Leading Through Turbulent Times

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Co-Chairman of Burger King John Chidsey -- a Goizueta alum -- spoke with students at the UBSLC conference on Feb. 3. PHOTO: Allison Shirreffs

The past six months, John Chidsey’s been busy. In October 2010, Burger King Corporation, the company Chidsey had led as Chairman and CEO since 2006, sold to 3G Capital, a Brazilian-backed private equity firm. Chidsey now acts as co-Chairman.

As the keynote speaker for Goizueta Business School’s 2011 Undergraduate Business School Leadership Conference (UBSLC), “Managing in Turbulent Times,” Chidsey spoke about the new ownership and chronicled the recent history of the world’s No. 2 hamburger chain. With 12,150 restaurants in 76 countries and U.S. territories worldwide, Burger King has become a top 100 global brand, thanks in large part to its advertising and social media campaigns (“The King” and the subservient chicken among them), to its creative menu items (BK Chicken Fries or Fire Grilled Ribs), and a planned chain-wide remodeling program.

Chidsey spoke candidly about the economy’s detrimental effect on the company’s core customer— the 18- to 34-year-old “Super Fan,” as well as the push to offer a $.99 double cheeseburger. Franchisees balked, arguing they were selling the items below cost. Chidsey believes the effort has been successful in retaining long-term customers as Burger King and McDonald’s were the only quick serve restaurants to increase traffic during the recession.

Since joining the hamburger chain as President and CFO in 2004, the 48-year old Chidsey has managed through turbulent times. When he arrived, sales were in a seven-year slide and a third of the restaurants were struggling. During his UBSLC address, Chidsey offered the students his five “Keys to Managing Through Turbulent Times”

  1. Decision-making is valued. Making more decisions leads to more opportunities, and speed matters. “Make a decision and move,” Chidsey said. If it turns out to be the wrong decision, fix it. “Fail fast, course correct and succeed fast,” he added.
  2. Provocative is favored over pleasant. Some tension is inevitable and “a good thing,” he said. “It’s how you manage” that tension that is healthy or unhealthy.
  3. Turning your brand over to the consumer is taking control. “Twitter, YouTube, Facebook… Let people have fun,” he said. “Let them feel like they own [the brand].”
  4. Shedding your skin frequently is rejuvenating. “A lot of organizations get stale,” he said. “Changing gears is good.”
  5. Strategy is sacrifice. “Go for more, not less,” suggested Chidsey. While the risk for failure might be higher, “Eight out of 10 times, you’ll end up being better off,” he said.

Chidsey, who has an MBA from Goizueta and a law degree from Emory’s School of Law, explained that when it comes to leadership, he’s more interested in “doing things right” than in making everyone happy.

Allison Shirreffs

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