Diversity in Franchising Leadership Profile November/December 2020

Leadership Profile: Reza Kouhang, KFC

Finding the Story Behind the Numbers

Pursuing a passion for finance has paid off for KFC Chief Financial Officer Reza Kouhang

By Roma Ihnatowycz

In many ways, the career climb of Reza Kouhang represents the classic immigrant success story. Born in Iran, he was just a young child when his parents fled the country, escaping the political turbulence raging there in the late ‘70s. They settled in Canada in the hopes of a better future for their family.

It paid off: today their son is the Chief Financial Officer of KFC Canada, one of the country’s best-known quick service franchise brands. Mention KFC, and you’d be hard put to find a Canadian who doesn’t wax nostalgic over the Colonel’s piping hot fried chicken.

Yet interestingly enough, Kouhang’s top-tier success in the world of business finance was a near-miss. “Like many immigrants, my parents wanted me to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” says Kouhang today with a chuckle. “Those were the three careers they felt would define success. And in the Persian culture, parents have a great influence, so I studied biology to become a doctor.”

While one could argue that Kouhang would have made a brilliant physician, he realized shortly after graduating with a biology degree from Western University that medicine just didn’t sit well with him. Uncertain of his future, he decamped to Japan to teach English for a year. It was a fateful move.

“It’s a cliché, but I had to go half-way across the world to determine what I wanted to do with my life. It helped me realize that my true passion was finance and gave me the courage to pursue it,” says Kouhang, who returned to Canada to complete a second undergraduate degree at Western, this time in finance and administration.

“It was challenging because I was older than all the other students. But because I was more mature and didn’t know a lot of people, the social aspect of university life wasn’t there for me and I was really able to focus on my studies and pursue my real calling.”

While it took him a while to figure out his career goals, Kouhang hopes his uncertain start may serve as an example for other young people unsure of their future. “My early path to CFO was probably not the same path as many others who went in a straight line. I took some curves; I took some turns. I’m hoping others can be inspired by this,” he says.

Renewed energy

Following his graduation, Kouhang obtained his Chartered Management Accounting (CMA) designation and then jumped into the working world with the renewed energy of someone who knows exactly what he wants. His first job was as an accounts payable coordinator with TransFreight, a transport service company. He ended his three-year tenure there as a business analyst for commercial and financial strategy and then progressed to increasingly senior analyst positions with his subsequent employers: Indigo Books and Music; Aimia, a loyalty solutions company; and finally, Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC.

It was with Yum! Brands that Kouhang was first exposed to the franchise model, and this presented a bit of a learning curve for him. In particular, he had to absorb a more collaborative approach to decision-making that involved the franchisees. “At KFC, it’s a partnership when it comes to decision-making and it took me some time to adjust to that,” says Kouhang. “I initially thought ‘This is the decision, and this is what we’re going to do.’ But I quickly learned that while it may be our decision, there may be some aspects of our strategy that the franchisees don’t agree with and we need to flex. It took me a while to understand that, but I’m so happy I did because building those relationships with our franchisees is really important. Without that trust and credibility, our brand wouldn’t grow.”

It also makes for a stimulating work culture that Kouhang thrives in. Similarly, he emphasizes that his role as the company’s top finance executive is about a lot more than just spreadsheets and number crunching. It’s about assessing the data and using that insight to influence the business overall, he says. “It’s all about the story that’s behind the numbers – that’s what makes it exciting. It’s about what the numbers tell you, about extracting knowledge out of the data and providing recommendations that impact – or change – the trajectory of the company’s strategy.”

Case in point is the decision the business made years ago to shift the company’s focus to digital, i.e., exploring more e-commerce opportunities like click-and-collect and partnering with delivery platforms like UberEats and Skip the Dishes. While the business may have traditionally been eat-in, the data was revealing rapidly changing buying habits and it became clear to them that digital provided an unrivalled opportunity for exponential growth.

“Our digital business at the time was very small, but the growth trajectory was much greater,” says Kouhang. “By putting the data together, we adjusted our strategy and doubled down on digital channels.” This included, just this past spring, entering into a strategic partnership with Manthan, an artificial intelligence and analytics provider, to strengthen the company’s analytics capacity.

As an early digital adopter, KFC Canada has continued to lean on consumer insights and evolved their strategies to manage through the COVID-19 pandemic – an unprecedented event that prompted huge public interest in meal delivery and pick-up options. “We were one of the early digital adopters and this has really helped us shape our business during COVID,” says Kouhang. “We’ve been quite resilient and have been able to navigate through this complex crisis, being more flexible and agile with our decisions to drive sales and profitability growth for our franchisees.”

Growth mindset

For regular consumers of the Colonel’s tasty chicken, it may be hard to imagine such a celebrated brand finding any new boundaries to push, or new stores to open (there are currently more than 600 across the country). Yet the company continues to grow and is always on the lookout for new franchisees. In particular they look for people who share their growth mindset and can forge the partnerships needed to succeed. As well, they look for the three Cs: capital, capability, and commitment.

Once they sign on the dotted line, Kouhang’s advice to fledgling KFC franchisees is straightforward: “If I were to sum it up in one sentence it’s ‘Keep it simple, invest in your people and success will follow.’ You should never undervalue your people; that’s what drives the business. Focus on them, invest in them, believe in them, and then you’ll be successful.”

On the topic of his own success, Kouhang credits his ability to challenge the status quo as a key contributor. It’s a skillset he has honed across the different companies he’s worked for over the years, and one he put to good use in his own life as a young man switching gears in his area of study. While it may not always be easy, thinking outside the box is integral to pushing business growth, says Kouhang. “It’s about challenging myself and the business; this has helped shape me as a leader,” he says. “Within our team, we’re always challenging each other, and I enjoy that. Sometimes we don’t agree, but it always pushes us to find a better solution.”

While his steady climb up the corporate ladder is impressive, one can’t help but wonder if Kouhang’s parents ever got over the fact that their son didn’t become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. When asked, Kouhang responds with a laugh: “I actually don’t know – I’ll have to ask them the next time I see them.”

It’s safe bet that they did.