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Yum’s leadership change signals a tweak in style

Incoming CEO David Gibbs and outgoing chief Greg Creed are, by their own admissions, very different sorts of business leaders. Here’s how they differ.
Photograph courtesy of Yum Brands

A cardinal rule of Yum Brands’ celebrated corporate culture is to always be yourself, fearlessly true to your background, style and preferences. A visitor to the company’s Plano, Texas, headquarters might watch Greg Creed, the megafranchisor’s outgoing CEO, and David Gibbs, his scheduled successor, and come away thinking, “Ah, that’s what it means!” By everyone’s account, including their own, the two are proudly unique in their management approaches.

You couldn’t find two more different people who get along better,” Gibbs told Restaurant Business during a March interview, shortly after becoming COO in addition to president of Yum. He’ll move up to CEO on Jan. 1.  “I tend to be a little more serious and focused on the business side of the business. Greg tends to start every conversation from a more lighthearted side. When Greg comes at an idea, he tends to come from more of an emotional standpoint.”

Given their divergent backgrounds, they’ve also gravitated toward different aspects of the business. Creed by his own acknowledgment is a marketer who’s occasionally had a “CEO” slapped in front of his name. Gibbs is more of a balance sheet sort of guy, with deep development experience from his days as president and CFO of Yum International and CEO of Pizza Hut’s global operations. 

Says Gibbs: “He focuses more on brand building, and I focus on operations, finance, real estate. Greg and I divide and conquer.”

The two came together to choreograph the changes that made 2016 a milestone year for Yum. Together, they planned the transformation of Yum from a restaurant operator managing thousands of restaurants to an asset-light franchisor, with fewer than 900 corporate stores.  

They also collaborated on the spinoff of Yum’s sprawling Chinese business, a controversial move internally, and crafted a detailed plan for revamping the U.S. company’s culture and functions to facilitate future growth. That involved celebrating individuality within the organization instead of trying to iron it out. As Creed put it during the March interviews for his Restaurant Leader of the Year profile, “I’m my best self when I’m my true self.” 

“The thing we share in common is the love of the culture at Yum and the people in our company,” says Gibbs.

The output of senior management’s collaboration was a detailed three-year plan to transform the organization. It will conclude at the end of 2019, when Creed has opted to retire at age 62 after five years at the helm. Yum says the native Australian and inveterate traveler will continue to serve as a part-time adviser through 2020 and will remain on the corporation’s board of directors.

“The best of Yum is still to come and I’m delighted we have an exceptional leader like David who will drive the next wave of growth for our company,” Creed said in a statement announcing the planned succession. The announcement did not say whether Gibbs would retain his president and COO titles or delegate those duties to someone else. 

 “The board and I are confident that David Gibbs is the ideal leader to drive the next chapter of global growth for the company,” said Brian Cornell, nonexecutive chairman of Yum’s board and CEO of the Target department store chain.  “He has played a central role in all that Yum Brands has accomplished over the past several years and understands the need to put customers, employees, franchisees and shareholders at the center of everything.”

A hint of the change in management came two weeks earlier, when Yum announced it had hired Mark King, a former top-level executive of the Adidas shoe brand, as CEO of Taco Bell.  Simultaneously, Artie Starrs was promoted to CEO of Pizza Hut, after serving as president of its U.S. operations. The appointments put a CEO in charge at each of Yum's three brands, with Tony Lowings serving in that role at KFC. 

A week later, Yum announced another key executive change: the departure of Marisa Thalberg as Taco Bell’s chief global brand officer. The marketing department was restructured after her departure. 

Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated Artie Starrs' prior role. He was president of Pizza Hut, not Taco Bell.

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