Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

2 minute read

Winging It

The Education of an Accidental CEO: Lessons learned from the trailer park to the corner office, by David Novak
Release date: October 9

Novak, CEO of Yum Brands—which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut—shares the wisdom he has accumulated during his improbable rise, in which he has overcome more pitfalls than a polecat.

Because of your dad's job, you lived in 32 trailer parks in 23 states by the time you were in middle school. What was it like always being the new kid?
It forces you to get out of your comfort zone right off the bat. It's helped me as I've assessed people over the years.

You're the genius behind the notorious flop Crystal Pepsi. What did you take away from that debacle?
It was a tremendous learning experience. I still think it's the best idea I ever had, and the worst executed. A lot of times as a leader you think, "They don't get it; they don't see my vision." People were saying we should stop and address some issues along the way, and they were right. It would have been nice if I'd made sure the product tasted good. Once you have a great idea and you blow it, you don't get a chance to resurrect it.

You've spent much of your career in the world of junk food. How do you reconcile running a fast-food company amid an obesity epidemic?
Nobody is eating KFC every day. As much as we'd like that, it just doesn't happen. The real issue is people are not taking enough personal responsibility for making sure that they balance their diet and exercise. I eat our products every day, and I work out every day.

KFC is riding high on the success of its Famous Bowls [which combine mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, cheese, and chicken in a bowl]. Where'd the idea come from?
We were trying to develop a rice bowl because it seemed like the hip, trendy thing to do. And Gregg [Dedrick, president of KFC] said, "Gosh, what if we used our mashed potatoes and gravy [instead of rice]?" He's one of these guys who mixes everything on the plate—I can't do that, it's not my style.

Comedian Patton Oswalt has been all over late-night TV calling Famous Bowls "a failure pile in a sadness bowl." Any comment?
[Chuckles.] He doesn't see all the smiles that people have when they eat our food—that's a talked-about product that people love. I actually like it because it's got the gravy. But I don't like potatoes without the gravy. I hate it when I go to a really nice restaurant and they put my chicken on a pile of potatoes. When I was a kid, I actually ran away from home for about half a block because my dad tried to make me eat the potatoes.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.