‘Don’t Be Afraid to Be Labeled Crazy’

Scott Bergren has a formula for success. “Freedom + Creativity + Minimum Supervision = SUCCESS.” Bergren, 67, who is CEO of Pizza Hut U.S. and Yum! Innovation for Yum! Brands Inc., the Texas-based restaurant group for Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell, spoke to fellow Northwestern University alumni. In 2011, Bergren was appointed CEO after serving as president and chief concept officer for Pizza Hut Inc. since 2006. At that time it was a company on the way down, according to Bergren, losing 70 stores a year.

Rebuilding Pizza Hut, he noticed how big companies operate like a flywheel, where the feeling of pressure is off, so they raise prices to make up for it. “They lose connection with the customer and lose value of the brand. The ‘business phenomenon’ is gone because they relaxed. This is where leader-led phenomenon takes place, with someone at the helm with a lot of energy,” Bergren says.

If you watched any of Super Bowl XLVII in February, it’s obvious that Bergren has re-infused the brand that was once “on its way down”—from that infamous “Hut, Hut, Hut” commercial to the unveiling of the new Pizza Hut Sliders during the Pizza Hut-sponsored CBS pre-show telecast. You can even buy a bottle of Pizza Hut perfume.

So how exactly did Pizza Hut get here? Bergren’s business philosophy is an obvious start. He also discussed his “Analysis in Innovation” during his speech, and discussed how important it is to him to “be green and growing, to be out there and to be relevant.”

And Yum! Brands Inc. is out there. According to its first quarter earnings release, the company owns more than 39,000 stores in more than 120 countries and territories, with the greatest expansion in foreign markets, including China and India. Bergren stated that it employs 1.4 million people worldwide.

According to Bergren, another key to innovation is the people you surround yourself with. In particular, having a few special people called “Think Buddies.”

“Think Buddies are people you play mental ping-pong with, to scheme, create, and build ideas,” Bergren says. “The question you need to ask each other is, ‘How?’ Set the bar high for each other.” Bergren has only found 5 or 6 over his entire career.

This translates into the culture of his employees as well, innovating big ideas. “Set a task so difficult people think differently. Make ideas sticky and real world,” Bergren says. His leadership style is based on encouragement, building up ideas rather than tearing them down. “Most people who come with a big idea are cut down. The idea is whittled down until you can’t even recognize it. We are taught to tear things down,” he says. He labels himself a “Possibilitarian,” truly believing everything is possible, with a personal “if you think you can, you can” frame of mind.

This means embracing risk. “I love walking on the high wire,” Bergren says. “Be curious. Experiment. Take risks. Don’t be afraid to be labeled crazy.”

But when risk has gone wayward, you have to wake up and take good assessment of your business, he says. Bergren quoted the phrase emblazoned on the Northwestern University seal: “‘Whatsoever things are true,’ meaning we must identify when things are going wrong, and do something about it.” He got the crowd laughing when he quoted Jeff Bridges’ song “Fallin’ and Flyin’” from the movie Crazy Heart: “Funny how fallin’ seems like flyin’ for a little while.”

Bergren’s formula for success, “Freedom + Creativity + Minimum Supervision = SUCCESS” was repeated in his closing comments.

“[Entrepreneurs] have to start acting out. We are raised to not act out, and I want you to start misbehaving. If you fail, it’s okay. Just keep trying. Success is greater than financial success; it’s the thrill ride.”

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