LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital

Cinnabon’s Kat Cole on the Fast Food Backlash: ‘Be Honest About Who You Are’

December 2, 2015, 7:36 PM UTC
Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit
Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2015 8:50 AM ONE ON ONE Kat Cole, Group President, FOCUS Brands Interviewer: Poppy Harlow, Anchor, CNN Newsroom Weekend; Correspondent, CNN Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women
Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Most Powerful Women

Kat Cole—who famously rose from a Hooters waitress to president of Cinnabon—knows a thing or two about building and running a successful company. After transforming Cinnabon into a billion-dollar a year business, Cole is now focused on growing Cinnabon’s parent company, Focus Brands.

In an interview with CNN anchor Poppy Harlow at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in San Francisco on Wednesday, Cole shared her four-part recipe for success.

“The key learning I’ve had over many years is that the common denominator of success is a balance of courage and confidence on one side, and humility and curiosity on the other side,” Cole said.

Cole learned those skills when she was helping Hooters launch franchises abroad, turning the company into a global brand—a significant test for a 19-year-old who had never been out of the country before.

“You have to earn trust over and over and over again,” Cole said of that challenge and others she has faced. “The times when my team has performed the best are the times when I had the confidence to make really tough calls in the moment.”

Harlow noted that the company is facing another big challenge right now, asking Cole how Focus Brands (which owns Schlotzsky’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, Moe’s Southwest Grill, McAlister’s Deli and Auntie Anne’s) is responding to Americans’ backlash against fast food.

Cole had a simple answer: Be honest with your consumers about who you are.

“You’ve got to make some strategic decisions,” she said. “Are you going to pivot or are you going to re-route? We decided to re-route, and be super honest about who we are. We are an indulgence.”

She said Focus Brands’ key is killer quality and absolute honesty.

Another challenge for Cole, and the fast-food industry at large, is about the minimum wage battle known as the “Fight for $15”. Cole said that she doesn’t believe we should go to $15 an hour—at least not right now. However, she also said that she’s glad the issue is getting attention and would like to help contribute to finding a solution. So, might we see Cole run for office one day?

“You never know,” she said, noting she’s already shaping policy by running a “conscious, capitalist business.” Armed with a desire to drive social change while growing her company, Cole emphasized executives should learn to question their successes more than their failures.

“When you have some type of a win, say, ‘What were the drivers of that success?’ I see too many people focusing on just failures,” she said. “The issue with failures is that the lessons are clear. The problem with success is that you don’t question it.”