Cheryl Bachelder always takes the lead. As a nine year old, she organized and directed an all-cousin performance of The Sound of Music at a summer family reunion. Aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents served as the audience. As the actors took to the stage, Cheryl issued cues in the voice of a master director. And when her time came, Cheryl stepped out onto the stage into the spotlight and sang “Climb Every Mountain.”
Cheryl grew up as the oldest of four siblings in a home steeped in the Christian faith. Her younger sister, Beth, remembers with a smile, “If you had to describe Cheryl in the family, she was the one in charge, the one that kept us in line, the one that was, by far, the most responsible. She was always leading us as a family.”
Cheryl’s take-the-lead personality seems coded into her genes. Her father, Max Stanton, was a leader in the electronics industry. When he came home in the evening, he would often share with his children the events of his day. “You could see his emotion,” Cheryl remembers, “and the sensitivity with which he dealt with people. There was always a moral to the story with my dad about how you treat people.”
Cheryl’s father specialized in the manufacturing side of the semiconductor industry, so Cheryl’s idyllic home in Indiana was only one of many stops for the family of six. Eventually the family moved to Hong Kong and Singapore, but Cheryl never made it that far. As she likes to put it, when she graduated from high school, her parents left home.
Cheryl entered Indiana University in 1974 as a piano major. In high school she had accompanied various choirs. Watching the conductor’s hands weave together beautiful voices was captivating to Cheryl. She went to college hoping one day to conduct her own school choir.
However, the lonely and stuffy practice rooms of Indiana University clashed with Cheryl’s outgoing personality. At the end of her second year, she dropped out of the music school and switched to business.
Cheryl quickly earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and joined the corporate world. She met her husband, Chris Bachelder, at a Procter & Gamble business party, and the couple married less than two years later. Both Cheryl and Chris were part of P&G’s brand management function. She credits the time she spent at Procter & Gamble with preparing her to perform on the corporate stage. Her husband Chris chuckles and says, “Everybody in brand management thought they were going to be the next master of the universe. We were all trying to become accomplished and successful.”
After P&G, she moved to the Gillette Company. Later, Cheryl went on to develop and launch Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts while working at Nabisco. Cheryl’s daughters liked her job at Nabisco for a different reason. “Halloween was not a big deal at our house,” Tracy, Cheryl’s eldest daughter, laughs, “Our parents had to encourage us to go out and trick-or-treat. It didn’t make sense. Why would I go to someone else’s house when we had all the best candy at our home?”
Cheryl moved on from Nabisco to work in senior management with Domino’s Pizza. Then in late 2000, she got a life changing phone call from the CEO of YUM! Brands, who asked Cheryl to become the next president of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“It was like I’d died and gone to heaven,” she remembers, “It was one of those moments where you say, ‘I wondered when I’d get an opportunity like this.’ It was a big company with a big reputation. They had jets and fancy people with big degrees from schools I never thought I could go to. I was finally in the big leagues.”
The job may have seemed like a dream to Cheryl, but in the fall of 2001, Cheryl was diagnosed with cancer. The news may have been disheartening, but, since she was an eternal optimist, it didn’t seem to slow Cheryl down. Her second daughter, Kate, marvels that Cheryl could undergo treatment for cancer in the morning, go to work all day, and still have energy to pick Kate up from school and help her with her costume for the upcoming school musical.
While battling cancer, Cheryl’s faith began to grow in earnest. “My favorite verse from that time is in Isaiah 40,” she says, “which says God has the whole world in his hands, and the people are mere grasshoppers. I’m a grasshopper, a very busy grasshopper, but still a grasshopper. God is in charge. And that perspective has helped me keep my ego in check.”
In time, Cheryl won her battle with cancer. But another problem cropped up that threatened to close the curtain on her career. After two years of slow sales at KFC, the boss asked her to step down. “I was fired,” she says, “and the local newspaper featured the story with an unflattering picture on the cover of the business section.”
Despite the unwanted intermission in Cheryl’s career, her husband Chris remarks, “As it turned out, the stint in Louisville was what our family needed. Louisville had a great church where our kids connected. It was where we were baptized as a family. It was exactly where we needed to be, even though the career aspect of it went off the rails.”
Cheryl acknowledges that losing her job wasn’t fun, but “it had a really good outcome."
"That humbling experience made me examine leadership convictions. I revamped my leadership approach coming out of that difficult trial, and I’m infinitely better for it. I enjoyed those reflection years—a lot of time with my family, and a lot of time in Bible study.”
During this time, Cheryl developed a leadership philosophy that focused on serving others over self. “God absolutely asks us to serve. The greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to love others—to serve them. It’s the hardest thing for a human being to do. I am not good at it, but I aspire to follow the example Jesus has given me.”
As she grew more committed to a servant-leader philosophy, the restaurant business called Cheryl once again to the stage. At the time, she sat on the board of directors for a quick-service food chain called Popeyes. In March of 2007, Popeyes’ CEO resigned unexpectedly. The board turned to Cheryl and asked her to take the lead.
“My husband and I decided Popeyes was a very special opportunity, a chance to apply my new leadership philosophy,” Cheryl says, “It has been the most fun role of my lifetime, because it was God’s idea, not mine. I think of it as a kind of redemption. This job has redeemed the early years of my career, when I was less focused on serving God in my work.”
Popeyes’ problems did not disappear overnight. As CEO, Cheryl faced her toughest audience yet: franchise owners.
The relationship between the corporate headquarters of Popeyes and the franchise owners was strained. ZR Tasby, the Vice-President of Operations, remembers life before Cheryl. “The average tenure of a CEO was two to three years. We had flavor-of-the-month leadership. The franchisees said, ‘Whatever change you have going on is pointless. We’re going to outlast you.’”
But at the company’s international franchise conference, Cheryl envisioned Popeyes as the soon-to-be “hottest concept in the quick service industry.” Instead of applause, she received skeptical silence. Cheryl’s bold objective wouldn’t win the hearts of the franchisees on its own. So she set out with the corporate leadership team to figure out how they could better serve the franchisees and help them succeed.
“I wanted to see if we could create a different environment—a new culture where people thrive and perform their best. That was what I was most excited about—focusing first on those franchise owners who had put everything they had into the business. Could we set up an approach to this business that served them well?”
Cheryl committed her leadership team to serving the franchisees. Cheryl toured the country meeting with franchisees. She wanted to serve franchise owners well, and that began with listening carefully to their concerns.
Listening, however, didn’t prove Cheryl’s commitment to the franchisees. The real test was yet to come. In a meeting with key leaders in the franchise community, Cheryl attempted to convince them to invest their entire advertising budget in national cable television. Up until that point, all TV ads had been local, reaching a very narrow slice of the population. National cable promised to make Popeyes a household name.
The meeting went well. Cheryl made a solid case for going all-in on national marketing. Surprisingly, the franchise leaders agreed to the plan. But they wanted Cheryl to put her money where her mouth was—literally. They asked for an unprecedented commitment from the corporate office: an investment of $6 million. If Cheryl wanted the franchisees to take a risk and trust her, she had to take a risk too.
At first, however, the new marketing campaign had disappointing results. Cheryl did something few CEO’s do.
She apologized to the owners.
Tasby believes the company culture began to change when Cheryl admitted her first attempt hadn’t worked like she’d imagined.
"Cheryl talked to the franchisee community and admitted that she was wrong. It was the first time that a Popeyes CEO had admitted that he or she had made a bad decision. And it earned credibility.” ZR Tasby, VP of Operations
Once the business began to respond and sales began to grow, the franchisees gained confidence in Popeyes’ new leadership. Cheryl’s focus on servant leadership began to produce excellent results, and today, Popeyes looks nothing like it did in 2007. The company’s stock has increased in value from $13 to $57, and franchise profits have grown by 75%. The tension between the corporate offices and the franchisees has evaporated.
Mark Rinna has been a franchise owner with Popeyes for fifteen years. As an operator of thirteen stores, he remembers well the radical ideas that Cheryl introduced.
"The whole concept of servant leadership was foreign to many of us. It felt a little intrusive. We thought, ‘You’re asking me to change the way I do business?’ But it’s exciting to be part of the new dynamics of an evolved Popeyes where people think highly of us. That’s why you see compelling growth of Popeyes franchises. We all see a bright future for Popeyes.” Mark Rinna, Franchise Owner
Tasby also has a positive outlook, “We’re winning together. It’s exciting, and it gets you up in the morning. In the beginning, it was a job, and you dreaded getting out of bed. Now it’s a career, and it’s exciting.”
As the business shows no signs of slowing down, Popeyes results tell a compelling story of success based on servant leadership. Cheryl directs a culture of servants who love each other and the people they serve, and for Cheryl, Jesus stands on center stage.
Tim Waddell, the Vice President of International Development, chuckles as he says, “No one in the company that’s been here for more than six months is confused as to where Cheryl stands on Jesus. She has been a tremendous example of living out your faith in the workplace. She has countless opportunities to talk about her faith and why it matters.”
She never became a high school choir director, but at Popeyes, Cheryl Bachelder has become a conductor of people. Her personal commitment to Jesus’ model of servant leadership has transformed the culture of a corporation. The impact of her faith can be felt throughout the company—from the executive offices to the restaurant’s front counter in the words “How may I serve you?” That’s music to Cheryl’s ears.