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CEO Insights | Interview with the CEO of Cinnabon

By Kiley Mahoney - Agnes Irwin

How did Kat Cole rise through the corporate ranks to become President of Cinnabon by age 35? I spoke with her at NextGenVest's Fall Global Summit to learn more about what it takes to stand out in business and understand her personal and professional financial lessons along the way.

What does your job entail each day? 

My job really has three major areas. One is helping us grow through supporting our franchises and business partners. This includes interviewing new franchises, meeting potential partners interested in using Cinnabon recipes in their products, as well as visiting our existing franchises and finding new ways to expand them.The second area is really all about developing my team in order to have this strong foundation for the company. Meeting with my vice presidents and holding team meetings with research and development so we can strategize as to how we can help support our partners in the next year or so.The third is building and maintaining a sense of community throughout the company. This ranges from interacting with fans on social media to spending time in different communities in order to form new partnerships. Through this, I am able to actually interact with the customers and employees, which I believe is integral to Cinnabon’s success. No day of work ever really looks the same and I travel 60-70% of the year.

What is the biggest highlight and challenge in your role? 

What I love most is the people aspect. It’s a people business, meaning I get to work and interact with so many entertaining, cool, and interesting individuals. Cinnabon is a pretty casual culture, and this is what makes it fun - it doesn’t even feel like a job! I truly love the franchises and the license partners and, of course, the fans. I like to say that I am the biggest fan of our fans!I also love the complexity of my job, but this can also present itself as one of the greatest challenges too. It might seem so basic and simple from the outside, but all of the effort that goes into figuring out the problems can definitely be difficult. For example, because Cinnabon is a global multi-channel enterprise, it shows up a lot of places all over the world and there are so many people interacting with our brand that there is a point where we don’t necessarily have full control of everything. Making sure that there is this strong company structure and tested methods that help with this, but nonetheless it is a huge responsibility. You have to realize that you can’t be there to see everything all of the time, and this is a pretty big challenge.

You spoke a lot about becoming accustomed to “shaking the money tree”, and the idea of immediate gratification with the cash that you were earning at your first job. When you landed this corporate position with a set paycheck, how did you make the transition from the “in the moment” mindset to a financially forward-thinking one? 

Truly, the answer is poorly and this can be seen as an example of one of my greatest financial mistakes when I was younger. I never made the transition and I found myself struggling because of this. When the money inflow transitioned quite drastically, from earnings of $40,000 to half that at my corporate job, I was spending more than I made with this “money tree” mindset that I still had from waitressing. Eventually, I began to realize that the credit card bills were piling up, and after about two years I was able to get out of debt with help from a financial planner and the knowledge I had to make big changes across the board in my spending.

After that, did you jump into investing and planning ahead towards your financial future?

After cleaning up this mess, I was no longer in debt but I also was not investing. I remember I had lunch with a friend once and he had told me how a few years back he put $1,000 into a stock and it was now worth $150,000. This really caught my attention and so, after a couple of years advising and learning about it, I began to invest. Looking back now, I would not have changed anything because of the experience that I gained as a result of these mistakes.

You mentioned that when working at Hooters, you were sent to South America, Australia, and Mexico to launch franchises internationally, as well as expanding in the States. What were some of the changes that had to be addressed when building a brand abroad?

 The name of the company was actually the biggest issue wherever we traveled, because the name “Hooters” did not literally translate into anything. Having to redefine the brand over and over in each country was fairly interesting; instead of finding a new slang word, we just had to define what Hooters was really all about - sports and wings. Hospitality and restaurant culture as a whole was also dramatically different. Tipping was different, so this really affected the pay of the waitresses because tips are typically the largest area of revenue. We had to emphasize the idea of pride in one’s work, because when everyone does their job conscientiously, it makes the job easier and even more fun.

When you are hiring, what do you look for in your candidates?

When hiring new members for my team, I want to ensure that they will fit in with the company’s culture. If a candidate proves to be adept and driven, but does not fit in with this culture, they will never be able to fit in and feel comfortable with themselves. I look for when hiring is technical competence; I don’t necessarily think that you need the exact experience required but rather a more general knowledge. In addition, I look for grit, intellectual curiosity, strength, and confidence. Lastly, I want to ensure that this individual I am hiring will uphold the morale and values of Cinnabon, because ultimately a large part of the company is our importance of acceptance and diversity.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to move their way up in a larger company 

Be curious, be passionate, and be willing to do almost any job to prove yourself. In my first job as a waitress, one day the cooks quit, and we were ultimately faced with a choice: to shut down the restaurant, or go back and do the job ourselves, regardless of our lack of experience. And so we did; we had bills to pay, and while it may seem selfish, it was also showing of a certain ambition that others lacked in the same situation. This is the type of curiosity and drive I look for when hiring. Purity of heart and mind, and the almost inherent willingness to go above and beyond because you care so much.

As someone who was put in an influential corporate position at a young age, what would your advice be to young people who want to take on a role or opportunity that they are confident they can execute successfully, but others may think they are too junior for? 

Make sure that you are not doing things unconsciously that are making people think you are too young. You cannot act overly immature in situations because you will simply remind others of their doubts. While this is important, you must also do your best to not listen to what other people think of you; it can be harmful. For me, it had never been about being the only woman, but rather being only half the age of everyone around me. In a situation like this, choose the path of humility. Accept your youth and inexperience and make alliances with your elders and proactively learn from them. Do not be afraid to ask for help every once in awhile because, after all, being in a position of great responsibility should be seen as a learning experience.

What are some pieces of financial advice for students reading this?

Have a healthy dose of fear that something bad can happen at any moment and that you may have to come up with a quick resolution. You must look at your financial and career standpoint and find these areas of weakness, be honest, and respond accordingly. You can’t anticipate outside forces, but you do have choices and control to an extent. Improve yourself and your situation constantly, and look for that fire inside of you that propels you to succeed.

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