‘Challenge culture helped Dunkin’ follow an asset-light model’

In an interaction, Travis talks about practices that make or break successful companies.

Nigel Travis, former CEO of Dunkin’ Brands, recently penned a book, The challenge culture: Why the most successful organisations run on pushback (Hachette India).

Channeling his rich experience spanning decades at the helm of organisations such as Burger King, Papa John’s and Blockbuster, Nigel Travis, the former CEO of Dunkin’ Brands, recently penned a book, The challenge culture: Why the most successful organisations run on pushback (Hachette India). In an interaction with Ankita Rai, Travis talks about practices that make or break successful companies. Edited excerpts:


What is ‘challenge culture’? How did Dunkin’ Brands imbibe and implement it?
The challenge culture is about two separate concepts — challenge and culture. At Dunkin’, we have been much focussed on developing an energetic, people-oriented culture. The idea of challenging strongly is to improve business solutions and at Dunkin’ it was very instrumental in ensuring that we followed an asset-light model rather than the corporate store model.

Another good example is the way we built great franchisee relationships; for example, we overcame the perceived barriers of building our consumer products business by sharing revenue with franchisees.

How difficult was it to implement the challenge culture, considering Dunkin’ has franchisees across the globe?
By having a franchisee system, we naturally have a ‘challenge culture’. Early in my reign, we built company-owned stores to demonstrate that we could ‘operate’ effectively. It also helped the company to develop and grow certain markets; and Atlanta was a good example. Over time, we realised that company stores were not needed because we learnt so much and had so much information from our franchisees. Yes, the challenge culture, at times, can involve a strong debate, but if one decides to stay in a civil manner, it ensures you get the best feedback and the best ideas for franchisees and the company.

Why was Blockbuster forced to shut shop — failure to adopt technology or the lack of a challenge culture?
We could have done better, but we constantly faced technical challenges as new technology providing entertainment for people came around, like Netflix. Another example was video vending, which grew in the mid-2000s, predominantly through the Redbox network. Looking back at my time at Blockbuster, I think we could have anticipated the success of operations like these more quickly and effectively. This example does demonstrate a potential hazard that any organisation has to overcome, which is deciding which new innovations will be competitive. Not an easy thing to do!

The true learning for any company is to have a very strong strategic function enhanced by constantly asking the question, “What could bring this company down?”

When you left Papa John’s as CEO in 2009, it was on a growth curve, ahead of Domino’s. What went wrong then?
It is always tough to look back at what happened 10 years ago, but from a distance, it seems that Papa John’s lost the technical lead that we had in the 2005-2008 period; and this has been picked up by Domino’s. Again, an outsider’s view is that it does not seem to have maintained the same challenge culture that was there earlier.

Papa John’s launched a campaign that showed the real people behind the brand, as against its earlier campaigns that featured its founder John Schnatter. Is that a step in the right direction?
Founder-centric marketing worked well while I was at Papa John’s, and John Schnatter was a very good partner in marketing. It is absolutely critical that you do deep consumer research with the aim of building an effective marketing campaign to support your products. At the time, we felt that Better Ingredients Better Pizza, which is a wonderful description of the company’s product, was best supported by using the founder. However, all marketing needs to be tested with consumer reactions and clearly the new leadership at Papa John’s has done that.

You made the unusual move from HR to management, and successfully so. What advice would you give to HR leaders aspiring for CEO roles?
Companies are focussing much more on building a strong people culture than ever before. We will see more people in HR making the move to general management. However, very few people are willing to take a risk with their careers. When I reflect back on my nearly 50 years in business, I believe that my development came with risks .

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