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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Mark King Passes the Taco Bell Torch, After Ramping Up Sales to Nearly $15B

Mark King says his four-year stint as chief executive of Taco Bell, which marked his first gig in the restaurant industry after 40 years in retail and sportswear, taught him that people can be just as passionate about tacos as any other brand.

“What we live for is to make great food and to do great marketing,” King told the Business Journal.

King was named CEO in 2019 following a turn as president at Adidas and a prior run as CEO of TaylorMade’s golf division.

When King began to lead the Irvine-based restaurant chain, annual sales ran about $11.8 billion. In 2023, sales could hit $15 billion; Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum Brands Inc. (NYSE: YUM), reported systemwide sales of $14.6 billion for the chain in 2022. It counts an operating margin of about 36%, according to regulatory filings.

By sales, the chain is the largest restaurant chain based in Orange County, by a wide margin. No. 2 Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE: CMG) reported $8.6 billion in sales in 2022.

The work of King—who stepped down from the CEO role at the end of 2023—over the past four years to boost sales at Taco Bell, while overcoming myriad challenges along the way, from pandemic-related pivots to a focus on digital sales and new restaurant models, earned him the Business Journal’s nod as Businessperson of the Year, in the restaurant sector.

Speedbumps, Scaling

King said that speed bumps never seem to go away when trying to scale up.

“For me, it’s a mindset of if we want to be flexible, if we want to be in search of new solutions, we can grow even during challenging times,” he said.

Taco Bell ended 2023 with over 8,300 restaurants compared to ending 2019 with more than 7,000. Its international sector surpassed 1,000 stores in 2022, aided by the growth of its global franchisees.

The taco chain also opened its first set of new restaurant models, including drive-thru only locations that lean heavily on digital and to-go orders.

In the last few years, “a lot of positive things happened, and I think it started with just the mindset of growing regardless” of difficulties, such as pandemic-mandated store closures across much of the country in 2020, King said.

“And that is the formula for growth in any company at any time.”

‘Move Faster’

As a longtime retail executive, King was known for making his previous companies more profitable, first as the CEO of Taylor Made-Adidas golf division and later doubling the market share for Adidas during his time as president of its North American segment.

“Mark King is the ideal executive to elevate Taco Bell to the next level of global growth,” said Yum Brands CEO David Gibbs at the time of his hiring.

King’s strategy for keeping Taco Bell at the top of the industry has been to “move faster.”
During his time at the company’s nearly 182,000-square-foot Irvine Spectrum headquarters along Glen Bell Way, his priorities were focused on driving innovation.

That was seen with the introduction of two new digital-focused restaurant models, one pitched by a 35-year franchise partner, to create faster drive-thru times.

King also thought to maintain cultural relevancy by establishing collaborations with influencers and celebrities, many proposed by the social media team, who were both “on the leading edge of culture” and “authentic fans of the food.”

In addition, the executive wanted to strengthen franchisee relationships, with both international groups who will continue the expansion abroad past 1,000 locations, and individuals spearheading the creation of new concepts such as Go Mobile and the cantinas.

King attributes many of these achievements to his team, which at the time included Taco Bell’s current CEO Sean Tresvant, who previously served as the company’s chief brand and strategy officer.

King announced his retirement last June and introduced Tresvant as his successor, who officially stepped into the role on Jan. 1 (see story, page 14).

“If you’re willing, as a leader, to unlock the potential of all the people within the system, great things happen,” King said.

What’s to Come

As for what the next era of Taco Bell looks like, King said an ongoing goal for the company is to gain a stronger global reach.

Taco Bell is anticipating to reach 10,000 restaurants in the coming years and to hit $20 billion in sales within this decade, largely through franchising.

King said that at the beginning of his time with the chain, he wanted to get the business outside of the United States up and running, but was sidelined by the pandemic.

Since the pandemic has waned, “we’ve opened more restaurants in the last two years internationally than we did 60 years prior to that,” King said.

“I think what you’ll find that Sean is going to focus on is becoming a global brand, and not just a U.S. one,” he said.

King added that there is still a lot of runway for Taco Bell to expand domestically as well.

“We’re kind of a niche brand when you think about our food, our offerings and our consumer base,” he said. “I’m just so excited for Sean, but more excited for the people of Taco Bell.”

The Giving Heart

Mark King isn’t completely leaving Taco Bell behind him; he remains on the Taco Bell Foundation board.

“The culture of Taco Bell is to give back,” he said.

The foundation has focused on the education and workforce development of high school and college-age students, especially Taco Bell employees, since 1992. The nonprofit has impacted more than 4 million young people in the U.S.

In 2023, the foundation awarded 980 students more than $10 million in Live Más scholarships for the first time since the program’s introduction.

It hosted a new event, called the Ambition Accelerator, in 2022 to award funds to high school and college-aged people who pitched various nonprofit, philanthropic and community projects to launch.

The Taco Bell Foundation also raised an additional $15 million to support around 450 charities in 2023.

The organization, led by Executive Director Jennifer Bradbury, has a goal to become a $100 million foundation to continue these efforts.

“I think I leave more inspired by the giving heart of Taco Bell,” King said.

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