021: Nigel Runs on Dunkin’ with Nigel Travis – Part 1

Coffee and conversation with Nigel Travis, chairman of Dunkin’ Brands.  Hear how he got Dunkin’ brands back on track, took it public, and wrote a book about it.   His love of reading, leading, listening and questioning are all wrapped up in a cup with those familiar colors and taste.

Full Podcast Transcript

[00:00:11] Recorded live from the Sweet Tea Studios in Wellesley Massachusetts. You’re listening to the podcast, Why I Read Nonfiction. Hosted by broadcaster and author of The Perfect Catch and Follow the Dog Home.  Here’s Kevin Walsh.

[00:00:29] (Kevin) Hello and welcome to the program. We’ve got a good one for you today. Nigel Travis, the chairman of Dunkin Brands and Baskin Robbins is with us to talk about his book, The Challenged Culture: Why the Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback, which is kind of a Take on America Runs on Dunkin’. Nigel is into fitness and he is into reading. He is into sports. He is into culture. He has done a ton of talks.  I’m sure you’re going to enjoy the conversation. Thank you to Nirvana, beautiful Cape Cod for sponsoring the program. If you’re looking for a great spring, summer or fall getaway, a beautiful newly restored home on a private kettle pond that’s loaded with fish, that’s your place to be. And for a transcript from our show today and all the different books that we talked about, including Nigel’s book, The Challenge Culture: Why the Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback. Just log onto our Website, Why I read nonfiction dot.com. So, Nigel, what’s going on? I’m glad we finally got you on the program.

[00:01:27] (Nigel) I’m delighted to be here. The other side of Wellesley, MA and I still coach soccer across the road at the Sprague School. So I come up this road a lot.

[00:01:37] (Kevin) Soccer is a huge part of your life. In fact, you call it religion. Were you good when you played?

[00:01:43] (Nigel) No, I wasn’t very good. But I grew up in East London and I played at school. And then I did refereeing which I didn’t really like the way they ran that. And I moved into coaching. And actually I’ve coached soccer, 50 years, this year.

[00:02:00] (Kevin) So soccer is a big part of your life. Do you see it ever becoming as big in America as it is in Europe? Or we just want to see it in our lifetimes?

[00:02:09] (Nigel) No, no. I think it can be. I mean, it’s got the potential and it’s I think it’s now. Someone told me this, though. So this is a non-verified number that is now the biggest participation sport in America. And in Wellesley, MA, for instance, we got 2000 kids, and I’m pleased to say, as both boys and girls playing soccer. So I think there’s a good chance. So I think America’s got all the talent. As a Brit who’s been brought up on the British European system, I think the biggest problem is MLS and the lack of promotion and relegation.  Another sport that I love as American football. The Miami Dolphins, my team, unfortunately, even I’m here in Patriot Land and my good friends, Jonathan and Robert Kraft give me some pretty tough times over this.

[00:02:57] (Kevin) The owners of the Patriots, Jonathan Kraft, is the president of the team. And Robert Kraft, who is the owner and chairman.

[00:03:04] (Nigel) But the point is that the Dolphins are going to tank this year and they’ve just got rid of all the good players. That’s not the way we do it in soccer, because if you did, you’d be relegated or go down from one league to the next league.

[00:03:19] (Kevin) And that keeps everybody honest and hungry to do it right. So there’s no value in tank tanking. You will be punished. And that’s the point.

[00:03:26] (Nigel) And then one league last year, I remember looking it up one week before the end of the season 11 teams could still go down. I mean, that keeps it competitive. So you’ve got, say, 22, 24 teams in the league it’s competitive right to the end of the year. We now know the Miami Dolphins this year, they’re gonna be right down the bottom.

[00:03:45] (Kevin) Well, there is no other league. There’s no minor league football. Really?  Is that a practical one? And you’re right. That is one of the problems.

[00:03:51] (Nigel) So that’s the issue, I think, with American soccer. They’ve got to find a way to make it continuously competitive.

[00:03:58] (Kevin) Well, maybe we should make you the commissioner of the league. You know your way around soccer. We’ll get into soccer and we’ll talk about your club Leyton Orient in just a moment. But let’s go back to the beginning of our relationship.

[00:04:08] We know each other. We have a golf connection. And I caddy for you.

[00:04:13] (Nigel) Yeah. And a lot of people say, ” Wow this guy’s a broadcaster and he caddies? The first question is always, why does he caddy? Well, I say Kevin’s answer is he likes playing golf and there’s another way of playing golf, and you’re good at it. I mean, I’m not particularly good. My handicap is 25.9. And you’ll tell me. ‘Okay. Nigel, you need to this. Put that club away! Put that club away! You’re a good caddie because you really know it.

[00:04:40] (Kevin) I know what I’m doing because I’ve played the game and I think I’m old enough and mature enough to tell people when they’re doing it wrong. But for the most part, it’s your day. So I don’t, I don’t interfere too much.  (Nigel) No, no. (Nigel) You enjoy having me on the bag?

[00:04:52] (Nigel) Oh, I do. And we played with my good friend Mark the other week. And we had a great time. And we talked about doing this.

[00:05:00] (Kevin) Well I haven’t seen you for a while, so that means you’re not playing enough golf.  (Nigel) True.  (Kevin) So you’ve got to get that fixed. (Nigel) True, true.  (Kevin) The roots of this program, as you know, is we all have a love of reading and we all have a story to tell about our reading. For me, it didn’t start until I was really about 25 that I started getting serious about it. Have you been a reader all your life? Or was this something that found you later?

[00:05:20] (Nigel) Yeah. I mean, my wife is a prodigious reader. She’s in two book clubs here in Wellesley, MA. Her mother used to run a bookshop. So reading is very important to her. I’m not in that kind of league, but I’ve always loved reading, not necessarily books. When I was eight, I sent an article to an English newspaper called Tidbits, which then I think got moved to another newspaper called The Daily Sketch. But I had for about seven years had a correspondence with the editor and he encouraged me to be a journalist. So my first aim in life was to be a journalist, amazingly. And I’ve always read newspapers prodigiously. I still read about five a day before you ask the question, all digitally.  And I read them from all over the world. And now I read books. I’ve read, I try to balance it out, read some fiction, but I read as per the podcast, a lot of non-fiction.

[00:06:20] (Kevin) Are you still travelling as much as you did when you were CEO of Dunkin Brands?

[00:06:25] (Nigel) Yeah, I travel a lot. I probably do 120,130 flights a year. (Kevin) Is that your reading time? Yeah, I do a lot reading there. I do it sometimes at night. I sometimes have drivers, I read in the back of cars.

[00:06:38] But yeah, I read all the time. It’s just it’s just not books.

[00:06:44] (Kevin) Do you take recommendations from people? (Nigel) I do. (Kevin) Do you look over and see who’s reading what? On a flight? (Nigel) Oh, yeah. Yeah. (Kevin) Will you interrupt them and ask them politely?

[00:06:55] (Nigel) Not often, but it’s happened. I had a really interesting thing happened about that.

[00:07:01] There’s a book by a guy called Bob Johansen called Leaders Make the Future. And I happen to be on a cross-country. This must be about five years ago. And we got chatting and he said he runs the Institute of the Future. Can you imagine it?  He’s the head of the Institute of the Future. So we started talking and I said, well, you know, I do, I have my job at Dunkin. I also do a few speeches. So by the end of the flight, we ended up saying we’d do a session together and we did.

[00:07:33] And it was a really interesting session because he’s looking right into the future.

[00:07:38] He was talking about things like digital natives and he was talking about a very volatile, uncertain world.

[00:07:45] And he’d put these concepts up and say, “Okay. So you’re now a CEO. How do you interpret that?”  It was a really interesting session. So I did talk to him.

[00:07:54] (Kevin) So like that there was some intellectual challenging going on?  (Nigel) Yeah.   (Kevin) And that really is the foundation of your book, The Challenge Culture: Why Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback. What do you mean by that?

[00:08:09] (Nigel) It’s a very simple concept that businesses should constantly challenge the status quo. I think that the big example in the book is when we’re at Blockbuster we didn’t see Netflix coming.  We didn’t see vending machines coming. We actually recovered and actually were taking share away from Netflix, but we were very placid and complacent in how we looked at the advance and Netflix which at that time was just say, DVD by mail service. So that taught me a big lesson. It taught me a lesson to look around corners and always expect the unexpected.

[00:08:48] And I think you do that by taking the talent in every organization, and in every organization there is talent. And if you embrace that talent and get them to challenge everything that the company is doing, and it’s not about questioning every minute or every thing. It’s about having a questioning mindset, that helps the company or the organization, because this could apply to a non-profit, it could apply to a radio station, whatever.  As long as you’ve got a way of thinking. Are we doing the right thing? Could we be different? Or could we lose out completely? And it is fascinating. You’ve written two books. And one of the things I love from writing one book is that people pick up on things you don’t expect. And the biggest element in my book that people have picked up on is a phrase, “imagine your own demise.” So that means, for instance, what could kill Dunkin’, what could kill Baskin Robbins, what could kill the Patriots? (Kevin) So you’re always on the defense? (Nigel) Well, actually, I think defense is a bad word.  I think it’s you’re always looking to avoid being on the defensive is probably a better phrase.

[00:10:03] (Kevin) Nigel Travis is our guest today. Thank you to Nirvana on beautiful Cape Cod for sponsoring the program. If you’re looking for a spring, fall or summer rental getaway on the elbow of Cape Cod, a beautifully restored home on a private kettle pond, it’s loaded with fish, perfect for swimming, perfect for fishing and just hanging out with the family. And for a copy of the transcript of this program and for links to all the books that we discuss, just go to my Website at why I read nonfiction dot.com. Oh, I forgot. By the way, subscribe to the program and leave a rating.

[00:10:35] That is how we grow. Take me back to your start at Dunkin Brands. It was 2009. (Nigel) Mmmh hmmm. (Kevin) Were we out of the recession, or just, were we still in it?

[00:10:49] (Nigel) Yeah, we were still in it. I mean the recession to me, really got a grip towards the end of 2007.  2008 was horrendous. (Kevin) That’s what I remember, 08 was really bad.  (Nigel) Andrew Ross Sorkin book. Whatever it was called about how it all collapse was, Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System,  but I think it describes it beautifully, everything that happened with the banks.  And by the way, a little known secret, Andrew, who was once on CNBC once ate 7 Donuts during the show.

[00:11:21] (Kevin) Seven Dunkin Donuts?  You brought the doughnuts? (Nigel) Yep. Seven. Anyway.  (Kevin) So probably expected he would share it with people, and he just ate them all himself?

[00:11:30] (Nigel) No,no no.   We had more than seven. He wasn’t greedy, just liked doughnuts.  Anyway, so I joined Dunkin’ in 2009 which was still a pretty terrible time.

[00:11:41] But I think it is a good time to join a company because you really saw all the warts in the company. I mean, as I describe in the book, I was surrounded by bankruptcies, I was surrounded with franchisees not doing well. And it was a perfect time for a year to study what we did well, what we didn’t do so well, and what we need to do in the future. So it was kind of a natural challenge process just by the events that happened at that time. (Kevin) Were you brought in with the specific intention that you were going to take a public and get it ready for the IPO?  Or, was it just to fix the problems and then maybe that was coming down the road?

[00:12:17] (Nigel) Good question. I mean, we were owned by three very prominent private equity firms, two of whom are here in Boston. Bain, T.H. Lee and Carlyle. So three great PE firms. I think you’ve probably described it well with the second categorization that they were disappointed with where it was. They were disappointed with a recession. So they wanted me to fix the problems. And we talked. Yeah, we should move to an IPO. Ideally, we’ll have an IPO. As it turned out, it worked out probably better than any of us expected because.

[00:12:50] probably towards the end of 2009, we said, “well, we may do an IPO in 2012. We ended up doing it in July 2011.” So we had us ahead of schedule. The way an IPO works, you go out, you typically sell 30, 40 percent of the stock and then do what’s known as the follow on.

[00:13:10] They followed on in 2012 and sold out, which I was shocked by. And back on a sports connection that was actually having a very nice dinner in London with my wife and LeBron James’s agent. And I got a phone call saying “All the PE firms are gone.” That was a big surprise.

[00:13:29] (Kevin) You remember their first meeting well though, when you met with the board?  (Nigel) Oh. (Kevin) It wasn’t good.

[00:13:35] (Nigel) No, no, no. It was good. I had 18 I think 18 interviews.

[00:13:40] But I think the one thing you’re referring to is… (Kevin) Once you came on as CEO, the first time that you were you’re meeting with all your lieutenants.

[00:13:50] (Nigel) Oh, yeah. When I met with the management. Yes, in the process of getting selected, I met with all the PE people several times. But when I came on board, I was disappointed because people didn’t have the desire to be actively involved in the business. There was a lot of silos. There was a lot of people who didn’t really think about the business as a whole. And I don’t think they were really thinking about how do we relate to the franchisees, which in many ways are our customer. I mean, Dunkin at that time was 100 percent franchise. And the same with Baskin Robbins, by the way. So when I talk about Dunkin’, I really talk about both. So we had to find a way to embrace the franchisees, to energize the franchisees. And I’d done that at Papa John’s previously, but I came in and everyone was in their own functional silo. Everyone didn’t really have a discussion as we had a meeting. I like robust discussions. (Kevin) You of were doing a lot of the talking and then you were asking questions.

[00:14:59] (Nigel) I get no answers. (Kevin) And that’s when you knew. (Nigel) I had to make change. Now, I think a lot of people who know me only in the last eleven years think I’m a natural change person and change all the people. It’s not so when I got the Papa John’ I was told by many people on the board that you’re going to have to change the whole team.  I didn’t change one person and we did very well. But I came in and I think the realization happened. Yeah, a little bit on that first meeting. But over the next few months (at Dunkin’) and we effectively changed the whole management team in the next as a year and a quarter.  (Kevin) And you brought on people that you knew from other places. I’m going to read you a couple names and if you just describe what they meant to you. Karen Raskcoff, corporate communications, Rich Emmett, John Costello, Scott Murphy was a holdover.

[00:15:48] Paul Twohig?  (Nigel) Two wig.

[00:15:51] (Kevin) These were people that you knew that could see your vision, or they accepted the challenge culture?

[00:15:59] (Nigel) Okay, so that’s a great question.

[00:16:04] If I go back it was Paul, I didn’t know.   Paul actually came from Starbucks. Paul I always described as the perfect recruit for the business because he’s worked for Burger King. I was there at the same time but I didn’t know him. He was a franchisee. He then worked for Boston Market. He worked twice for Starbucks and he worked for Panera. So he had a great background. So I didn’t know Paul.

[00:16:29] And I’m a great believer that, yeah, bringing people, you know, but try and mix it up and have some fresh ideas, because if you just bring in people, you know, become self-perpetuating.  (Kevin) But he knew the business, he knew the food business. (Nigel) Oh he knew the industry better than I did.  And then Karen, who is a wonderful corporate communications person, she’d worked with me at Blockbuster. John Costello was interesting. John was towards the end of his career.

[00:16:54] In fact, he retired on his watch with me. I’ve been on a board with John previously. He a very well known marketeer. So I brought him in. And I saw him operationally.

[00:17:08] The operations side was run by Paul Twohig, the marketing side was run by John. They both had to relate to the franchisees. And both in there are very different ways, did a terrific job.  And then I surrounded them with these functional people. One you didn’t mention is Christine Deputy, who happens now to be the head of human resources at Nordstrom. And then I had Karen, who ran corporate communications. And then Rich Emmett came in to run legal.  And legal had been kind of run, in an interesting way previously.  It was very badly viewed by the franchisees.  It was kind of a gotcha personality, which is completely

[00:17:52] at odds with the challenge culture as I see it.  The Challenge Culture is not about getting it, it’s about asking questions in a civil way. It’s not abusive at all. So I felt we had to change legal because it was perceived to be a very big issue by the franchisees.

[00:18:07] (Kevin) So were you just trying to inject some positive energy in the place? Was that the issue?

[00:18:12] (Nigel) Well, I think, yeah. I like to think my personality is fairly positive and most things I do is very positive. So, yeah, positive energy. I wanted people who are going to challenge me. I mean, you know, there’s a lot of bosses out there who think they’re God. I mean, it’s my way or the highway. I completely hate that. I mean, I want people who, and the challenge culture, I didn’t quite answer the question earlier.

[00:18:37] The way I describe it when I give speeches; if you imagine you’re right in the middle, it’s about getting people to challenge you from below. It’s about you challenging upwards. You challenge in sideways, but you have to be open to that challenge. You have to be willing to accept feedback. And I think the best way of setting up the challenge culture is to demonstrate it by how you receive feedback yourself. Good or bad.

[00:19:01] (Kevin) Are you saying, that could a guy that’s sweeping the floors if he had a better way to do something, is he’s licensed to come up to you and say ‘Nigel I think we can do this a little bit better?’  (Nigel) Oh, God yeah.  (Kevin) Has that happened?

[00:19:14] (Nigel) Yes. Is it happens a lot? I can’t think. Well, we had coffee chats. They may not be the guys sweeping the floor because you gotta remember that Dunkin’ is an entity asset light entity. So we’ve got a lot of professional people. We don’t actually run the stores. But, my football club, that happens all the time. I mean, I go around, I talk to the concessions and they will suggest ways of doing it. Everyone has got talent.

[00:19:40] And even if it’s a job that is perceived to be very junior let’s say, they say they usually have a view as to how it can be done better or more positively.

[00:19:49] So I would definitely. I definitely follow the example we’ve just come up with.

[00:19:55] (Kevin) Our guest today is Nigel Travis. He is the chairman of Dunkin Brands. He’s the retired CEO of Dunkin Brands as well. Take me back to when you decided to write a book.

[00:20:05] Your wife, Joanna, asked you an important question. What do you have to say?

[00:20:11] (Nigel) It was kind of funny. (Kevin) Was that a reset? Were you thinking, you know, I got some ideas. This is an itch I wanta scratch. But then she really got to the core of it, and you had to boil it down. Is that how it happened?

[00:20:23] (Nigel) Kind of.

[00:20:25] My wife, little bit about her. She’s younger than me.

[00:20:31] She’s absolutely beautiful. Very well read.

[00:20:35] She thinks about things a lot. She’s an ex prosecutor. Now she prosecutes me. But.. (Kevin) So she’s good at asking questions? (Nigel) She’s phenomenal asking questions and she doesn’t take any B.S..

[00:20:50] (Kevin) Do you take her technique sometimes that she’s used on you and then apply it to your board?

[00:20:55] (Nigel) Aaaah, no, I think I’m less aggressive anyway. So we went out for dinner and a lot of people have said you should write up all your stories about Blockbuster, Burger King, Grand Met, which is back in the day.

[00:21:07] Lot of stuff about human resources, your philosophy about management. I kind of said ‘no, not really.’ And then people kept saying it and as I was getting towards the end of my career and just for the record, I’m 69. So, I retired last year at 68. So I was writing the book when I was 66, 67. So I was getting towards the end.

[00:21:27] So finally I thought, ‘Yeah, okay. People keep saying it. Let me sit down.’

[00:21:31] I didn’t wake up thinking I wanted to write a book. I mean, and by the way, one and done. I don’t want to write any more books, but writing the book was a great experience. I really had a great collaborator. Some people call them ghost writer, but this guy, John, was fantastic.

[00:21:49] (Kevin) He could he crystallized your thoughts and words in a very palatable form didn’t he?

[00:21:54] (Nigel) Yeah. And we used to sit usually in my study at home and we just chat away for hours. He’d record it. I probably wrote 10 percent of the book. But John wrote the rest of it. And, you know, we became great friends as a result of it. And hopefully you and I will stay friends in the same way. He’s very philosophical and he challenged me. But he managed to capture my voice. And it was interesting how many people have said, wow, that that really was you that wrote the book. Well, John did a great job. He normally writes history books and I think he’s written a total of 33 books. He’s a real pro.

[00:22:34] (Kevin) But you know what he is? He’s insightful. He did a great job.  Gosh Nigel, I just feel like we’ve started scratching the surface. Can you come back another time? Can we talk again?  (Nigel) I’d be delighted to do it.  (Kevin) And I want to talk about your football club and I want to talk about some of the books that have had a positive influence on you over the years. So let’s say goodbye for now and we’re going to have to bring you back. You okay with that? (Nigel) Certainly.  Thanks Kevin. (Kevin) All right. Thank you to Nirvana, beautiful Cape Cod for sponsoring the program. If you are looking for a great vacation rental getaway, that is certainly for you. For a transcript of my discussion with Nigel Travis here, just log onto our Web site. Why I read nonfiction.  For Nigel Travis. I’m Kevin Walsh. We’ll see you again next time soon.

Read More

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

How to listen?

Listen on a mobile phone or tablet and subscribe – it’s easy and you’ll receive new episodes for free. 

How to Rate/Review using Itunes

Help others discover our podcast

Podcast categories

Search our podcasts

Keep the Conversation Going

join the Nonfiction Network
Join Now