One of Kat Cole’s go-to quotes came from her mom, who used to write it on birthday cards. “Don’t forget where you came from, but don’t let it solely define you.” She pinned the mantra, which evolved over the years, to her Twitter page June 24, about six months before making one of the industry’s biggest executive announcements of the year.
Cole, whose well-charted restaurant journey began as a Hooters hostess at age 17, announced Wednesday she’s decided to leave Focus Brands after 10 years. Cole joined Focus—the parent company of Auntie Anne’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, Jamba, Moe’s Southwest Grill, McAlister’s Deli, and Schlotzsky’s, in 2010 as president of Cinnabon. There she directed the turnaround of its franchise business and grew global, multi-channel retail offerings to more than $1 billion in branded sales. Seven years later, she was named COO and president, North America for Focus, where she took on various brand management, franchising, and licensing operations tasks.
There was no word of Cole’s next stop, only to say she would “continue her extensive board and advisory work in various industries, including wellness and food technology, while also continuing her speaking, mentoring, start-up investing, and community impact work.” Cole has taken an active position throughout her career at various restaurant associations, the Women’s Foodservice Forum, and more.
"Spending the last decade working with iconic brands and exceptional teams and franchisees, while learning from dynamic CEOs, as well as the company's owners, has been a great privilege," Cole said in a statement. "With the growth, we have experienced and the incredible leaders we have put in place, there is no better time to make the transition to my next chapter. I couldn't be more excited about the direction of Focus Brands or prouder of the great teams that will carry on and pursue our vision of continued expansion."
Cole told QSR in May 2018, “We always want to look at our roots, but our roots should not become our anchor. In foodservice, the ability to pivot and innovate is massive.”
Cole’s rise was rapid and wrote an inspirational blueprint for an industry that still lacks for female representation at the highest levels. According to a 2014 study by the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA), just 23 percent of corporate executives at foodservice brands were women. In a 2020 "Women in the Workplace” report from McKinsey & Company, 44 percent of companies said they had three or more women in the C-suite, a leap from 2015’s 29 percent. Yet the overall representation of women at the top level remained far from parity. About one in five C-suite executives were women—and only one in 25 were women of color.
Cole joined Hooters’ corporate team at age 20 and held her first executive role, as VP of Hooters Restaurants, by age 26. Cole was 31 when she took the president helm at Cinnabon.
"Focus Brands has seen a strategic transformation in the 10 years Kat has been with the company," said Jim Holthouser, who joined Focus Brands as CEO in February, in a statement. "In my time as CEO, we've managed through unprecedented times in our industry and Kat's leadership and knowledge have helped us pave the way for an exciting 2021 and beyond. She has built a deep bench of diverse leaders and has helped to position the company and its brands for continued future growth. I am grateful for her partnership and wish her the best as she moves to this next chapter."
Cole will remain with the company until her departure, which is expected at the end of 2020. She said on Twitter Wednesday, “A beautiful 10 year chapter is coming to a close. Announcing my departure (EOY) from @Focusbrands … My tweets are about to become one giant victory lap, gratitude party, and reflection + mentoring session full of unsolicited advice. Hold onto your hats!”
Holthouser came to Focus from Hilton Worldwide, where he was responsible for Hilton’s portfolio of 13 brands comprised of 5,000 hotels across 105 countries, generating $36 billion in revenue. He’s spent more than 20 years in various strategic and brand management roles while at Hilton. Holthouser directed worldwide brand marketing; product and brand development; owner relations; and the 75 million-member Hilton Honors guest loyalty program. Additionally, he launched five new hotel brands and instituted high-impact digital innovations and apps system-wide, the company said.
He replaced Steve DeSutter, who retired after nearly six years.
Focus is backed by Roark Capital Group, a private-equity firm that also funds Inspire Brands and its rapidly ascending portfolio (Buffalo Wild Wings, Arby’s, Sonic Drive-In, Jimmy John’s, Rusty Taco, and, soon, Dunkin’).
In September, Focus announced significant organizational changes, sorting its brands into categories. In two newly created roles, Kristen Hartman was promoted to president, Specialty Brands (Auntie Anne’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, and Jamba), and Erik Hess was promoted to president, Restaurant Brands (McAlister’s Deli, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Schlotzsky’s).
At the time, Cole continued to oversee both the Restaurant and Specialty categories as well as the International and Licensing divisions.
Additionally, Focus appointed two new executives—Alex Williams as Moe’s chief brand officer and Seth Freeman as Schlotzsky’s VP of marketing. Williams hailed from Bloomin’ Brands, while Freeman last clocked time at Buffalo Wild Wings.