Burger chain’s first fe­male CEO plans more stores, health­ier fare


The first woman to take the helm of A&W Food Ser­vices of Canada Inc. spent nearly three decades pre­par­ing to lead the com­pany and said the tran­si­tion “hap­pened very nat­u­rally,” even if the pos­si­bil­ity first crossed her mind five years ago.

Su­san Senecal, who in Fe­bru­ary be­came the com­pany’s fifth CEO in its 62-year his­tory, plans to dou­ble down on the fast-food chain’s strat­egy to rapidly grow its store count and con­tinue in­cor­po­rat­ing more qual­ity in­gre­di­ents.

“We al­ways have a nice clear set of di­rec­tions and a set of mile­stones to achieve,” said the newly minted CEO on what’s made her shift from chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer smoother.

Senecal started work­ing with A&W some 26 years ago as the man­ager of a dozen cor­po­rate restau­rants in Montreal. She’s the kind of em­ployee who re­mem­bers her start date — March 30, 1992. She loves the brand so much that or­ange- and brown- hued clothes sneak into her wardrobe to the point she of­ten finds her­self ac­ci­den­tally wear­ing cor­po­rate colours.

She moved to a num­ber of different po­si­tions be­fore her penul­ti­mate role as the com­pany’s first chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer in 2015.

With an ed­u­ca­tional back­ground in bi­ol­ogy and com­puter sci­ence, Senecal said 95 per cent of what she knows about the restau­rant busi­ness was picked up in the in­dus­try rather than a class­room. She ad­mits it may be a bit un­usual for a CEO not to hold an MBA or even un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in busi­ness, but her path is less unique in the restau­rant busi­ness, where peo­ple tend to ar­rive from all different back­grounds and learn on the job — like she did.

Senecal fell for the in­dus­try’s fast pace and “al­most in­stant feed­back.” If she im­ple­mented a change be­fore lunch, for ex­am­ple, she could tell after the meal­time whether it was the right choice, she said.

Now, her fo­cus is on con­tin­u­ing the burger chain’s ex­pan­sion plans. In 2016, A&W said it planned to add 300 lo­ca­tions to its ex­ist­ing 858 Cana­dian stores over the next five to seven years. It’s just two open­ings shy of 900 eater­ies as of Sept. 10, 2017, ac­cord­ing to its most re­cently quar­terly earn­ings re­port.

The com­pany ex­pects to open about 45 restau­rants an­nu­ally over the next three to four years. The chain is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in in­dus­trial ar­eas, like air­ports.

Granted, that pace does present one of the restau­rant’s big­gest chal­lenges go­ing for­ward, Senecal said.

“One of the things that we are cur­rently work­ing very hard on is in­te­grat­ing a large num­ber of newer fran­chisees into our busi­ness,” she said, adding that the com­pany has cre­ated new train­ing and sup­port sys­tems to help the new­bies thrive.

Over the long term, Senecal an­tic­i­pates the chal­lenge will trans­form into a strength, giv­ing A&W both a wealth of ex­pe­ri­enced fran­chisees and a steady stream of new en­ergy and per­spec­tives.

She wants to keep A&W as an in­dus­try leader in the shift to high­erqual­ity in­gre­di­ents — a move some in­dus­try watch­ers say has made the chain pop­u­lar with the im­por­tant mil­len­nial de­mo­graphic and boosted its bot­tom line.

In 2012, the com­pany started serv­ing beef from cows raised with­out the use of hor­mones or steroids. It later started serv­ing chicken and pork raised with­out the use of an­tibi­otics. More re­cently, A&W in­tro­duced an all-nat­u­ral bun baked with­out preser­va­tives and ad­di­tives, and pro­duce grown with­out pes­ti­cides.

“We’re look­ing at con­tin­ued in­no­va­tion in the menu,” she said, fall­ing short of iden­ti­fy­ing what in­gre­di­ents may be next.

The 57-year-old be­lieves the com­pany chose her to con­tinue forg­ing A&W’s path in part be­cause of her abil­ity to build and main­tain strong re­la­tion­ships with fran­chisees, home of­fice staff, and other col­leagues.

Senecal doesn’t say much about the in­ter­sec­tion of her role and gen­der.

Re­ports con­sis­tently find women un­der-rep­re­sented in lead­er­ship roles. Women held 9.44 per cent of the most se­nior cor­po­rate jobs at Canada’s top 100 pub­licly traded com­pa­nies, ac­cord­ing to the 2018 Rosen­zweig re­port, an an­nual study track­ing named ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cers and in­di­vid­u­als iden­ti­fied as se­nior in a com­pany ’s reg­u­la­tory fil­ings.

Fe­males served as CEOs at only six per cent of the cor­po­ra­tions, in­clud­ing two com­pa­nies that split the role be­tween a man and woman, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

When asked about her thoughts on be­ing a fe­male leader of a na­tional com­pany, Senecal high­lights that the com­pany is fairly bal­anced be­tween men and women — with the man­age­ment team split about 50/50. That’s cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment where both men and women can par­tic­i­pate fully and suc­ceed, she said.

Her male col­leagues seem to agree.

Neil Farmer, vice-pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions, worked closely with Senecal when he was a cor­po­rate area man­ager in Toronto and con­sid­ers him­self a big fan of hers since day one.

“No­body at A&W thinks of her as a fe­male CEO,” he said, re­ject­ing the no­tion of any to­kenism. “They just think of her as a tremen­dous leader.”


New A&W chief Su­san Senecal sees the in­te­gra­tion of many new fran­chisees as a key chal­lenge in the chain’s ag­gres­sive growth strat­egy. She’s also fo­cused on keep­ing A&W as an in­dus­try leader in higher-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents that have at­tracted mil­len­ni­als.

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