When Nigel Travis took over as CEO of Dunkin’ Brands Group in 2009, he had set foot inside a Dunkin’ Donuts a total of three times in his life.
This might seem shocking to Boston’s Dunkin’ loyalists, but it wasn’t really Travis’s fault. Not every corner of the world is as tightly packed with stores as ours.
Prior to moving to the Northeast, the East London native served in executive roles at companies like Blockbuster, Burger King, and Papa John’s that were headquartered in cities that were “light” on Dunkin’ Donuts — Dallas, Miami, and Louisville, Kentucky.
Travis said his unfamiliarity with the brand turned out to be an advantage.
“I could look at the brand with a fresh set of eyes,” Travis said. “We improved its standards.”
To this end, Travis focused on making the organization of the Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins restaurants more consistent and initiating new retail technologies like the Dunkin’ Mobile App and “DD Perks Rewards Program.”
Under his leadership the brand also added almost 3,300 new Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins restaurants, returned around $650 million to shareholders during its first 2.5 years as a public company, and launched dozens of new products like the croissant donut, cheesecake squares, and K-Cups.
It’s been a whirlwind of change, but Travis said he enjoys the rapid pace.
“The world used to seem static and it doesn’t anymore,” Travis said. In the future, he plans to experiment with trends like nitro cold brew (coffee infused with nitrogen that comes from a tap), and increase consumers’ use of on-the-go mobile ordering. “[The world] changes at the flick of a finger. That’s exciting and fun.”
His role is not without its challenges, however.
In 2015, Travis cut his total compensation from the previous year in half — to $5.4 million — as the company’s stock saw a slight decrease amid increased breakfast competition. And Travis compared working with franchisees, who own their own businesses and have the right to sell Dunkin’ products, to convincing members of Congress to agree with you.
“If you’re the CEO of most companies, you don’t have to convince people to change. Here, we have 200,000 people to convince, in addition to their management teams,” Travis said. “Franchises are run by people of different ages, ethnicities, and they all see things differently. I have to be very influential, but I’m also dealing with other people’s money. They want to know the payback and benefits before moving ahead.”
Dunkin’ Brands Group controls nearly 19,000 Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins “points of sale” in more than 60 countries, from Argentina to Japan.
A staggering number of people and products are involved, including treats American consumers might be unfamiliar with, like Thailand’s shredded chicken donut and the green tea donut of South Korea.
Travis also has to keep an eye on nearly every crisis imaginable, as hurricanes, heat waves, and disease outbreaks can all influence his franchisees.
For example, a 2015 sales report describes how a MERS outbreak in South Korea and a shift in the timing of Ramadan negatively impacted Dunkin’ Brands’s Middle East and Southeast Asian markets.
“Everything affects this business in one way or another,” Travis said. “We’re impacted by earthquakes, health crises, changes in legislation, economies. It’s fascinating but a challenge.”
Sometimes, this means Dunkin’ Brands evolves slower than Travis would like, but he said he enjoys persuading people. ‘Challenge’ is one of Travis’s favorite words, and he’s hesitant to forget that his path to becoming Dunkin’s CEO was an unlikely one.
Travis worked in human resources for 22 years before his former boss at Burger King told him, “You need to run something,” putting Travis in charge of Burger King’s operations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Without an MBA or much experience in accounting or marketing, Travis said his people skills were what got him through his first role in corporate leadership. Those skills continue to influence his leadership style today.
“We have a very flexible environment,” Travis said. He has no problem with employees working from home or condensing their hours. He often works from his home in Wellesley. “We’ve tried to get away from the old rigid style of life…People work hard effectively but flexibly.”
Besides, when you’re selling donuts and ice cream, you can’t take yourself too seriously, the 66-year-old said.
To keep the workplace fun and invigorating, Dunkin’ Brands headquarters in Canton has self-serve ice cream, coffee, and donuts for employees and guests, and a giant coffee cup greets visitors as they walk in the front doors.
Coaching his kids’ soccer teams, golfing, and boating are other ways Travis unwinds, but he said he doesn’t mind going into the office, traveling, or visiting franchisees for work.
“I have a great life,” Travis said. “I actually enjoy work. I never wake up in morning and think, ‘Ugh.'”
Another reason Travis enjoys his job? The “intangible loyalty” many customers have towards Dunkin’ Brands.
“I’m a big sports fanatic,” Travis said, “and the loyalty to the brand is a bit like a sport team.”
He’s had strangers ask him to sign birthday cards for their loved ones, and Travis once heard of a man spending his vacation taking videos of every Dunkin’ Donuts location on the East Coast.
Coffee central place in millions of morning rituals could have a lot to do with this loyalty, Travis surmises.
“You go to the grocery store two times a week, and when Blockbuster was big, people went about two times a month,” Travis said. “Our frequency is far higher than either of those because it’s a part of people’s daily life.”
He pauses. “Imagine taking Dunkin’ Donuts from your life?”