“We looked like an old-fashioned chicken chain from the ‘60s. Tired, dirty, and slow.”
~ Cheryl Bachelder, Popeyes CEO
While the word “dirty” is not an accurate descriptor for higher education, tired and slow might hit closer to home. It’s not a secret that change within higher education is being sought at every level and by all invested individuals. So what can higher education learn from a rapidly growing, fast-food, fried chicken chain?
Popeyes Chicken was founded by Al Copeland in 1972. By 1992, Popeyes Chicken went bankrupt after a failed acquisition of Church’s Chicken. The company reorganized as AFC (America’s Favorite Chicken) Enterprises and purchased Cinnabon and Seattle’s Best Coffee, but the conglomerate was short lived after the Arthur Andersen accounting scandal. AFC Enterprises sold off Cinnabon and Seattle’s Best Coffee, but retained Popeyes Chicken. Since that time, Popeyes has maintained a limited market presence and continued to serve loyal customers.
In 2007, Popeyes Chicken made a bold move and hired Cheryl Bachelder as CEO. Bachelder was previously the marketing chief for both Domino’s Pizza and KFC. She realized the enormous task ahead of her, the least of which was removing the “cringe factor” from Popeyes’ franchises. Her first task was to re-build the relationship with Popeyes’ franchisees which had soured over the years. She was certain that her re-design for the franchise would garner immediate support, but she was wrong, very wrong. Franchisees balked at the new design and the costs of renovation. So she decided to take a different approach. She instead decided to let the data speak for itself.
Bachelder implemented new accounting software in over 1,000 restaurants to prove the new promotional ideas were generating record operating profit. The new system tracks restaurant profitability and delivers detailed quarterly reports comparing individual franchisee results against regional and national averages. The Popeyes CEO realized that to turn the fried chicken chain around, it needed buy-in from its franchisees. She was able to bring collaboration between the Popeyes Corporation and its franchisees and the investment paid off.
Along with the data, Popeyes underwent a re-branding. Now known as Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. The company has netted $35.4 million on $221.5 million in revenue over the most recent four quarters, compared with $33.6 million on $194.7 million a year earlier. One thing Popeyes won’t do is offer salads. They know their product and stand behind it. They are “not trying to solve the world’s problems here” and it seems customers are just fine with that. (Summarized and Quoted from KFC Killer: How Popeyes Reinvented Itself to Win the Fried Chicken War: article by @Brian_Solomon)
So now that you’re hungry for Popeyes fried chicken “where slow cooking meets Louisiana fast,” now comes the lessons to be learned by higher education. The public perception of higher education has taken a beating in the last ten years. With the American education system falling behind in the global rankings, it’s time for a change in direction. While tradition is not to be ignored, it seems higher education is slowly losing touch with the students that will be served as the global marketplace continues to change. No longer are a majority of students graduating from high school and entering four-year colleges and universities. High school graduates are now facing a world of growing responsibility and lack of resources (financial, knowledge, and abilities) to be successful in a “typical” college or university environment.
The data is out there and collaboration between administrations and faculty needs to be fostered. Too often colleges and universities are attempting to change and keep up with trends such as online education, MOOCs, competency-based education, and other disruptive innovations meant to provide solutions to current problems. Oftentimes, these changes are attempted to the exclusion of faculty buy-in. Just like Popeyes had to make necessary changes to continue their sustainability within the market, higher education is at the same crossroads. The road most travelled looks much like the higher education practices of today, but the road less travelled is where most students will be headed going forward. Students these days need flexibility, affordability, high quality education, and above all else, students today expect institutional accountability to enable them to achieve their educational goals.
So what exactly can higher education learn from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen?
- Speed wins in the marketplace. In today’s age of fast-food and ready access to information, students are not patient, nor are state and federal governments. Stakeholders want to see action being taken to improve areas which need change. Many colleges and universities have risen to the challenge by offering adaptable online options and competency-based education, but change is still needed across many of America’s institutions of higher learning so that students can accomplish their educational goals in an efficient and effective way.
- Collaboration is key. Change cannot be made in a vacuum. All departments and individuals affected must be involved. They need to be able to understand the current needs and investments in proposed solutions to create positive results. They need tangible data that is transparent and relevant to the problems being solved.
- Ability to contribute. There is not one solution to the higher education problem. It was not created overnight and the issues will not be resolved overnight. It takes ideas, failures, and successes, but most importantly it takes doing something.
- Shared purpose. Everyone employed at all levels within colleges and universities need to understand their target student population and the vision for future growth. While some institutions try to be all things to all people, that simply does not work and risks scattering limited resources without a focused attention on the target. Popeyes understands their product is fried chicken and their goal is to serve the best fried chicken. Higher education, supported by transparent data and solid evidence, needs to understand their product and how best to deliver that product to the students it serves.
Although this is a simplistic look at higher education, ultimately, the observations hold a lot of truths. There came a point when Popeyes could no longer survive within the marketplace by continuing to do what they have done before. The same is true for higher education. As the world rapidly changes, higher education is struggling to keep up; however, with the right focus and a collaborative effort change can happen and positive results can be achieved. It’s time now for higher education to “win the fried chicken war.”