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How Joey Wat went from child factory worker to influential CEO

The queen of turnarounds and doing good, the Yum China CEO is a force to be reckoned with.

Yum China CEO Joey Wat

Yum China CEO Joey Wat is not one to shy away from a challenge. Even as a young girl growing up in a small village in China with parents who couldn’t afford to give her an education, Joey found a way to learn.

To help put food on the table, she hopped from factory to factory to earn wages – all before she was even of the legal age to work. And even though she was born in a time and a place that told her that being a little girl wasn’t a very prestigious thing to be, she grew up to become a fierce woman, mother and powerful executive with a net worth of roughly US$15.1 million.

Of course, her humble upbringing wasn’t without merit. It played a key role in her development, bringing with it many lessons. It taught Joey how to adapt. It taught her to persist.

And most of all, it taught her empathy. So, when COVID-19 hit, causing Yum China to temporarily close its stores, Joey made the noble decision to keep some stores open even though it would mean operating at a loss.

“Being a mum is by far the biggest challenge of my life. Even more challenging than being a CEO.” – Joey Wat

To her, staying open in order to provide jobs for her employees and free meals to essential workers in China’s coronavirus outbreak epicentre Wuhan was simply “the right thing to do”. “Lockdown is a middle-class privilege,” she says in Bloomberg’s Out of Office podcast.

“There are a lot of staff who need the jobs. Jobs are very important in normal times, and they’re even more important in such a difficult time.” Taking this risk certainly paid off in more ways than one.

Not only was Yum China able to prepare and deliver free meals to more than 1,450 hospitals and community centres in more than 28 provinces in China, but it also managed to report an operating profit of US$97 million.

During the March quarter, the global chain giant also opened 179 new stores, bringing its total store count to 9,295 across more than 1,400 cities. Under Joey’s leadership, the company has expanded by an average of over two new stores a day.

And its growth story is far from over – Yum China is on track to open nearly 700 more stores this year. “Our business model is resilient and adaptable,” Joey says.

“We quickly adjusted our operations and marketing campaigns to meet evolving consumer preferences and market limitations. Rapid innovation, our leading digital infrastructure and our membership program supported product launches and value offers that were necessary to drive traffic… These, along with our other core capabilities, such as supply chain and operations, make me confident in our ability to navigate the challenges ahead.”

Turnaround success

Putting confidence in Yum China’s future is easy for Joey since the last six years of its past were built upon her capabilities. When she signed on with the operator of the KFC and Pizza Hut chains in 2014, the business was struggling.

Profit growth was declining, stores needed renovating and the company barely had any digital business. Fast forward to today with Joey at the helm and Yum China has done a complete 360-degree turnaround.

Stores have been renovated, new stores have been added, the digital strategy has expanded and profit has improved. And it’s not the first time Joey has saved a business either. In the mid-2000s, she was sitting comfortably in a management consultant position of seven years when AS Watson Group offered her an opportunity to come in and rescue its Savers health and beauty store chain.

Most of its stores weren’t making money and, if she took the position, failure was a real possibility. But Joey didn’t let that stop her. She signed on as Managing Director because she saw an opportunity to learn and, more importantly, she saw an opportunity to do “the right thing” by helping to save thousands of jobs even though it wouldn’t be easy.

In 2007, she made the transition to become Savers’ Managing Director and, five years later, she became the Managing Director of the entire Watson UK, overseeing both Savers and Superdrug.

Today, the UK discount health and beauty chain’s stores are thriving and Joey is seen as a big part of their turnaround success.

Finding the right balance

A total force of nature, Joey has a rather simple approach to business, which can be summed up in only eight words: “Good food, good fun, internal beauty, external beauty.”

So what does it actually mean? When it comes to the food, the selfprofessed foodie is proud that Yum China is able to serve delicious food at an affordable price, thanks to leveraging its scale, allowing the everyday person to enjoy it.

Joey Wat

Addressing the scepticism towards KFC for not being healthy, she shares that many people don’t realise that more than half of its menu items are actually baked in the oven, not fried in the fryer. But that’s where the “good fun” portion comes in – getting the word out via marketing.

Joey finds joy in the multifaceted nature of marketing, saying, “Sometimes you have fun and sometimes you have profit, but a bit of both is good.” Then there’s the “internal beauty” part of the equation which, to Joey, is the way a business is run.

Unsurprisingly, Yum China has started doing a lot more charity work since Joey’s arrival. Now, money is donated to schools in remote areas, and “angel” restaurants have opened to support those with disabilities. A ‘4:30pm’ program in Wuhan has also been established to support low-income families with childcare needs – a cause that truly resonates with Joey.

“I’m a mum. Nothing is more important than child care. Not even my job,” Joey recently told Forbes. The last piece of Joey’s credo, “external beauty” means looking after Yum China’s staff.

To make sure employees look sharp, a designer was hired to create new uniforms. Funds have also been spent on store renovations – not only for the customers’ benefit, but for the staff.

“When you renovate a store, the people that are the happiest aren’t the customers. It’s staff, because they work there every day and they feel proud to work in a newly renovated store,” Joey enthuses.

Just one of 37 female CEOs among Fortune 500 companies, Joey says being a female executive isn’t easy, but it’s nowhere near as hard as being a working mum. “Being a mum is by far the biggest challenge of my life,” she says. “Even more challenging than being a CEO.”

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