In 2007, Popeyes® Louisiana Kitchen hired a new CEO, Cheryl Bachelder. While she had previously worked as a senior-level executive at Domino’s Pizza and KFC, Popeyes presented a nearly impossible financial situation. Nevertheless, Bachelder had a secret tool that produced superior results in business—a way of leading that would help her turn a failing business into a billion-dollar franchise.
The company was on the brink of another bankruptcy. Just six years before, the business had become a publicly-traded company that entered the market at $17 per share. While Popeyes seemed to increase in profitability around the spring of 2002, the franchise began a steady descent that same summer. By the time Bachelder took over, stocks had fallen to more than three dollars below Popeyes’ initial public offering price. Yet, under her leadership, the restaurant chain persevered, reversed its downward trajectory and steadily rose in profitability within a few short years.
So, what is this “secret tool” that helped Bachelder turn the company into the thriving enterprise it is now? The secret is there is no secret. She openly shares in interviews and her book, Dare to Serve, that shifting one’s leadership behavior and way of thinking can help ailing companies pivot toward success. The key is practicing servant leadership.
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Learning from Failure
Before Cheryl Bachelder took over as CEO of Popeyes, she was a good leader. Her impressive resume was enough to prove this—she held management and executive leadership roles at RJR Nabisco, Planters Lifesavers Company, Keebler Company, Domino’s, and KFC. Yet, Bachelder admits she wasn’t living up to her full potential in these roles because she hadn’t yet applied a leadership style that amplified her impact.
In an interview with Truth at Work, she explains it wasn’t until her 40s that she really began to practice a way of leading that allowed her to truly be her authentic self. As a faith-based person, she felt like she was living a double life—work life versus home life. “I don’t think anyone ever explained to me that the workplace was a place to express your faith values,” she tells host Ray Hilbert.
Extreme failure was her saving grace. In 2001, KFC named Bachelder president of the company, but after two short years, they let her go. In a Business Insider article, she called her performance, “mediocre.” This description isn’t entirely fair, considering her breast cancer diagnosis at the time. Regardless of her circumstances, the public embarrassment of seeing her name in the newspaper headlines hurt. Nevertheless, she kept persevering, searching for answers about what lessons she could learn from all of this turmoil.
She tells Verily.com her greatest multi-pronged takeaways from this experience were: “In the public markets you’re judged according to the quarter. I’ve learned to be accountable for that . . . I decided that I wanted to work in a place that was interested in long-term results. I wanted to work in a place that thought culture was as important as strategy.” In addition to this, she was also interested in trying out a leadership style she learned about 14 years prior.
Transforming from Good to Great
A decade earlier, she had met best-selling author, Jim Collins. While she had been in major leadership roles before this interaction, their meeting had a profound effect on her. With his five-year study published in Good to Great, Collins provided evidence that servant leadership was the defining factor of great companies. Being a servant leader means providing value to others, setting self-serving strategies, objectives, and actions aside, and building leaders at every level in the organization.
When she was named CEO of Popeyes, she decided she would develop an environment where people could thrive. As she learned more about servant leadership, Bachelder realized leading in this manner was her best option for success. After all, she was only interested in creating, what she calls, “superior results.”
In a blog, she says that after a lot of research, she came to the “well-founded conclusion that serving the people and the enterprise is by far the best path to superior financial performance.” Nevertheless, she wasn’t sure this strategy would actually work for Popeyes. With each passing day, the company’s future looked drastically more bleak. In essence, she was taking a calculated risk with this experiment.
Developing a Strategy for Excellence
As the new CEO, Cheryl Bachelder knew the first step was to figure out who she would be serving. She stepped on board with the belief that repairing the sinking ship required razor-sharp focus. One of the first things she did was go on a “listening tour.” She tells Verily.com, “We went to seven cities, and we talked to all of our stakeholders. We talked to guests, to people who worked in the restaurants, team members; we talked to restaurant leaders, supervisors, owners. The answer is always in the room.”
Next, she decided they would take this shared information and determine the company’s top seven issues. They then developed a roadmap for fixing them. Bachelder says increasing focus on what really mattered produced the superior results she was after. “We did that across many strategies: marketing, cost savings, speed of service, better real estate, and got the company in working order for its owners,” she tells Truth at Work.
Building Strong Partnerships
Once these measures were set in place, phase two of her strategy—relationship-building with franchise owners—began. Bachelder decided Popeyes would shift how they felt about those who invested their hard-earned money into the organization. They were going to love those they served. “If you love the people you lead, you would know them well—their strengths, their values, their life experiences . . . You would celebrate them,” she tells Bizwomen.
Under Cheryl Bachelder’s guidance, Popeyes began truly treating their franchisees as partners. For the new CEO, one of the most important objectives was ensuring their business owners felt supported. The question became, “How can we help you raise your bottom line?” Bachelder, herself, would travel to different cities, meeting one-on-one with various franchise owners. As lines of communication opened, she said there were many conversations addressing where the organization could improve. They also discussed timelines for solving problems and what resources Popeyes would allocate for certain issues.
Multiplying Leaders Across the Board
When Bachelder wasn’t working on strategy or out on the road meeting with Popeyes’ franchise owners, she was coaching her leaders. A part of her recipe for success is spending one-third of her time at work mentoring her direct reports. For example, every other week, she individually met with her employees for 90 minutes to increase their leadership qualities.
In an article on her website, she says her mentorship process first starts by recognizing individuals’ “unique design.” This includes recognizing each person’s strengths as a leader, while also seeing the areas that need improvement. She also asks about their “values, beliefs, convictions.” When it comes to developing great leaders, this method helps her hold the team accountable for their words, actions, and decisions. Finally, she asks each person to reflect on the leader they most admire. Then, she asks them to develop a plan for becoming this envisioned person. When serving as a mentor, she guided the Popeyes’ leadership team through the process of reaching their full potential.
After about a year, the chain of restaurants began to see higher performance levels. Their stock value began a slow, but steady ascent in 2008. Before Bachelder left the company in 2017, stock prices had quadrupled from the day she took over. For example, the company was trading at $13 per share when she took the job. But when she left, the stock price had risen to $79. Data provided by the Nation’s Restaurant News Top 100 shows Bachelder brought in over $1 billion in U.S. sales during her time as CEO.
Bachelder also met her top goal of increasing the happiness of franchisees. Popeyes ranked as the number one franchise partner in the entire restaurant industry with satisfaction levels at 95 percent. Additionally, franchisees became more excited about their businesses. For this reason, they invested more in the company, increasing the value of the franchise. Popeyes reported under Bachelder’s guidance, restaurant revenues grew 45 percent, while bottom line profits more than doubled. As analyst John Gordon said, “Focusing early on who was the customer—the franchisee—and determining what moved the business, she broke the code and operated in a hands-on way.”
Cheryl Bachelder spent 10 years growing the business, maximizing profits and serving her community of employees and franchise owners. In 2017, she stepped down from her roles after Restaurant Brands International acquired Popeyes.
Experiencing Fulfillment and Joy as a Leader
Being a servant leader fulfills Bachelder’s purpose in life: teaching and developing great leaders. In fact, her personal mission statement is, “To inspire purpose-driven leaders to exhibit competence and character in all aspects of their lives,” she tells Franchising.com. “My passion is to develop great leaders, both men and women . . . The world needs better leaders, and I try to help build leaders who can go on to fill those positions,” she adds. Out of her ten-year tenure, she explains to Truth at Work that watching her former leaders at Popeyes accept important leadership roles across the industry makes her most joyful and proud.
Today, Bachelder is still multiplying leaders at all levels. Her best-selling book, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results By Serving Others is a great resource for those interested in learning more about how to model the leadership style that saved Popeyes from bankruptcy. She also offers an online video workshop that teaches leaders more about implementing servant leadership in their organizations. In 2019, she gained a position on Chick-fil-A’s eight-person board. Without a doubt, she’ll continue to positively influence the development of great leaders, there, too.
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