Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Does BK think you have the right stuff?

Burger King apparently doesn’t like the restaurant industry, or at least not its bench of would-be leaders. Why else would the fast-food giant reach outside the trade one more time to fill a nosebleed-level corporate perch?

Yesterday the Home of the Whopper announced it’d hired a rental-car vet to tend its core market, the continent of North America. Hire-ee Chuck Fallon, who starts as North American president on June 19, presumably thinks of a grill as that piece of chrome on the front of Budget and Avis vehicles, which he flogged as executive VP of revenue generation for Cendant Car Rental Group. He may not know his kitchen equipment, but he does know John Chidsey, BK’s chief executive and Fallon’s new boss. Same as the old boss, actually; before being hired by Burger King, Chidsey was chairman and chief executive of Cendant’s $5.9-billion rental operations, overseeing Fallon.

Chidsey, in turn, had been brought into the chain to run Fallon’s designated Burger King-dom (called The Americas at the time) by then-CEO Greg Brenneman, an industry newcomer who hailed from the airline business. Brenneman had been given the BK crown by the trade novices who bought the chain from Diageo, a British distiller denounced by franchisees for its doh! approach to the U.S. restaurant business.

Given how poorly the chain had fared under Diageo, you’d have thought the new owners would pack BK’s C-level floor with ketchup-blooded industry lifers. Instead, with few exceptions, the ownership consortium opted for up-and-comers from other fields, apparently betting that fresh perspective would more readily yield a fresh start for a fortysomething brand.

The indications thus far suggest they wagered astutely. BK’s marketing is so intensely focused on young males—the prime market for the chain and many of its competitors—that the ads leave not-so-young males like me in the same state of bafflement I saw in my parents when they heard my Dylan records. We old timers would say the brand has cut through the clutter, even if we don’t understand how bucking rodeo chickens induce more 19-year-olds to buy chicken sandwiches.

By looking beyond industry-steeped recruitment candidates, BK has been able to find candidates with expertise in standard restaurant disciplines, like marketing, but decidedly different perspectives. In announcing the addition of Fallon, for instance, BK noted that he has deep experience in franchising, the basic set-up of the rental-car business. But the endeavor is practiced much differently in that realm. For instance, it’s hardly a mom-and-pop endeavor, just as restaurant franchising is no longer a matter of granting rights to a unit or two.

The travel trade also deals with a far more varied clientele, serving consumers from around the world. Would anyone dispute that BK’s customer base, even just in the U.S., is diversifying at a dizzying clip?

There’s a temptation to slag the inductees from other fields. After all, this is our industry; how could it not abound in the best candidates for our own trade’s jobs?

But attitudes forged outside the usual trade upbringing can provide a freshness that translates readily into innovation and nonconformance. It’s worked for BK.

The question is, will other restaurant companies be tempted to peek beyond the industry’s boundaries as well?

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