Susan Senecal became A&W’s fifth CEO in its 62-year history in February. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A&W’s first female CEO doubles down on burger chain’s growth strategy

The first woman to take the helm of A&W Food Services of Canada Inc. spent nearly three decades preparing to lead the company and said the transition “happened very naturally,” even if the possibility first crossed her mind five years ago.

Susan Senecal, who in February became the company’s fifth CEO in its 62-year history, plans to double down on the fast-food chain’s strategy to rapidly grow its store count and continue incorporating more quality ingredients.

“We always have a nice clear set of directions and a set of milestones to achieve,” said the newly minted CEO on what’s made her shift from chief operating officer smoother.

Senecal started working with A&W some 26 years ago as the manager of a dozen corporate restaurants in Montreal. She’s the kind of employee who remembers her start date — March 30, 1992. She loves the brand so much that orange- and brown- hued clothes sneak into her wardrobe to the point she often finds herself accidentally wearing corporate colours.

She moved to a number of different positions before her penultimate role as the company’s first chief operating officer in 2015.

With an educational background in biology and computer science, Senecal said 95 per cent of what she knows about the restaurant business was picked up in the industry rather than a classroom. She admits it may be a bit unusual for a CEO not to hold an MBA or even undergraduate degree in business, but her path is less unique in the restaurant business, where people tend to arrive from all different backgrounds and learn on the job — like she did.

Senecal fell for the industry’s fast pace and “almost instant feedback.” If she implemented a change before lunch, for example, she could tell after the mealtime whether or not it was the right choice, she said.

Now, her focus is on continuing the burger chain’s expansion plans. In 2016, A&W said it planned to add 300 locations to its existing 858 Canadian stores over the next five to seven years. It’s just two openings shy of 900 eateries as of Sept. 10, 2017, according to its most recently quarterly earnings report.

The company expects to open about 45 restaurants annually over the next three to four years. The chain is particularly interested in industrial areas, like airports.

Granted, that pace does present one of the restaurant’s biggest challenges going forward, Senecal said.

“One of the things that we are currently working very hard on is integrating a large number of newer franchisees into our business,” she said, adding the company’s created new training and support systems to help the newbies thrive.

Over the long term, Senecal anticipates the challenge will transform into a strength, giving A&W both a wealth of experienced franchisees and a steady stream of new energy and perspectives.

She wants to keep A&W as an industry leader in the shift to higher-quality ingredients — a move some industry watchers say has made the chain popular with the important millennial demographic and boosted its bottom line.

In 2012, the company started serving beef from cows raised without the use of hormones or steroids. It later started serving chicken and pork raised without the use of antibiotics. More recently, A&W introduced an all-natural bun baked without preservatives and additives, and produce grown without pesticides.

“We’re looking at continued innovation in the menu,” she said, falling short of identifying what ingredients may be next.

The 57-year-old believes the company chose her to continue forging A&W’s path in part because of her ability to build and maintain strong relationships with franchisees, home office staff, and other colleagues.

Senecal doesn’t say much about the intersection of her role and gender.

Reports consistently find women under-represented in leadership roles. Women held 9.44 per cent of the most senior corporate jobs at Canada’s top 100 publicly traded companies, according to the 2018 Rosenzweig report, an annual study tracking named executive officers and individuals identified as senior in a company’s regulatory filings.

Females served as CEOs at only six per cent of the corporations, including two companies that split the role between a man and woman, according to the report.

When asked about her thoughts on being a female leader of a national company, Senecal highlights that the company is fairly balanced between men and women — with the management team split about 50/50. That’s created an environment where both men and women can participate fully and succeed, she said.

Her male colleagues seem to agree.

Neil Farmer, vice-president of operations, worked closely with Senecal when he was a corporate area manager in Toronto and considers himself a big fan of hers since day one.

“Nobody at A&W thinks of her as a female CEO,” he said, rejecting the notion of any tokenism. ”They just think of her as a tremendous leader.”

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