6 Nov 2019 02:07pm

Frying high

Driven, focused and pragmatic: Paula MacKenzie’s career path has been a masterclass in knowing what you want and how to get it. The MD of KFC UK & Ireland tells Xenia Taliotis how she has achieved so much, so quickly – and about her mission to rehabilitate the fast food industry

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Caption: Photography By Felicity McCabe

Knife crime is heinous, and of course we should be doing everything to stop it, but it’s a complex societal problem that has arisen over many years and has its roots in many causes. It will need a complex, multi-faceted solution,” says Paula MacKenzie, MD, KFC, UK & Ireland. “I don’t know how much of a deterrent the government’s plan to put warnings inside takeaway chicken meals will prove. I hope it’s not a seen-to-be-doing exercise that does nothing to save lives.” MacKenzie is unequivocal about all non-evidence based, headline-grabbing sound bites, and also unequivocal about those voicing them, namely journalists and politicians who label all fast food as universally and irredeemably bad.

“Lazy journalism is responsible for a lot of misinformation, and for not telling the whole truth. I’m not for one second advocating that people live off takeaways, but they are not the source of all our health problems. It would be nice to see more balanced reporting, with the occasional mention of the steps the industry is taking to improve the nutritional value of its meals.”

KFC is working hard to introduce healthier options, though its intentions have sometimes been thwarted by the public’s reluctance to embrace them. Nonetheless, she remains positive that things will continue moving in the right direction: “The tide is turning towards better eating, but habits are difficult to break. That’s why, in addition to our plans to introduce a vegan option, our commitment to reduce the calorific content of our meals by 20% per serving, and our new fries, which have been endorsed by Public Health England (PHE) as a ‘genuinely positive move’, we’re also trialling ways of ‘nudging’ customers towards lighter choices.”

Another development she’s proud of is KFC’s commitment to improving animal welfare. In June, the company became the first major fast food chain to join the Better Chicken Commitment, a broad-ranging pledge that addresses a variety of areas, including enrichment (such as access to perches and daylight), more stringent auditing and, eventually, slower-growing breeds. The improvements must be made by 2026, and will only be implemented in the UK, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden, but it’s a move that has been welcomed by animal welfare charities. And in the meantime, MacKenzie has invested in software that collects data from all suppliers across numerous chicken welfare metrics in real time so that the company can be sure that farms are meeting its welfare standards. This follows a long-term move towards total transparency after the BBC’s 2015 documentary, Billion Dollar Chicken Shop, where cameras were allowed inside the chicken farms that supply KFC for the first time.

She is as keen to reduce waste as she is to improve the lot of the chickens. “Waste is one of the biggest challenges facing the food industry as a whole, and takeaway outlets in particular,” says MacKenzie. “We’re always looking at how we can send less to landfill – for instance our dine-in meals are served on trays not in boxes – and we are investing in compostable materials where possible. I am absolutely committed to this, but to get to where we want to be, we need better infrastructure and a consistent recycling policy across the UK.” MacKenzie has been with KFC for eight years, far longer than she has stayed at any other company. Before joining as supply chain director in 2011, she had raced through jobs after leaving EY: three years at Diageo – first as trading analyst for Tesco and Sainsbury’s and then as acting director, financial planning and reporting, Europe; two years as finance manager at GlaxoSmithKline – responsible for Ribena and Horlicks; and then four years at Innocent Drinks, as head of commercial finance. And before EY, economics at Cambridge, preceded by two years as a boarder at Rugby School on a music scholarship – an experience she says was challenging but formative.

She seems driven by a desire for excellence, by setting her sights on wanting to be among the best. This, combined with her intellect and the stamina to keep going until she gets to where she wants to be, must make her a formidable person to have on board. “I hope so… I am very driven, and yes, I’ve always aimed for what is world class, whether that is a school, a university, a qualification or an employer. My mum says she saw a determination to succeed in me when I was a child. I wouldn’t give up on tasks, and I had incredible focus. I think I’ve always had clarity about my personal goals and how to achieve them, and have always been able to make strategic decisions about my future.” Perhaps the best two examples of this are when she chose to read economics instead of music at university (she is a gifted bassoon and piano player) and when she accepted EY’s offer instead of the brand management job she was offered at the same time. “I was able to stand back and assess what my choices would mean for my future. I pictured what the life of a musician might look like, saw myself working within teaching and I knew it wasn’t ultimately the right path for me.”

She took a similarly pragmatic approach when deciding between the two job offers, and went for one that would pay her while she trained for “one of the most respected qualifications in the world”, and which would also enable her to leave Surrey for London. But life sometimes comes full circle: she’s now a proud Surrey resident. She says she knew almost immediately that accountancy wasn’t for her, but used her time with EY to identify the industries she’d want to work in once qualified. She audited big-brand clients such as Hilton, Coca-Cola and Costa Coffee, and found them a good fit, so joined Diageo soon after qualifying. From there, her upward trajectory was – and continues to be – fast and vertical. Each company has given her a different perspective, more knowledge and broader skills. How did she feel moving from multinationals to a startup and then back to one of the most recognised names on the planet? “There’s actually not as great a difference as you might imagine between a small business and a large one,” she says.

“Most big companies are big through virtue of having been successful when small. You are dealing with the same basic principles concerning bottom lines, profit margins, supply chains, staffing, planning, strategies, just on a much larger scale. Having said that, setting up the commercial finance team from scratch at Innocent Drinks was a totally new and amazing experience. Working for a start-up taught me so much.” MacKenzie was promoted from KFC CFO to MD in 2017, while a two-year organisational restructure to transfer more of its UK and Ireland restaurants to franchisees was under way. The move took the total that are franchised to 95%. “KFC is recognised as the best-in-class franchisor, our terms and conditions are good and we’ve been doing it for so long – since the Colonel’s time,” she says. “Our franchisees are like a family. Most of them have been with us for decades, with some managing up to 152 restaurants. In many instances, they are now second-generation owners. I’m really proud of the stability and strength of relationships we have with our franchise partners: that consistency makes our combined businesses stronger.”

The restructure was her first challenge in the hot-seat. Her second was one that brought her and KFC into the headlines, and had devotees of Colonel Sanders’ finger lickin’ chicken contacting the police for advice on how to deal with what was for them tantamount to a traumatic national emergency. A breakdown in the supply chain resulted in more than 500 restaurants closing because they’d run out of chicken. “It was monumentally stressful, monumentally challenging and, ultimately, monumentally instructive and reaffirming, because it showed us, one, how much the nation loves our brand, and two, that we have some of the most talented and resourceful people in the business working for us. Something like that can destroy a company, but we survived. Of course we took a financial hit, but we recovered well. We’ve emerged with a stronger focus and more energy behind our three-year plan, which will help us to deliver our sales growth and take us to our target of 1,000 restaurants in the UK and Ireland by 2020.”

(KFC currently has in excess of 920.) Non-disclosure agreements prevent her from saying too much about what went wrong, but in the smallest of nutshells, KFC switched its delivery contract to DHL, which, for a number of complex reasons – euphemistically described as “teething problems” by the company’s press department – led to a complete breakdown in distribution. DHL subsequently apologised. Even the memory of it sends a shiver down MacKenzie’s spine, but she says she dealt with it as she would any other crisis. “I had to confront it head-on. I had 27,000 staff, our franchisees, millions of customers, head office, the media and our other suppliers wanting to know how and when we were going to sort things out. You can’t hide from it. I gave a transparent assessment throughout. I communicated the severity of the situation, without, I hope, terrifying people, and I explained what needed to be done. I then watched with immense relief and gratitude as everyone pulled together to get us back on track. I couldn’t be more proud of our culture and spirit. It came to the fore even during the darkest days.”

She describes her management style as consultative and empowering. “The role of a good leader boils down to two factors – how well you devise strategy, and how well you manage people. The latter starts by first recruiting the right talent and then giving them the skills, knowledge and confidence to flourish. I have no problems delegating and I positively encourage my team to contribute ideas and opinions. I’m not fearful about giving people responsibility. I’m in control, but I feel no need to control, and I much prefer a hub-and-spoke management structure than a top-down one. It’s so much stronger.” Given the problems that arose when KFC switched delivery partner, she is acutely aware that chaos is only one false move away and was, at the time of this interview in September, busy planning for any number of possible Brexit outcomes. The chicken supply looks unlikely to be a problem – much of it comes from UK and Irish farms and the rest mainly from Brazil and Thailand – but KFC sources other items from Europe, which introduces the possibility of delays, and she has therefore been stockpiling those.

“Brexit has already hit companies in ways that the public can’t begin to imagine. Again, they might hear the headline news that their favourite shops are stockpiling foods without thinking what that entails. We’ve had to take on more warehouse space to store supplies, and staff to manage the depots, and strategists to help us come up with contingency plans. We’ve tried to prepare for as many what ifs as possible, but it’s impossible to safeguard against every eventuality.” What if the inconceivable happened and supplies of Colonel Sanders’ secret mix of “11 herbs and spices” suddenly ran out? Would she be able to save the day? “I’m afraid not. Only two people in the world know the recipe. Sadly I’m not one of them.”