Abigail Pringle has two roles in the Wendy’s C-suite, and sees her job as creating growth.In the latest Equity Talk, Pringle said male mentors made room for her ideas, even if they weren’t popular.A key to Pringle’s leadership is agility. It allows her to adjust to changing business conditions.
Abigail Pringle has been at Wendy’s for 21 years and has two big roles: She’s president of the company’s international business and chief development officer. She thinks about growth all the time, whether it’s expanding overseas, building restaurants, or working with franchisees.
With growth comes opportunity, she told me, because “new restaurants create the next big promotion.” This expansion makes way for workers to become general managers, district managers, and directors of operations. “Growth is magic.”
Pringle has a team of a few hundred globally, and approximately 7,000 restaurants in more than 30 markets. The company has been focusing its international growth on the UK, Canada, Philippines, India, and Australia.
No matter the market, customers can get the traditional Baconator or Frosty, but about 20% of the menu is based on local tastes. When I asked her about her favorite item on the menu she said the poutine fries in the Canadian restaurants, as well as the different varieties of Frosties worldwide, such as Nutella in Puerto Rico or dulce de leche in Argentina. (Stay tuned for the Pumpkin Spice Frosty this fall.)
Pringle said she’s had a great journey at Wendy’s, complete with mentors and sponsors who always advocated for her and gave her a chance to use her voice. She joined the C-suite in 2015. We spoke about her leadership journey and how she thrives on challenges, unlocks change, leads through “the art of the possible,” and is reaching the Gen Z market.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What does your day-to-day look like?
The day-to-day is really about engaging with different partners around how to find growth, and to look for growth. So it could be with working with our franchisees on where they’re growing and how they’re going to build out their business. It could be with our construction team, our design team on how we’re innovating around our restaurant experience, and really helping improve the customer experience and our employee experience. It could be all the way to doing a real estate deal and looking at what we could be doing on penetrating a particular market that we haven’t grown in.
And it could be to the other end — doing new deals like we just announced in Australia with a new-franchisee, 200-restaurant deal to launch a new market.
It really is an exciting role — because it goes from all things growth — but goes from working with people to creating new opportunities.
Do you have a favorite part?
I love working with people. It’s where I get my energy and so working with our design team on what’s the next big thing and how can we create solutions to some of the challenges we have and how do we create a great employee experience. It’s working in our restaurants and talking to our crew members and our general managers on what we can do to really create opportunities. You know, new restaurants create the next big promotion — the next DM and GM and director of operations.
So growth is magic, because it creates opportunities for people. And I think ultimately, you know, my engagement with my team and what we do to really find ways to grow the Wendy’s brand — that’s what I love about it.
You’re also an executive sponsor of Women of Wendy’s. Can you tell me how you got involved in that and what the aim of that program is?
It’s something I’m really passionate about. It was about 10 years ago. And a woman who is now the US CMO, Lindsay Radkoski, and I got together and said, “How do we really help create a pipeline for women in leadership?” And “how do we get more women throughout the organization at all levels, to really have an opportunity to be their very best selves and live up to their whole potential in their careers?” And we started Women of Wendy’s — WoW (which is open to men and women at any level at Wendy’s).
And so we had a lot of fun. I’m really proud of it. Fast forward 10 years, I was thinking about it — myself, Lindsay, our US CMO, and Suzie, our chief accounting officer, all started as managers or below when we started WoW, and now we’re all high-level leaders. So it’s something that has had a big difference in our organization, and how we help women leaders become the very best they can be.”
The restaurant industry has traditionally been predominantly male. How are you making sure your voice is heard and how are you raising the voices of other female employees?
I think for me, my style of leadership is really that I thrive on challenges. I thrive on big challenges. And what we want is to find the best leaders who can help move the business forward. How do we do that? And so how do we make sure that all of our employees can be able to contribute, have a voice, and be able to contribute?
And importantly, how do we bring our women leaders up to the next opportunity that they want? Do they want to build a different skill? Do they want to take on expanded responsibility? Do they want to go all the way up to the C-suite like myself, that’s what we are really focused on and WoW has helped do that.
You’ve been at Wendy’s since 2002. When did you join the C-suite? And what would you say is your biggest accomplishment or the thing you’re most proud of?
I joined the C-suite in about 2015. So it’s been about eight years.
I will tell you, the biggest contribution that I’m proud of is the impact that we have on, first and foremost, our restaurants. You think about the brand image that we have — image activation. We’ve been on a journey to really transform the brand experience. And as I mentioned, I love being part of great challenges and, importantly, I thrive on big challenges. And image activation has been that journey — to create relevance in the marketplace.
If you stay rigid, you’re not going to be able to adjust with the business environment.
It’s important to create a great brand experience. But I can tell you, that also creates great employee experiences. So a place that people want to go to work — a great place where they feel energy and feel recognized. And image activation was part of doing that. We’ve now been able to hire more people and be able to create the next opportunity as part of new restaurant development.
Those are the things that I see in part of my role as being able to help create growth. And as I mentioned before, growth is magic, right? How do you create, through growth of your business, opportunities for people?
What is image activation? That’s not a phrase you hear often.
Wendy’s started its image activation about 10 years ago, looking at our brand and what we needed to do to be relevant in the marketplace? How do we attract great talent? How do we make sure we’re delivering on the expectation for customers?
We took a broad look at what impacts the customer experience. That’s our buildings, so remodeling all of our buildings to the new look and feel. It means changing our logo. And so that was about an effort — that we changed our logo and my team and I led that effort.
It means changing your uniforms to changing the overall marketing and experience. So that’s been part of our journey — that whole change of our image activation strategy. And then that led to new restaurant development, which we’ve now been accelerating and continuing to go forward is growing more new restaurants than we ever have.
We have more customers coming and we have an improvement in our overall total same-restaurant sales. It’s been that journey.
How has your journey been through the C-suite as a woman? If you can recall, has there been a difficult moment that you felt you handled well and set a new precedent?
There’s no question that leadership is a big responsibility. And I definitely reflect on some important learnings I’ve had along the way. Particularly as you go up in levels in an organization, there becomes even more responsibility.
And a few things come to mind, I think one that has served me really well is being able to have an art-of-the-possible mindset. How do you think about what is possible in the business? And that changes the possibilities of what can happen. What can you do to unlock growth for an organization?
I think it also, for me, it’s grounded in being curious. And I think curiosity helps create that art of the possible.
And I will tell you, any leadership team wants that kind of mindset around the table, which is “Where is the business going to need to change to be relevant and continue to grow?”
A second thing that has come to my mind over my leadership journey is agility. If you stay rigid, you’re not going to be able to adjust with the business environment. And so agility is really critical to be able to kind of check and adjust as you go, be quick and be nimble, and be able to make good risk choices, you know, to be able to move your business forward.
Then, I think, third, importantly, in my mind, you have to lead with your heart and your head. You can’t just lead with business. You need to be able to lead people, lead franchisees, lead employees, and you have to do that with your heart and your head. And I think when you have those tough situations that you ask about, those are always the best place to start with curiosity.
Start with your heart and your head and say, “OK, I’ve had a tough situation.” An example, when we started our image-activation journey, or with our new restaurants and engaging with our franchisees on growth, you have to start with questions. “Tell me what’s in your way.” “What do you need to solve?” “How can I help you?” “How’s business?” Even asking — the power of questions — can then help you solve for those problems. And I think those have always been really tried-and-true tools that I’ve had in times of conflict or challenge.
Wendy’s dining room.
What would you say has been in your way? What did you need for people to do to help and support you along your journey?
You have to have great mentorship. And I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had some fantastic sponsors and mentors along the way. I will say the vast majority of them have been men who have been advocating for me making sure that my voice is heard, and that they would hear me out on my ideas and my thoughts, even if they were not the popular point of view. And I think that’s what changes business. What changes and unlocks growth is how do you do things differently? How do you look differently? And so we need different voices at the table so that you can be able to solve today’s challenges in the business environment.
Let’s touch on Gen Z, both as consumers of your food and also as employees, because they’re changing the conversation in the workplace. How are you marketing to Gen Z? And what do they want? And then, as you hire Gen Zers — those graduating college and just entering the workforce — what are they asking for?
Yeah, so I have two of these at home. So I have my own in-house focus group, and one that’s actually in college.
But I think you’re exactly right: They are expecting more. And they are looking at things differently. And I think that it comes back to Wendy’s values.
I think that the next generation of consumers are looking for companies that have strong values and purpose. And I think that’s why I’ve been at Wendy’s more than 20 years. We always believe quality is our recipe; we always believe in doing the right thing. We believe in what we’ve communicated on our CSR strategy around taking care of the environment and making sure that we are growing responsibly. And I think young consumers are expecting that.
I also think that young folks are looking for great brand experiences that, again, bring great, craveable food. New news. New ideas. And they want to be communicated with in different social channels. Our social media, you can see what we’ve done with everything from Twitter, now known as X, and our work on TikTok in our social channels. And that is something that we have seen true in the US and around the world — that we need to meet customers where they are.
The next generation wants to be engaged where their eyes and ears are. And that may be a whole different kind of social channel or engaging with them with a different way of convenience.