The column alternates with business editor Matt Kempner’s “Secrets of Success,” which shares the vision and realities of entrepreneurs who started their dreams from scratch.