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A one-on-one with Wendy's CEO Emil Brolick

“The ‘get’ of the century,” is how Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association introduced Emil Brolick to the audience at the Restaurant Leadership Conference on Wednesday. Brolick, a leader in the quick-service sector, has commanded top roles as he moved from Wendy’s to Yum! Brands and back to Wendy’s, where he now serves as president and CEO.

He’s an industry icon who rarely talks about his successes, said Sweeney, but as the two conversed in a Sunday morning news show format on stage, Brolick shared many insights on leadership, growth, making mistakes, leaving a legacy, and more.

“There are several essential qualities all leaders must have,” he said. “A clear vision is at the top of the list … it brings power and efficiency to an organization. Next is a strategy for getting to your vision.” Brolick also stressed the importance of the people part. “Role model the behaviors you want to see in your team and help them evolve,” he said.

By embracing these qualities—and meshing gut instinct with expert analytical thinking—Brolick has propelled Wendy’s growth by 270 percent since he took the helm in 2011. He came directly from Yum! Brands, where he learned valuable people skills from David Novak [now executive chairman], said Brolick, and helped the struggling Taco Bell brand return positive capital growth after one year. “It was the greatest learning period in my career,” he told the audience. “I had to learn to be flexible and rely on my team and coaches.”

When Brolick returned to Wendy’s after 11 years at Yum, the biggest difference was in the competitive set, he said.  “The big three [burger chains] were in a share battle,” he said, “but they were also competing with convenience stores and the better burger segment. We had to work hard to avoid getting caught in the middle.”
Brolick’s vision was to re-engage the brand, "to do something to honor [founder] Dave Thomas.” His strategy for getting there, he said, was image activation. Remodeling stores, emphasizing ingredient sourcing and investing in technology were all in the plan.

One of Brolick’s key moves was to engage a cutting-edge digital agency. “Technology is the umbilical cord to millennials and the Z generation,” he said. “The goal is to create a one-to-one relationship with customers through mobile and social media, and technology helps you do that. It’s fundamental to the success of an organization.” But baby boomers are still the largest part of Wendy’s business, so Brolick made sure the brand remained relevant to that group, too. The menu reflects the priorities the boomer generation seeks: quality, freshness and health.

Wendy’s image activation gives customers a fast-casual experience at prices that are about 45 percent lower for a comparable meal, Brolick said. “The brand didn’t respond quickly enough to the better burger trend and changing consumer demands. We always prided ourselves on quality—‘quality is our recipe’ was Dave Thomas’ motto.” Now Wendy’s is succeeding because “we’re executing a cut above,” he added, invoking the brand's marketing slogan.

When asked about missteps in his career, Brolick replied that decisions on some people were his biggest flubs. "I brought someone into the organization and it didn't work out, he said. “It’s hard to assess people when you’re in the trenches. !If you recruit someone who doesn’t work out for the brand, for the company or for you, a confidence is lost. Admit the mistake and move on.”

Those people mistakes didn’t happen too often, as Sweeney pointed out. “There are legions of people in the industry who say you have had a tremendous effect on them,” she said. That is a legacy Brolick is proud of, he admitted. “You hope that some of the people you nurtured will continue to grow,” he said. “You have to be the driving force but it can’t just be your vision and strategy. When others believe it, it brings your vision to life.”

As for the future, Brolick intends to continue “leading from the front. By 2020, we want to have 20 percent profit margins. We want to have an average unit volume of $2 million," he said.

But don’t be surprised if one day, Brolick moves from the corner office to public office.

“I often felt a calling to public service but was always too involved in work to make the bold move,” he told attendees.

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