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Ahead of his retirement, Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed talks Taco Bell transformation, menu innovation and building a ‘culture that fueled results’

The pioneering executive reflects on 25 years with the Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut parent

Greg Creed will retire as the CEO of Yum Brands Inc. at the end of December, leaving a trail of milestones after leading some America’s most iconic quick-service brands.

Creed worked 25 years with Yum’s Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut brands and was with the company prior to the 1997 spinoff from PepsiCo. He’s exiting at a time when the industry faces daunting challenges related to labor, declining dine-in visits and third-party delivery.

But he’s leaving Yum with a deep bench of talent -- a point of pride for 62-year-old executive.  

“We grew a culture that fueled results,” Creed told Nation’s Restaurant News in a recent phone interview.  “We have a culture that is more collaborative, attracts great talent and retains great talent. That's what I deeply believe in.”

And, his protégés believe deeply in him, as well.

Taco Bell North America President Julie Felss Masino said Creed is an encouraging motivator who leaves a lasting impression.

“You spend 10 minutes with Greg and you leave happier than when you started. He leaves people better than when he found them,” Masino said. “You leave feeling better about yourself, about the challenge in front of you, about what you can get done. I strive to be as good of a leader as he is in terms of the way he leads people.”

Incoming CEO David Gibbs, the company's current president and chief operating officer, said he’s “incredibly grateful” to have worked with Creed. “The mark of a great leader is someone who leaves the business in better shape than when he came.”

Greg-Creed-retirement-pull-quote.jpgOver the years, Creed took on multiple roles at Yum and its divisions including chief operating officer of Yum (2005-2006) and CEO (2015 to present); Taco Bell: chief marketing officer (2001-2005), president and chief concept officer (2006-2011) and CEO (2011-2014); and chief marketing officer for KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell in Australia and New Zealand (under PepsiCo and later Yum! Restaurants International, 1994-2001).

At his core, he’s a savvy marketer who believes successful companies don’t chase every whim of a customer. Brands should know their audience and what they stand for. 

“Sometimes the more trouble a brand gets into, the more people want to do,” he said. “One of the best things we've done at Taco Bell and Yum is get really focused on the few things that matter and then stay after them.”

Creed recently spoke with NRN about his leadership style and retirement plans and revealed his all-time favorite Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell foods.

What were your biggest accomplishments at Yum and Taco Bell?
I think the transformation of Yum, where we refranchised and returned $7 billion to shareholders, all of that has gone incredibly well. But personally, I'm more proud of the culture.  In all seriousness, I think my biggest accomplishment is less of what we achieved and more about the culture that we continue to grow and thrive and make better.

Can you talk about the transformation of Taco Bell, which successfully executes this culture-leading playbook.
I arrived in May of 2001. There was a whole new executive team. I think we'd had seven years of same-store sales decline and the franchisees were struggling and the brand wasn't well positioned. It was distinctive, but it wasn't relevant.

Hard to believe Taco Bell was irrelevant. As CMO, how did you fix that?
I had a great marketing team. One of the lessons I've learned, which is when things are going bad, a lot of people try a million things. They fire the machine gun and hope they hit something. We got really focused. Rob Savage, chief operating officer, got focused on two things: speed and accuracy. And as the CMO, I got focused on making the classic taste of Taco Bell portable. 

GregCreed_TacoBell50th.jpgYou worked with Liz Matthews, now global chief food innovation officer at Taco Bell, on several product launches. What was the first item that turned things around?
Her first product she helped me launch was the Quesadilla. We launched that in September of 2001 and I think we had about four or five years of positive same-store sales growth. The brand has just gone from strength to strength to strength. I think it's the most distinctive brand in the marketplace. It's a great story.

What are your favorite menu items at each brand?
My favorite product at Taco Bell is the Crunchwrap Supreme (below).  I love pan Creed_FavoriteTacoBell_CrunchwrapSupreme.jpgHawaiian pizza [at Pizza Hut.] My favorite at KFC is the Zinger sandwich, which we sell millions of them outside of the U.S. I always have one when I go home to Australia. (Note: The Zinger is a fried chicken sandwich sold in various international KFC markets).

What tough decisions did you make along the way?
When we had the beef lawsuit [at Taco Bell], we responded aggressively. I think being passionate about protecting our brand [is important]. And when someone was attacking us, [we] aggressively defended it. [Editor’s note: In 2011, the chain, in a class-action suit, was accused of falsely advertising that its seasoned beef was real beef when it was allegedly made up of mostly fillers. Taco Bell fought back, taking out full-page newspaper ads defending the integrity of its beef products and advertising. The suit was dropped.] 

Any regrets?
I'm a big believer in you can’t go back and change history. You've got to make what you believe is the right decision at the time. My first day at Taco Bell, I met with franchisees and I said to them, “I'm not here to make you happy. I'm here to do what's right. If I do what's right, I'll make you happy.”   

You are retiring when there’s a lot of upheaval in the industry, especially around technology. What advice have you given your successor David Gibbs?
There's a lot of change going on now, mobile, digital, social, delivery, automation. I actually think that David Gibbs is better prepared to handle these than I am. He is more passionate about things like technology. Sometimes you're just the right leader at the right time. From my time at Taco Bell and my time at Yum, I think I was the right leader. I'm sort of happy to be retiring because I believe David is the right person right now to be leading this company with all of the technology and automation disruption that's occurring. And I will be really delighted to sit back and watch him be an incredible CEO.

Greg_Creed_at_NYSE_-_2016.jpegAre you getting excited about your upcoming retirement?
Well, I'm more excited [now]. I just became a grandfather for the first time like five days ago. I'm in Nashville at my son's place. I think becoming a grandparent, probably beats retirement to be honest.

What’s on your retirement bucket list?  I hear you like to fly
I'm going to be on a couple of boards. I'm on the Whirlpool board. I'm joining the Aramark board at the end of January. I'm going to be teaching for the Women’s Foodservice Forum. Tracy [Skeans, chief transformation and people officer of Yum Brands] and I are going to be teaching a culture class [about] inspiring others to fuel results. 

So, I'm still going to be pretty busy. Obviously, my grandson will take up a fair amount of my time, but some flying, some golfing and hopefully mentoring people.

I've bought a plane. All I have got to do now is wait until Jan. 1.

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @fastfoodmaven

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