Since taking the helm in 2019, Taco Bell Chief Executive Mark King has led the Irvine-based restaurant chain’s growth with what he refers to as “restless creativity.”
After a nearly 40-year career in retail, King sets out to reimagine Taco Bell as more than a fast-food chain, but as a brand with innovative marketing strategies designed to draw demand by pulling on pop culture ties.
King told the Business Journal in April that he was focused on building a “culture that invites people to think of and challenge ways to improve the consumer experience.”
He is bullish on the restaurant industry’s ties with the retail sector to create such a culture. He hired Nike executive Sean Tresvant in 2022 in a move to keep the chain relevant, and, as is now clear, to set the firm up for further success in its next leadership chapter.
Parent company Yum Brands Inc. (NYSE: YUM) at the end of June announced King would pass the CEO torch to Tresvant following King’s retirement at the end of this year (see story, this page).
The transition at the largest restaurant chain in Orange County—its nearly 8,300 stores reported $14.6 billion in sales last year—will be effective on Jan. 1, 2024.
“He understands branding and brands better than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” King said of the 43-year-old Tresvant.
King leaves Taco Bell as a more thoughtful organization in the hands of the team he built in the last five years.
Another key member King added was executive Katrina “KT” Thornton as the chain’s first chief equity, inclusion and belonging officer in 2021.
Thornton was recruited to lead Taco Bell’s diversity and equity strategy, which has landed the company in the Business Journal’s inaugural special report highlighting local companies for their efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion.
Taco Bell is turning the ideas of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into key business strategies.
Yum Brands altered the term DEI into a different set of components—equity, inclusion and belonging, or EI&B—to describe more of a formula than a string of words for the restaurant operator’s portfolio of brands to follow.
Upon arriving at the company, Thornton said EI&B awareness and discussion existed but “it maybe wasn’t formulated to be a clear operating model strategy.”
“We’re going to make sure that we’re leveling the playing fields and that we’re fairly consistent in all of our practices,” Thornton told the Business Journal.
“That then paves the way when we think about diversity and to ensure we’re acting with an inclusive measure.”
That process started with an assessment of current EI&B values and identifying barriers in the current practices to establish companywide commitments and goals.
“Hopefully, creating a sense of belonging is the output of all these intentional actions,” she said.
Thornton’s first year at Taco Bell was spent looking at the business operating model with a close eye.
“We wanted to slow down in order to speed up,” she said.
In the first six months, the restaurant chain went through an audit of its talent systems and practices to have a set of both qualitative and quantitative data to start with.
An external agency spoke with each department leader—from hiring and onboarding to performance development—to gather what parts needed improvement.
They ended up with a report of over 140 pages, which led to specific initiatives designed to diversify its employee base.
“We’re already starting to see an increase in some of our demographics across the organization,” Thornton said.
Thornton also wanted to ensure EI&B was more than an HR talking point.
After the assessments, Taco Bell launched a new enterprisewide EI&B internal strategy in April, with a summit held in June to educate and incentivize companywide leaders on inclusion and equity efforts.
Around 400 people were invited to Taco Bell’s Irvine headquarters to manage the transition and application of the new strategies.
Initial goals include reaching gender parity across senior leadership and increasing underrepresented talent within the organization by 2025.
Taco Bell also aims to be intentional in its spending with diverse vendors and suppliers, from marketing teams to on-screen talent and behind the camera teams.
Each year, Taco Bell will develop and execute a plan in further imbedding the EI&B components into the workplace to support employee connection and accountability.
“Regardless of what seat you sit in, you have a powerful role to play,” Thornton said.
As the application of EI&B continues to evolve, Thornton also acknowledged how these practices affect business results.
A major aid in the overall development of EI&B has been Taco Bell’s employee resource groups.
Introduced by Yum Brands in 2019, the restaurant chain has launched five different groups that work to provide community and representation within the company.
“It’s very powerful when you have groups that can bring, what I like to call, cultural insight to a business challenge,” Thornton said.
The executive has worked to elevate the capability of the employee groups, which she refers to as culture partners for Taco Bell.
Thornton described the partnership as listening to insight from those who can bring a different perspective to a business idea or campaign to make sure the company connects with consumers.
Last year, the Live Más Pride group, Taco Bell’s LGBTQIA+ employee resource group, introduced the idea of the chain’s 2022 Drag Brunch Tour in Taco Bell cantinas which were held in five cities.
Thornton noted that the project helped drive sales during its run.
Its Latin American resource group, known as Live Más L.U.C.H.A. (Latinx United through Community, Heritage and Achievement) is currently involved in a few upcoming business initiatives, according to Thornton.
“It’s not just purposeful work, it’s also business growth work,” Thornton said.
Taco Bell Names New CEO
Chief Executive Mark King is retiring from Taco Bell at the end of this year, and parent company Yum Brands Inc. (NYSE: YUM) has appointed Sean Tresvant to take over the role.
Tresvant joined the Irvine-based restaurant chain, the largest in Orange County by sales, in December 2021 after spending 16 years with Nike ending his run as the chief marketing officer of the firm’s Jordan category.
He had also spent time at Sports Illustrated and PepsiCo in brand leadership roles.
Within a year at Taco Bell, Tresvant’s role was expanded and renamed chief brand and strategy officer overseeing brand strategy and global communications for both the domestic and international business of the chain.
Six months after that promotion, Tresvant is set to enter the CEO position on Jan. 1, 2024.
“Taco Bell dreams big, which is the reason I took this job in the first place, and the reason why Sean is the right leader to take on the role,” King wrote on his LinkedIn account the day after the announcement.
“Sean is laser-focused on keeping our powerhouse Taco Bell brand at the leading edge of culture and redefining innovation in the industry,” Yum Brands CEO David Gibbs said in a statement.
Tresvant is credited for building a strategic brand framework that has led to major celebrity partnerships and the return of the popular Mexican Pizza dish.
“That’s why he is the ideal executive to continue successfully executing Taco Bell’s long-term global growth strategies and take them to the next level in partnership with the brand’s strong and accomplished leadership team and incredible franchisees,” Gibbs added.
“I’m grateful to have worked alongside Mark, and I’m incredibly honored and excited to continue partnering with our talented team and amazing franchisees on Taco Bell’s magic formula of brand buzz, innovation, value and digital initiatives to deliver industry-leading results in the U.S. and internationally,” Tresvant said.