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University of Missouri

Tacos, Tenders and Team Building

Yum Brands CEO David Novak shares his secrets to building a winning team.

David Novak

Recognizing good work is key to the management style of David Novak, BJ ’74, CEO of Yum Brands. Photo courtesy of Yum Brands.

By the time David Novak announced he would step down Jan. 1, 2015, as CEO of Yum Brands Inc., one of the world’s largest restaurant companies, he had already overseen a nearly sixfold increase in the company’s market value since 1999 and had engineered annual double-digit revenue growth for a decade.

Novak, BJ ’74, of Anchorage, Kentucky, never went to business school. He lived in 23 states before eighth grade (his dad was a surveyor for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey) before the family settled in Independence, Missouri. He came to Mizzou for the in-state tuition and fell in love with the advertising program. “It quickly became my passion,” he says. “I loved the idea of getting inside a consumer’s mind, understanding how people think.”

Once smitten, he says all the years since have never felt like working but rather like pursuing a hobby.

A lifelong learner, Novak cultivated his business and leadership skills through experience. Returning to MU April 16, 2014, he shared some of those experiences at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, accompanied by wife Wendy Novak, BJ ’74, and daughter Ashley Novak Butler.

Drawing from his book, Taking People With You: The Only Way to Make BIG Things Happen (Portfolio Trade, 2013), Novak engaged the standing-room crowd for two hours with stories of his rise to the top of Yum, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. For instance, Novak’s cardinal leadership trait is spontaneously recognizing good work. It was something he learned early on over a box of doughnuts at a Pepsi bottling plant in St. Louis.

Seeking on-the-ground input from a few salespeople, Novak asked how their store merchandise displays were going. One by one, they praised their colleague Bob. “ ‘Bob taught me more in three hours than I learned in my first five years at Pepsi-Cola,’ ” Novak remembered one person saying. Turning to Bob, who was about to retire after 47 years with the company, Novak saw tears running down the salesman’s face. “I didn’t know people felt this way about me,” he said.

That day, Novak vowed to make recognition the highest value he instilled in his team.