Nando's Robbie Brozin explains how to rule the roost
The iconic chicken brand founder talks people, poultry and the fight against Malaria in Africa.
Nando’s founder, entrepreneur and now passionate anti-malaria activist told CFO South Africa all about founding an international brand on instinct, values and fun – as well as sound principles for ensuring longevity.
It’s hard to say precisely which Nando’s advert first cemented their reputation as a gutsy, cheeky brand. Over the years, the restaurant chain has taken on politicians, race relations, gender norms, corruption, and sport – making bold statements and poking fun with just enough edge to land a lesson. So much so that when a particularly juicy scandal hits the headlines, the ‘twitterverse’ is quick to ask “when’s the Nando’s take on this coming?”
Founder Robbie Brozin is just as sharp and bold; he's happy to call a spade a spade, and keen to get on with the job at hand.
He is also the first to admit that the birth of Nando’s didn’t play out as planned. Robbie and co-founder Fernando Duarte bought the Rosettenville corner café called ChickenLand in 1987, and Robbie jokes that he had visions of being the kind of investor that just pops in to collect the money on Monday mornings. Instead, he found himself increasingly drawn to the business, a business that would grow into a thriving international chain that dominated the last 30 years of his life.
“My background was more commercial. Fernando and I were both in electronics. We didn’t know much about the restaurant business; I just loved food and I loved eating,” says Robbie. “What we found was that the restaurant business was hard and detailed, and a lot of work went into it. But I found that I really enjoyed this business. And the more I worked in the restaurant the more I loved it, and the more I found that I could be comfortable in it.”
People over poultry
After rebranding, Robbie says rolling it out to further locations was just “pure instinct to start off”, but that he and Fernando knew they wanted to create something different, to create a brand.
“And that morphed into wanting to create a movement. It wasn’t just about selling chicken. Because it is a hard business, we needed to create an environment for the people that worked there to enjoy themselves, and not be treated like numbers but as individuals.”
Hiring the right people is just as much a key element of the brand as its obviously strong sense of design. Robbie talks equally proudly of both the quality of the chicken they serve and the people they bring into the fold. “We ensure that we keep food standards high, and that we hire the right people. We have always hired people ahead of growth. It was just one of the kind of fundamentals that we had from the start.”
And they haven’t strayed far from those fundamentals in three decades. “If I look back and ask what Nando’s is all about, it’s quite simple. The first idea was to ‘have fun and make money’. You can’t just be about fun, because making money enables the sustainability of your business. And you can have fun and have operational excellence at the same time. In fact, we found that the more fun we had in doing the operational excellence side of things, the more we tended to make money. The second part is about changing lives one chicken at a time.”
Changing lives really is an outcome that Robbie believes they can and do achieve. Not every time, he admits, because “you can’t force people to participate or to come along with you”. But he believes this part of the vision reflects the deepness of what Nando’s wants to do – the longevity of the model, of their interaction with staff, their engagement in a community, and so on. “We’re not in it for instant gratification, but the longer term. We grew slowly, and we look for people who share our values of pride, passion, courage, integrity and family.”
A compass for flying the coop
These five values continued to guide them in terms of their international expansion too – into over 23 countries as diverse as the UK, Canada, India, Australia and Qatar. Robbie says that they have put tremendous effort into unpacking core values and understanding how they apply across the territories and cultures in which they operate.
“There’s no value in there that doesn’t ‘translate’, and there’s no question that the companies in each of the countries respect and adhere to those values. There may be locally specific understanding of, for example, how you understand integrity in Malaysia versus how you understand integrity in the United States, but the essence of being an upright citizen and living your life with integrity is universal. It’s what everybody aspires to; what your grandmother taught you. And everybody enjoys working within that framework.”
About five years ago, Nando’s started a process called the Compass programme. Through facilitated workshops, each country works on defining these values within the corporate framework. This bottom-up process, Robbie says, means that there is a true sense of ownership and inclusion when it comes to the principles – rather than this being something imposed on each country team from head office. “That approach has been a real breakthrough for us,” he says. “It’s about localisation, not colonisation.”
How this plays out practically for expansion into new territories is then also about finding the right leadership to partner with. Robbie is very keen on working with “thinkers, not cookie cutters”. The CEOs they want to work with need to understand that Nando’s is not just about profitability, but also about impacting and changing people’s lives.
Financially fit for purpose
“Ultimately,” says Robbie, “people make our chicken, so the success of the business depends on how you treat your people.” This ethos means be prepared to take longer to settle into an area, longer to make a profit, and this is where the right shareholder or investor mix is critical. Robbie says: “We need patient capital. It’s not a business with a licence to print money from the get-go. If you’re private equity firm or a listed company that needs to show profit in the short term, Nando’s in a new territory is probably not the right investment for you. Certainly in our mature markets, these restaurants are very good investments. But we are privately-held and do things on our terms.”
This is a matter in which alignment between leadership and shareholding becomes critical. “Your shareholders will need to understand what your investment strategy is. That’s the first part of any kind of investment relationship – understanding what your shareholder’s intent is.” Internally, this alignment is just as important. Robbie believes that there must be a close relationship between CEO and CFO, and that both must have a clear understanding of the vision of the shareholders, and the vision of the organisation.
Robbie, who frequently advises younger business people, cautions his mentees that it is best to wait for the right investor: “It's a discussion I am having with a lot of young entrepreneurs now that are starting out. They are so hungry for money that they’ll sign any document. They’ll say to me ‘we've got this funding and that funding’, but I tell them to go and ask what the intent is, because if your investor wants to make money in three years and get out, that might not suit your timeframe. You’ve got to understand what their capital is worth.”
Having a heart
In 2010, Robbie stepped back from the role of CEO to concentrate on the philanthropy and culture aspects of the business. Being purpose-driven or committed to social good need not hold you back financially, he argues. It certainly hasn’t for Nando’s.
“In a business like ours, where we aim to change lives and leave the world a better place than before, you need to understand that that aspiration shouldn’t be at the cost of the business.”
It was a lesson learnt for Robbie, who says in their early phases, corporate social investment (CSI) was just a cheque the CEO or CFO signed to tick a compliance box. “Well integrated, strategic CSI can actually create a much better business for you. We’ve got various projects that we run that are completely integral to the Nando’s brand and our performance. A great example is our partnership and support of the Harambee programme, which focuses on youth employment – arguably the biggest challenge facing South Africa.”
Another example is the Nando’s art programme that sees them procuring art for offices and restaurants around the world directly from talented young South African artists.
“We believe their beautiful art makes our chicken taste better, makes our restaurants more vibey. But it’s got to work in both directions. We are not just dishing out cash. If we were, it wouldn’t be a sustainable way for these artists either.” Nando’s employs a curator to oversee this and to establish that the artists brought into the collective both fit the criteria and are world-class. In broader procurement too, there is a required South African plug-in of about eight percent, no matter where that restaurant is ultimately located.
The roots of Nando’s clearly run deep in the South African soil. And Robbie remains optimistic about the country – especially in 2018. “I'm hugely enthusiastic and excited about what's going on in South Africa at the moment. I think we are on the brink of some really good things, and that the next ten years are going to be the best in South Africa's history. If Cyril [Ramaphosa] can maintain the kind of integrity that he's doing at the moment, I think it's going to be brilliant.”
It’s a belief reflected in one of Nando’s latest campaigns – the tongue-in-cheek ‘We can fix our s#*t’ campaign that’s typical of the provocative and thoughtful briefs they made their name on. This ad spares almost no one from a solid ribbing, but builds towards an uplifting end that recognises the nation’s resilience, and plays on our collective ability to laugh at ourselves. Thirty years on, and Nando’s are still having fun and changing lives: one restaurant, one advert, or one chicken at a time.
“We’ve had huge success particularly in southern Mozambique. This past ‘spray season’ (2017), we protected over 700,000 lives spraying over 200,000 houses in southern Mozambique. This year (2018) we are expected to protect over 1.25 million lives, spraying over 450,000 houses,” says Robbie.