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RBI's José Cil airs the approach that earned him RB's Restaurant Leader of the Year award

The CEO of Burger King and Popeyes' parent company told attendees of the Restaurant Leadership Conference that he sees his job as setting a bold mission and building the team to achieve it.
Jose Cil

As CEO of Restaurant Brands International, a $5 billion public company, José Cil oversees three (and soon to be four) large restaurant chains competing in different industry segments across much of the globe. His charge has more moving parts than a fine Swiss watch, yet the son of Cuban immigrants says his job boils down to two functions: Setting a clear mission. and building a team that can accomplish it.

“You start with talent and a big goal,” Cil told a roomful of restaurant executives during the first session of the Restaurant Leadership Conference, a gathering of about 750 chain leaders hosted by Restaurant Business and its parent, Winsight Media.

His simple yet effective approach to leading the parent of Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Horton (with Firehouse Subs set to join the mix) earned Cil a selection as RB’s 2021 Restaurant Leader of the Year, an honor that has been previously bestowed on the likes of Chipotle CEO Brian Nichol, former Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed and Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich.

In accepting his award at the leadership conference, Cil recounted how his management style was fire-hardened during the pandemic. A bankruptcy lawyer who joined Burger King as an in-house counsel responsible for trademarks, the Florida native veered into operations to advance his career. He earned a series of top management jobs at Burger King, RBI’s biggest brand, before being named CEO of the parent corporation in early 2019.

And then coronavirus upended the world. “The pandemic delivered the test that most catastrophes do,” Cil told the RLC audience. “I had one year as CEO under my belt, which was clearly not enough. I was very cautious and took baby steps to transform the business. When I look back at 2020, I see we took much bolder steps.”

With the industry scrambled by the pandemic, RBI had to throw out the executive guidebook and write a new one. Yet “in a mass of uncertainty, our purpose was never clearer,” Cil explained. “Our north star was always doing what’s right by people. It continues to be so today.”

The change came in Cil’s thinking on how to deliver on that mission. Caution gave way to a greater willingness to try to the extraordinary, and it changed Cil’s style. “2020 was a watershed year in my life,” he commented.

It’s an approach that he urged members of the audience to try. “It takes just as much energy to dream big as it does to dream small. Why not dream big?” he said to his fellow executives.

If there was one thing to take away from his presentation, CIL continued, it was, “Don’t be afraid to take big steps, transformative steps, and not be afraid to fail, not be afraid to fall, not be afraid to make mistakes.”

He also suggested that determination and passion can add considerable topspin.

“In my conversations with our franchisees, I’ve asked our owners to remember their first days with the brand. Lots of nerves, for sure, but tremendous enthusiasm and passion,” Cil explained. “They had everything invested in the brand. It had to work. They had to be successful.

“Now more than ever, we have to tap into that feeling. That passion, that commitment--we have to bring it every day.”

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