On a Roll

Posted On April 9, 2013 by Peter Ashley
Categories Features

Despite the persistent economic headwinds the U.S. has been experiencing since 2008, Kat Cole has continued to move forward, remain positive, and expand an already successful brand.

Good luck trying to label Kat Cole, president of the Cinnabon® brand and Robinson alum. Kat’s tenacity as a leader is matched only by her commitment to others. After a very successful run as a vice president at Hooters, Kat was named Cinnabon president in 2010. Since Kat took the top job, Cinnabon has grown in both size and breadth of offerings, and under her leadership, the brand has multiplied core economic metrics a few times over. It currently operates in more than 1,000 franchised locations around the world.

“We own quality indulgence,” said Kat Cole in an interview with State of Business. According to Kat, and to millions of satisfied patrons, quality indulgence is Cinnabon’s true differentiator. Although well known for its cinnamon rolls, that’s not what Cinnabon is really famous for; it’s what the rolls and other products provide, according to Kat. In fact, many of Cinnabon’s strong-selling products don’t even contain their trademark Makara® cinnamon.

“As we move into more channels, we must manage the marketplace and consumers’ expectations of what the brand means,” says Kat. It’s clear that people love the Cinnabon brand, they enjoy going to a Cinnabon bakery and they indulge in a Cinnabon cinnamon roll. “So Cinnabon is a brand, it’s a location and it’s a food item,” says Kat as she deftly explains how to grow the brand while preserving its heritage. The focus on owning the quality indulgence market, and not just cinnamon rolls, is what has helped Cinnabon successfully expand its offerings.

How do you innovate around a simple concept like a cinnamon roll? “Everything starts out simple,” says Kat. The key is to discover all the ways the current product can be logically extended while always protecting and reinvesting in the core/legacy business and products. “Innovating a version of what already exists is a win on so many levels. The efficiencies it creates are impressive.” Other ways to innovate include expanding the existing product line with new offerings that still fit within the brand. “I think innovation is successful when you are clear on your relative differentiators. For us it’s quality indulgence. In fact, some of our more popular products don’t have cinnamon or frosting in them. The other products work because we know what we own – quality indulgence.”

“We have expanded more rapidly than expected, so we have a lot of brand management work going on at all times. My role is quickly transitioning into more of a brand manager, making sure that the brand is built to give and get its highest and best value in each channel and that each channel supports the others.” The success and confidence that Kat exudes as she describes her ever-changing role may be surprising to those who know her story – a story that makes her success that much richer.

Starting from Scratch

Just as a baker carefully shapes each cinnamon roll, Kat’s life helped shape her as a person and a leader. To understand her success fully, it’s important to take a look back. Those who have heard Kat speak at an event (she is a sought-after keynote speaker) will attest to the inspirational nature of her experiences. But it is the response to her experiences and not the events themselves that are the source of the inspiration. Case in point, Kat grew up in Florida with her two sisters, raised by a single mom who had to work hard, sometimes doing multiple jobs, to make ends meet. “My mom managed to feed three girls on $10 a week,” recalls Kat.

“My mother left our father when I was nine. And I was not surprised… I looked at her and thought, ‘what took so long?’ I learned a lot of leadership lessons from that experience…often when the right call needs to be made, there are a lot of people around you who already know, and are waiting for you to make it.” One of Kat’s first lessons in life was figuring out how to make difficult decisions, and to make them at the right time. “Asking, if not me, who, and if not now, when?” – these are big leadership lessons that I take into every aspect of my life and my work. I constantly challenge my employees to ask those questions,” Kat reflects. “I still make mistakes, and my biggest mistakes are often not making the right call fast enough.”

“Although I will never forget where I came from and that it made me who I am, I was always trying to prove that I wasn’t defined by where I came from.”

Although neither her mother nor Kat knew it at the time, the strength and resilience her mother demonstrated was actually preparing Kat for a successful future – one filled with challenges, opportunities and risk taking. About her mother, Kat said, “I got to see her step up, figure it out and make it happen.”

While only 19 years old and working for Hooters, Kat had another set of transformative experiences. Because of her hard work, tenacity and natural leadership, Kat was asked to travel abroad to open new locations for Hooters. Traveling internationally at such a young age prepared Kat in many ways to lead a global brand. “The early years of teaching and coaching, and truly recreating the brand in other countries helped me build a leadership muscle, a culture muscle and a communication muscle,” Kat recounts.

It was those early lessons – a strong role model in her mother and experiences travelling internationally at such a young age – that really shaped Kat as a person and as a leader. “I was never going to know how strong I was as a leader until I moved out of my comfort zone to see what I could do in new, complex situations.”

Hungry for Knowledge

“I was dying for knowledge,” says Kat. This insatiable hunger for knowledge has been one of the key motivators throughout her life. “Although I will never forget where I came from and that it made me who I am, I was always trying to prove that I wasn’t defined by where I came from.” Determined to rise above her challenging, nontraditional start, Kat constantly looked for ways to grow and develop. The clear path to success was the relentless pursuit of knowledge and education, though “No one in my immediate family had graduated college.”

Even at a young age, Kat was astute at anticipating roadblocks to her success – roadblocks she had no intention of stumbling over. “Because I was young, because I worked for Hooters, because I dropped out of college, I got every certification I could to combat what I believed would be natural judgments against me in the business world. All these things were stacked against me on paper, so I was trying to compensate by these other types of certifications. Then of course the penultimate of education… my opportunity at Georgia State.”

Although already a successful leader within Hooters, Kat decided to pursue an advanced degree, and enrolled in Robinson’s highly ranked Executive MBA program, earning her degree in 2010. In 2011, Kat was honored as one of Robinson’s distinguished alumni.

What motivated a successful executive to return to school for a rigorous business program? “I wanted validation that what I had learned in the real world (my world) was actually the real business world and how things translated outside of my company. I didn’t know if the contributors to my success were the result of my knowing the company so well, or if I actually had the right view of business,” Kat recalls. “It was both a validation that things I’m doing actually work, and it was a retraining, reworking of my mindset so I could be more successful either within that company [Hooters], or for my next chapter.” The next chapter, as it turned out, involved lots of cinnamon, dough and frosting.

Giving Back

“My whole career, literally my whole career, since I was old enough to know what volunteer organizations were, I volunteered,” recalls Kat. “Every weeknight and weekend I could. When you are doing good works, typically the best version of yourself is able to be seen, because it is such a pure giving situation.” Kat is a regular and avid volunteer with organizations that support women and children, and that fight hunger and homelessness. She also travels abroad extensively to provide assistance and raise awareness of global poverty.

A strong focus on volunteerism has helped define Kat’s leadership style and her leadership advice to young entrepreneurs. “My advice for entrepreneurs would be of course to have a highly relevant and differentiated concept, but beyond that, to give until it hurts. Literally give until it hurts. Whether that means giving away sample product, whether it means volunteering your services. Eventually there will be reciprocity and you will learn so much. Giving is huge.”

What else would she say to budding entrepreneurs? “Look at the world as having no borders and no boundaries. Try to run your business online; go start it in another country. Get out of whatever your box is.” For Kat, that means always looking for ways to innovate, transform and take the appropriate level of risk. Without change and innovation, it’s virtually impossible to be successful in today’s complex, global environment. “The world just moves too fast to stay who you are. If you have your own goals to grow aggressively, then you can’t just stay the same,” says Kat.

“The world just moves too fast to stay who you are. If you have your own goals to grow aggressively, then you can’t just stay the same.”

Undercover Boss

On November 16, 2012, Kat Cole and Cinnabon were featured on an episode of the popular television program “Undercover Boss.” The premise of the show is that successful CEOs and presidents of companies shed their leadership status and secretly join the ranks of their employees. The purpose is for leaders to learn what really goes on in their companies, and for them to learn firsthand what their employees face each and every day. Although Kat is very familiar with the underpinnings of the restaurant business, she still found the experience deeply rewarding, educational and humbling.

“It was a reminder of how much of an impact our managers and franchisees have on our younger employees,” Kat recalls. “I remember being the 19-year-old employee with two jobs, and dealing with life. The people that I worked with, their stories were eerily similar to mine.” It was these similarities that touched Kat in ways that she had not anticipated. “I was emotionally moved by my employees. We just have great people. I was unbelievably moved and impressed by how much pride they put into the product and their jobs. It was awesome.”

The pride of ownership demonstrated by Cinnabon employees is clear to anyone who has been lured by the unmistakable and irresistible aroma of Cinnabon. Kat attributed much of that pride to the culture that is built on talented, passionate founders, great franchise partners all over the world and the vibe built around baking – a very tangible, inherently warm and friendly activity. “How the culture translates through to the frontline is so important,” says Kat. “It doesn’t matter how popular Cinnabon is, or how much media and PR attention we get, if that culture of sweetness, kindness and friendliness isn’t present, then we are missing the boat. And we certainly won’t get to our goal of being a $1 billion consumer brand.”

Will they make it to $1 billion? No doubt – in fact, they are practically already there. Cinnabon has all the ingredients for continued growth – great products, dedicated employees and a visionary leader. Cinnabon’s tagline is “Life Needs Frosting,” and it’s clear that Kat Cole provides more than her fair share.