Muscling his way to success Featured

12:37pm EDT September 26, 2005
Ken Keymer found out you can go home again.

Home, in this case, is Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits. Keymer, who has been president since last June, was named CEO of AFC Enterprises, the quick service restaurant’s parent company, on Sept. 1.

His first stint at Popeyes was as vice president under different ownership from 1984 to 1986, and despite a change in ownership since then, Keymer was reluctant to return. A recruiting friend tried to draft him back into the organization, and he turned her down three times before agreeing to meet with the management team.

“To be real honest, I was disappointed in where Popeyes had come in the last 20 years,” Keymer says. “(When) I was at Popeyes (the first time), it was kind of like a Wild West show. ... (Founder) Al Copeland had the company at that time. It was fairly small. It was an entrepreneurial organization trying to grow. It had no systems and was missing a lot of the things you would expect to see in any company, certainly a company you expect to become public.”

Keymer spoke with some of the company’s franchisees, many of whom he knew from his first go-around, and identified three opportunities for the company going forward.

“Here was a brand that has kind of fallen into disarray,” he says. “It wasn’t being well communicated, but it’s a strong potential brand, and nothing was being done with it. The second opportunity really was to pull together a management team and then participate in this collapsing of AFC into Popeyes, which I thought would be an absolute blast from a business standpoint.”

Keymer also recognized that the company had neglected its 350 restaurants spread across 22 other countries.

“The fact that we have that few stores scattered over that many areas is probably a solid indicator that we didn’t have much of plan,” he says.

Keymer’s task as new CEO is to develop a plan to follow the divestment strategy initiated by AFC Chairman Frank Bellatti of selling off three of four the companies — Cinnabon, Seattle’s Best Coffee and Church’s Chicken — in the AFC portfolio.

“Popeyes is the brand; Popeyes is AFC,” Keymer says. “That was a very deliberate decision that Frank and the board made almost two years ago. It was not providing the type of return it needed to be providing to the shareholders.” The problem was that a large corporate center was providing services to all the companies, and the model was simply ineffective. The board decided it made more sense to focus its resources and energy on one company.

“They took a look at the brands they had in the portfolio and really decided, based on how much Popeyes was contributing by itself, that was the appropriate brand to retain and to start spinning off the other brands that were in some form being supported by Popeyes’ performance,” Keymer says.

The carefully crafted divestment structure left Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits the sole entity in the AFC portfolio. Now it’s Keymer’s job to bring value to the shareholders by refocusing and differentiating the company’s brand and expanding its scattered international presence.

Getting started
Keymer learned the important of differentiating the brand during his time at 50-year-old Sonic Inc., the country’s largest chain of drive-in restaurants.

“You start by articulating where you want the company to go,” Keymer says. “As an organization, we pulled all our officers and directors together. We spend a lot of time to make sure we’re clear about what the objectives are. We visit those objectives quarterly. And frankly, on a daily basis, we spend a lot of time talking about things that are consistent with where we’re trying to go. It’s constant communication about how well we’re doing against those objectives and goals.”

Keymer’s first task was to change the message the company presented to the public.

“When I joined Popeyes a year ago, the brand was ill used,” says Keymer, a former PepsiCo executive. “I don’t think we were talking about what made us special. I don’t think we were executing against what made us special. We tried to walk away from that to look like KFC or to look like McDonald’s or somebody else. We were walking away from what I think were the greatest strengths of the company.”

Keymer immediately focused on getting the company back on track.

“We aligned our brand communication, everything from our creative agency to our public relations agency, and we’ve actually started to make some significant progress in that,” he says. “That’s what is going to take this company really where we want it to go.”

“With our chief marketing officer and VP of menu development, we basically sit down and we talk about where we’re going with that. We have identified where we want to take the brand, the brand messaging strategy that we’re trying to use — we’ve extended that throughout the organization so people understand it. We’ve done the same thing with the menu. We have a three-year menu plan.”

That’s reflective of Keymer’s consultative management style.

“I like to talk to people and I like to understand what’s going on,” he says. “I think everybody that I work with is pretty darn smart. They have good ideas and good questions. I’m a big believer in the more people that you have that can provide a different point of view, probably you’re going to make a better decision, ultimately. I don’t reach decisions by consensus. It’s my responsibility to make the decisions, but I’m not going to make a decision without the benefit of the great people I’ve got around me.”

Once the decisions are made, it is time to act.

“Part of it is setting up the expectation in terms of where we want the organization to go and then building from those strengths,” he says. “(It’s) the same thing with QSR support. We work very, very hard to improve the quality of support for our franchisees so they can be successful. ... And we have a tremendous amount of discussion around our folks in the field.”

Once the message is clear, Keymer is ready to take the next step.

“(The goal is to) take that differentiated brand, make it come alive so consumers can take a look at that brand, understand that brand to the point that it is clearly something different, and set it apart and above from what the competition provides,” Keymer says. “Sonic was incredibly successful in doing that. When I first joined Sonic, there were a lot of similarities with Popeyes. One of the issues was that brand evolution hadn’t really happened.”

Taking the lessons abroad
With the brand under control, Keymer is ready to turn his attention to the long-neglected foreign markets.

“For a company our size to have an international presence, it is incredibly more complicated than us just continuing to build domestically,” Keymer says. “We have, as an organization, probably not been as dedicated or deliberate as we needed to be in developing our international markets.”

The company recently invested nearly $5 million to more than double its field staff to better support the stores both domestically and internationally. Each country poses unique challenges, and until recently the company, hasn’t been in a position to address their individual needs.

“If you think about operating in 22 different cultures, you’ll find that Popeyes has a little bit different personality in each one of those countries, and it probably needs to,” Keymer says. “Dietary requirements are different in each of those countries. So, it is incredibly complicated with a company of our resources.”

Keymer plans on focusing on the existing international territories before expanding into new countries. To do that, the company recently hired a chief operating officer for international to manage overseas operations.

“We recognize it’s one of those deals where we’re already there, (so) we’ll do a better job with it,” he says. “We’re developing a new strategy for international. In the short term, what that means is we’re not going into any new countries or territories. We’re going to identify which countries or territories need our priority and start to take the resources we have for international and place them against that so we can get better penetration in those countries.”

When he can, Keymer likes to simplify things. It’s something he learned as CEO of Noodle & Co., a chain of 100 restaurants across 10 states.

“When you get into an entrepreneurial situation, you find that you boil things down to what the essence of the issues are and where you’re trying to go,” he says. “You have fewer resources; you have less data, and the business tends to be more intuitive. And you make very significant decisions because small companies don’t have the opportunity to make large mistakes. It was a refining process for me. And it was very exciting.

“The way you go about making decisions is very different, but it does underscore the fact that you have to get to base issues, base questions and base strategies very, very quickly. That sense of urgency is something you can take from a small, entrepreneurial company and bring to a larger organization.”

That sense of urgency is something that Keymer is trying to bring to Popeyes.

“There’s a common understanding of what it is we’re trying to achieve,” he says. “There’s a common understanding of the mores of the organization. So, what you end up doing is, by creating that management culture, everybody is on the same page. Decisions can happen very, very quickly. That’s exactly what you want to have in an organization.”

HOW TO REACH: Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, or (404) 459-4450