Focus Brands Group President Kat Cole shares secrets of sweet success

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Kat Cole has made her mark as a top executive with Focus Brands, a $3 billion company that owns brands like Auntie Anne’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Cinnabon and Carvel. A well-known young executive, in 2012 she was featured on the TV show “Undercover Boss.” In 2013, she made Fortune Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 list.

Cole visited Penn State Harrisburg on March 27 to speak at the School of Business Administration alumni reunion. In addition to speaking at the reunion, part of the campus' yearlong 50th anniversary celebration, Cole met with students and participated in a women’s networking event during her visit.

For 2009 alumna Heather Neary, it was an honor to introduce her friend and business associate at her alma mater. Neary is president of Auntie Anne’s pretzels and has worked with Cole for seven years. 

“What makes the most successful humans? Success is living the life that fulfills what you think is important,” Cole told the audience.  

For her, that has meant reaching a pinnacle in the fast-paced food franchise industry.

Cole shared that her drive and energy goes back to her days as a teen working at Hooters in Jacksonville, Florida. She was just 17 and working three jobs, including Hooters, following in her mother’s hardworking footsteps to help support her family. One day, the cooks walked out. Cole, a waitress, didn’t know how to deep fry chicken tenders or fries, but she went back in the kitchen and figured it out. 

She was curious and wanted to know how to make the food. She wanted to be helpful. And, she knew the restaurant’s success was critical to her own. Two years later, she was boarding a plane to Australia, where Hooters sent her to open the first Hooters there. After that, she opened restaurants in South America, Central America and Asia. 

“Saying yes before you are ready is only half of it,” said Cole. “You have to use your hustle muscle to close the gap.” 

As group president of Focus Brands and chief operations officer of its subsidiary Cinnabon, the American chain of retail bakeries, Cole offered tips for business success. 

“Those who are close to the action always know the right thing to do,” said Cole, explaining that she stays close to those who serve the customer. They are the ones who understand the customer best, she said.

Cole asks questions. What would you change? What do the customers want? That’s how she tries to continuously improve the business model.

Despite her success — or maybe because if it — Cole makes sure to stay down to earth and in touch with employees who serve customers directly. Then there is the balance of creating the harmony that guides her career and her life. 

"First there are curiosity and humility. Then courage and confidence,” said Cole. “You need both. If you don’t keep them in balance, you cannot be a good leader.”

“We were delighted to have Ms. Cole as our guest speaker for the alumni reunion, and pleased with her willingness to also share her experience and wisdom with students and others during the time that she was on campus,” said Stephen Schappe, director of the School of Business Administration. “Ms. Neary is a tremendous supporter of our business school and a member of our Advisory Council. She was instrumental in bringing Ms. Cole to campus, so we’re grateful to her for connecting Kat to our students, the school, and our college."

Last Updated May 04, 2017