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Recipe for life: Nikki Lawson

Surely, after spending nearly a decade scaling the corporate ladder to become the Managing Director of KFC South Pacific (SOPAC), it’s only fair that you’re let in on a few company secrets. After all, you’ve been charged with leading 750 restaurants, 36,000 people and turning over A$2.5 billion a year.

Nikki Lawson

So, what exactly are those famous 11 secret herbs and spices? Nikki Lawson laughs. “I’m telling you I’m nowhere close! I know the guy at the top of the organisational chart and he doesn’t know the recipe either. There are two food technologists who know and it’s a closely guarded secret between them.”

Fair enough. Well, not really – one could argue the point all day, but for Nikki who, it must be said, is a brazen fan of KFC’s unique flavour, the company’s culture is much more important than its obsession to keep a secret.

“It’s what lured me to them 19 years ago,” she says. “We’re a big brand with a big budget and, while we’ve still got to work within our financial parameters, there’s enough scope to do other really chunky stuff and make a real difference to the things you believe in.”

Those ‘things’ include inspiring Australian youth with the confidence to work towards personal and career goals, preparing them for the future, whether they stay with the company or not. A chat with Nikki makes it abundantly clear that hers is a company that cares as much, if not more, about its people as it does about serving ‘finger lickin’ good’ chicken.

KFC is owned internationally by Yum! Brands, as are Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. In Australia, most KFC restaurants are franchises, with the majority run by Collins Foods. Nikki’s patch includes KFC restaurants in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands, where options are still being explored.

“We’re investigating,” she says. “There’s a tricky balance between the size of the opportunity and the ability to run them really well, so we’re just trying to work out where we’ll land on that.”

Meanwhile, Nikki remembers her own landing at KFC Australia as being rather less planned. She was the Chief Marketing Officer of Yum! in Johannesburg when approached to take the role of CMO in Sydney.

“I had just married a South African and I turned around and said, ‘Let’s go to Australia,’” she laughs. “He didn’t talk to me for three months!” Fast-forward nine years and Nikki and her ‘wonderfully understanding’ husband are the parents of two young children, settled not far from her Frenchs Forest office in Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

Nikki has always had a passion for feeding people, starting at school in Durban – where she ran a catering business making children’s birthday cakes – and continuing into her married life. “I’ve always loved having people around and throwing legendary dinner parties. Being around food is probably a big part of what we do.”

Nikki Lawson

However, it wasn’t always encouraged and she remembers her decision to pursue a career somewhere within the food industry was not a popular one among her teachers. “I had a head for maths and science,” she explains. “But in the 90s, no-one spoke to you about how you could combine your passions and your strengths into doing something you really loved. It was either be a restaurant manager or an actuarial scientist and, to the disgust of my headmaster and a couple of teachers, I became an executive hotel management trainee.

“However, it wasn’t long before I realised I wasn’t using my commerce brain as much as I hoped, so I did a Bachelor of Commerce part time. That’s how I ended combining the two – I kind of figured it out as I went along.”

Nikki used her persistence and determination to score a role at Unilever in a graduate marketing program, quickly working her way up to Regional Sales Manager, with Yum! becoming one of her clients. In 2001 she joined the company as a Senior Brand Manager.

“I really admired the way they worked,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m passionate about making sure this culture extends right throughout the company, from our partners to our people and customers.”

Nikki is dedicated to tapping into the potential of her team members, 90% of whom are under the age of 25, with 17 the average age. It’s an impressionable time for them, and Nikki wants to ensure they are responsibly guided into adulthood.

“We launched #myplan in 2016, which is designed to help our people achieve their personal and career goals. They may want to buy a car, become a teacher or lawyer. Whatever they want, their manager can help them to make it happen.

“If they need more money to buy a car their manager will give them more shifts. If they want to be a teacher, we might suggest taking on board the training in our restaurants to give them practical experience. Obviously, we also identify areas for career-minded KFC team members as well. They are the ones we put on shift-supervisor and restaurant-manager training programs.”

The KFC Youth Foundation is another labour of love for Nikki. Pragmatic about the fact KFC is just one of countless organisations providing skills and training to young people in their first jobs, she wanted to offer a unique contribution to their lives.

“We want young Australians to thrive beyond our restaurants, so we landed on this idea of building their confidence. If you give young people confidence they will succeed, so we partnered with various youth organisations to raise money for them. So far we’ve raised more than A$1.8 million since we launched 18 months ago.

Nikki Lawson

It’s been fabulous seeing how our franchise partners and our managers have grabbed hold of this idea and discovered ways to support it. The Retzos Group, one of our franchisee partners, is passionate about cars, and organised a rally of vintage cars. We spent three days driving through the Victorian countryside, culminating in a gala dinner. We raised almost a quarter of a million dollars.”

While Australia is not the largest, nor the fastest growing KFC destination in the world, Australia is well represented globally at an executive level. Outgoing Yum! CEO Greg Creed, KFC Global CEO Tony Lowings and his predecessor, Roger Eaton, are all from Australia.

Meanwhile, thousands of other KFC staff working in leadership roles have worked their way up from entry level as teenagers, either in the kitchen or behind the counter. The company drives talent through its Graduate Leadership and Global Emerging Leaders programs, which develop leaders at every level in projects and markets around the world.

“One of our General Managers in Singapore started in our KFC graduate program and 20% of the Managing Directors around the world are Australian. Equally, we’ve had people go on to become CEOs of other companies; it’s a balance of helping people eke out what they want to be.”

“We enjoy global significance in the market,” Nikki says. “Australia is about consistent sales and profit. We are the third biggest country contributing to KFC’s global sales and the second biggest contributing to KFC’s global profit,” she explains.

“As a best practice market in a socially progressive country, we share our knowledge. Many of our operational programs are tested here, and what we develop makes the rest of the world better. “We are also the second biggest ecommerce market in the world for KFC, transforming our business into the world of technology and creating a future through innovation. Recently, we pioneered a world first with KFC’s first Drive-Thru-only restaurant in Newcastle. It looks like a petrol station, a five-lane drive-through on a boom gate system.”

Nikki is not concerned that drive-through services and KFC’s partnerships with home delivery services Menulog and Deliveroo will have an impact on jobs for the thousands of youth she’s so committed to helping.

“What makes us quite distinctive is our kitchen,” she explains. “All our chickens are sourced fresh from Australian suppliers – Inghams, Baiada/Steggles and Turiosi Foods – so there’s a lot of preparation and cooking required. We actually don’t have hundreds of people running around the front of the house; many of the jobs are behind the scenes.”

Nikki also dismisses comparisons with fast food competitors such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, conceding that it’s all a question of taste. Which brings us neatly back to those elusive 11 herbs and spices, a mystery since 1940 when Colonel Sanders, running a motel and restaurant, sealed his secret recipe by frying chicken in a pressure fryer. Nikki admits it’s the latter process that has largely prevented her from trying to replicate the recipe.

“I’ve seen the equipment you need and I don’t think I’d be brave enough to pressure fry oil at home,” she laughs. “But apart from that I just don’t know. Basically, two companies produce two different components that are then mixed together in certain quantities along with a third ingredient provided by a third company. None of the companies knows what each of them is doing.

“All of that is mixed together and sent to the restaurant, where it gets mixed with another three ingredients before the chicken is hand breaded with it. Then the particular algorithm goes into the fryer to determine the pressure to cook the chicken.”

“Being indescribably delicious is absolutely important to us, and if you’re going to treat yourself it should be worth the calories.”

Whatever the process, Nikki admits she loves KFC and eats it at least once a week. She’s not alone in the company, and remembers the overwhelming response at a work conference when a KFC food truck was stationed in the garden.

“It was definitely the highlight, being able to wander off at any time to dig into some KFC. And these were restaurant managers who work with KFC every day. That shows a real passion for the product.”

While KFC does offer healthier alternatives with wraps and salads in its restaurants, Nikki makes no attempt to defend the famous fried chicken against its critics. Instead, she’s pragmatic, regarding her product as the ‘ultimate’ treat.

“We position ourselves as the King of Treats. Being indescribably delicious is absolutely important to us, and if you’re going to treat yourself it should be worth it; worth the calories.

“I know someone who thinks nothing about downing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, which has about the same calorific value as a fillet burger combo. Yet, she says she needs to be careful of KFC. Whether it be chocolate, Veuve or KFC, it’s all about balancing your treats into your lifestyle.”

As a leader, Nikki has worked very hard to develop a sustainable role and that means leading from the heart. She believes that while very smart individuals can achieve great things in the short term, teamwork determines ultimate success. It’s important for her to create an environment in which people want to work, where loyalty and collaboration can develop naturally.

Nikki Lawson

“Success through teamwork enables people to feel valued,” she explains. “When I was coming up through the ranks and looking at how to grow the business, I was told to notice everyone around me because when people feel valued, when they’re seen as people first, they go on to achieve great things.

“There’s a real art to creating an incredible environment where people love to work while also making sure people deserve to be part of that environment. It’s a fine balance. I am constantly inspired by our restaurant managers and area coaches who do it so naturally every day. They know they can’t run a restaurant if they haven’t got the right team with them.”

Nikki also enjoys a business environment in which the best ideas win. She encourages her teams to not only volunteer ideas but challenge them to see if something better can be done. Part of this process is supported by KFC and its People Promise, a pledge made to their people to help them be their best self, make a difference and have fun.

“I don’t believe I’ve got all the best ideas, nor do I believe that my leadership team always has the best ideas. We’ve got the humility and the openness in this company to listen and ensure the best ideas are brought to the top.

“People ask why I’ve stayed with the one company for 19 years, and it’s genuinely because I have grown as a leader, progressing and learning each year to not only become a better leader, but a better mum, a better wife and a better friend. And we do have fun – we have loads of fun.”

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