Executive Insights | May 2010 | By Ellen Koteff

The 10 Most Innovative People

In a segment crowded by competition, these are the 10 people who matter most.

Never before has innovation been as essential to running a successful quick-serve restaurant concept.

During what has turned out to be the most daunting recession in our nation’s history, innovation has been the driving force for the concepts that are beating the odds.

Often, the inspiration for innovation comes from the top, and that certainly holds true for the following leaders, who were selected from a wide-ranging list of successful operators.

These chain executives are making a tremendous difference in the quick-service industry, both inside and outside of their own brands.

They inspire their thousands of employees to improve products, services, or operations, and, as a result, are making a difference in their customers’ lives.

Though many operators have picked up the innovator baton since the recession began back in 2007, these industry stalwarts have made innovation a priority for years. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.

David NovakDavid Novak has been blazing innovative trails for more than 25 years.

Now that journey has him taking on the world.

As chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands Inc., parent of such brands as Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, Novak says his company’s mission is to be “The Defining Global Company that Feeds the World.”

“I view our 37,000 restaurants—in 100 countries—as laboratories where we can experiment, learn, and share best practices on a global scale,” he says.

“Our scale is an advantage in so many ways. In just three years, our World Hunger Relief effort has generated massive awareness, volunteerism, and funds for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and other hunger relief organizations saving millions of lives.” To date the initiative has raised $60 million for WFP.

That’s a tall order for a marketing major from the University of Missouri.

During his 20-year tenure with the company, including 10 as its chief, Novak has more firsts than even he can count. But much of his success is rooted in his ability to inspire his team members to bring their A-game.

“In our culture, we believe that everyone can make a difference regardless of where they are or what function they work for. Some of our greatest innovations come from our franchisees,” Novak says.

“My constant challenge to everyone is to ask, ‘What can I do now to get breakthrough results in my piece of Yum?’”

Among the hundreds of innovations during Novak’s run is the iCHING internal business network, which allows employees worldwide to collaborate and share best practices; the Achieving Breakthrough Results high-impact leadership training; an aggressive international expansion program; and such popular menu roll outs as the Kentucky Grilled Chicken product line.

“Building knowhow is one of our How We Win Together principles that defines our culture,” he says. “It’s a key to innovation.”

“Breakthroughs come when we get people with knowledge thinking creatively. I also like to practice ‘pattern thinking’: the ability to make connections, pick up on consumer insights or trends, and apply what’s going on in the world to our business.”

And that business has been moving full steam ahead. Last year marked the ninth consecutive year that Yum opened more than 1,000 restaurants outside the U.S.

The company is ranked No. 239 on the Fortune 500 list, with revenues of nearly $11 billion in 2009.

And that’s the kind of innovation every stakeholder likes to see.