Kat Cole – President, Cinnabon Inc
Life’s Sweet Frosting
By Cynthia Good
Beautiful, young and poised – she’s sure of herself, and why she was hand-picked to run one of the food industry’s sweetest brands.
Less than a year into the job, Cinnabon Inc. president, Kat Cole, is in the midst of an aggressive expansion. The 34-year-old leader, who started her career as a Hooters Girl, is morphing Cinnabon into a global multi-channel brand. With her strong team and support from FOCUS Brands, their parent company, Cinnabon is moving products like Keebler cookies, Cinnabon Syrup and International Delight Coffee Creamer into more grocery stores, and baked treats into Taco Bell and Burger Kings.
Cole’s meteoric career rise is in sharp contrast to her meager beginnings in Jacksonville, Florida, where she helped support her younger sisters and divorced mom.
She always had a desire to prove she was not solely defined by where she came from, she says in our exclusive interview.
Read how Cole deals with critics who still scoff at her rise from Hooters to Cinnabon, why she loves golf, and how lessons from a tough childhood resulted in a sweet life.
Little PINK Book: Are people surprised that you began your career aged 16, at Hooters?
Kat Cole: Yes. I wore the orange shorts for two years. I was lucky enough to be on the ground floor of that chain. When I was 19 they asked me to open their first restaurant in Australia. I didn’t have a passport. In fact I had never been on an airplane. After that, I opened the first Hooters in Mexico and South America. We expanded into more than 30 countries by the time I left the company.
LPB: What made you so confident though you lacked experience?
KC: I watched my mom feed us on $10 a week, and a smile. My company had confidence in me, and leadership groups like the Women’s Food Service Forum helped me gain confidence. I had a burning desire not to be defined by where I came from, but rather by where I was going.
LPB: How have you accomplished so much with limited resources?
KC: Even though we didn’t have [much], my mom always said: ‘Just figure it out and make it happen.’ Success is mostly driven by how badly you want something and how well you partner with other great people. It has to do with how hungry you are.
LPB: How do you grow business despite limited budgets and challenges abroad?
KC: I pride myself on getting thrown into impossible situations and figuring it out. No matter how bad it would be, I could rally people around a goal, even without the funding or strong external support. I look at it is a challenge. I’m a scrappy chick. If there is a crack in the wall, I’ll find it.
LPB: What was your biggest challenge?
KC: When I was 20. I opened the first Hooters in Nassau, Bahamas. When we got there the roof wasn’t complete, there were no stairs; it was a train wreck. The employees weren’t trained. It would have been easy to tell the franchisee, ‘You failed to meet your side of our agreement. We’ll go home.’ We’re not construction workers, but we put together equipment and poured the tables ourselves. It took a little longer, but we figured it out. It opened. People were shocked. That grew into one theme of my career. You get to a new country and it’s never exactly what you think. I got used to being thrown into chaos and working with the local culture to figure things out. Today, [my biggest challenge] is time management – fitting everything in.
LPB: What surprised you the most about work overseas?
KC: In China, Hooters is a family restaurant. It was more like Disneyland than the U.S. version. Also, at first, I was shocked by the supply chain challenges in developing countries. Products sometimes get to locations on animal-drawn trailers, or on bicycles, or go-cart taxis.
LPB: What’s the biggest issue for professional women today?
KC: In some companies women don’t have the advocates that men do. Some of that may be their own fault, because they haven’t spent the time developing inter-office or industry relationships. I hear some women being judgmental about guys having that cocktail after work or going to sporting events together. Some women think it will look like ‘goofing off.’ Those activities have real, material, professional value. Women need to look at the people they work with as potential relationships that will last a lifetime. Having a view that work/business is just punching the clock is a mistake.
LPB: Your travel schedule sounds exhausting!
KC: I don’t really get jetlag. I’ve been traveling the globe since age 19. [These days] I’m often in six to 12 cities a month and just back from a 12-day nonprofit mission to Ethiopia. Our group helped poor villagers learn to support themselves with a cost effective, easily reproduced, Cinnabon-inspired dessert.
LPB: How do you pack and look so fashionable?
KC: I am a black-aholic. I live in black suits and black shoes. I need to repurpose when I travel and hide my inevitable coffee spills. Even in my personal life, I wear jeans and black blazers. It’s my look. I prefer to err on the side of being overdressed. It was a technique I developed, because I was so young starting out. I had to let people know I was professional and deserved to be where I was.
LPB: Do you think more women should play golf?
KC: Tell me another thing you can do where you can spend that much time with co-workers in a professional, courteous setting, get to know each other, talk shop and have fun? Those informal relationships are incredibly meaningful. I played golf with some big-time developers. We [ended up] signing a new franchise commitment which grew our business. That would not otherwise have happened.
LPB: What makes you so passionate about your work?
KC: It’s hard not to be passionate when you are grateful for the opportunities you have. It’s like our tagline, “Life needs frosting.” As a business, that permission to treat yourself and not take life to seriously is what we provide. We are not trying to be the healthiest product around. But we are trying to be fun and delicious. The most sustainable businesses and leaders are the ones that most meaningfully connect to the needs and desires of those they serve.
LPB: Do you think you’ll have a family one day?
KC: It’s something I would love in the future – whether I have children myself or adopt. Every time I go to Africa I want to come back with an entire village. Chris [my partner] and I are happily unmarried. We’ve been together for 10 years.
LPB: What’s your advice to career women?
KC: You are capable of more than you think. I don’t care how tough or desperate your situation is. I have seen how miracles of humanity can come out of one single human being. And if you are in a position of strength or influence, pay it forward and help a sister out!
LPB: What’s your advice to other women?
KC: Be courageous, positive and smart. You are not defined by your background unless you choose to be. And never, ever forget where you came from and what made you great in the first place – or you will lose your way.
LPB: What were the best words of wisdom you ever heard?
KC: Rumi’s quote, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” Dr. Bertice Berry’s saying: “When you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny." And a seed planted by my mother. She had a way of burning it into me – that I could do anything.