A&W CEO draws on a proud tradition of changing with the times

Photo credit: JEREMY DYSON

Susan Senecal, CEO, A&W Canada, understands the power of continuity. Since the company was established in 1965, there have been countless changes and relationship-building moments. The pandemic was one of them.

“Pre-pandemic, our focus was on winning with millennial burger lovers looking for great taste and quality,” says Senecal. Expansion was averaging out at 30 to 40 new stores annually and the company’s plans were well underway as the pandemic hit.

The pace of expansion was curtailed, she says, “Some things became difficult because of construction restrictions. We had lots of projects in the pipeline. They were just taking a bit longer, which is true even today.”

Despite the fact that the pipeline slowed down, demand did not, she says. “We were very, very encouraged by the response. The list of new franchisees did not subside.”

The impact of COVID on operations also differed by jurisdiction and location. “Our shopping-centre business, for example, was hit hard when dining areas had to be closed.”

One of the hardest things to manage was behaving in a united way, she shares. “We are a pretty homogeneous group and were able to overcome huge complexities and multiple changes. It was very challenging to operators, and in some cases, very expensive. Some were completely closed down for nearly a year.”

In 2020, the biggest focus — and the biggest challenge — from a leadership perspective was ensuring the safety of employees and guests, she says. “We had to figure out how to keep our staff’s lives intact. Finding solutions for their safety trumped everything else. We made sure our communications were strong, and we were transparent in our thinking throughout the process.”

To keep the lines of communication going, the leadership team conducted regular check-ins and pulse surveys to help them respond to concerns and welcome ideas. They also held daily calls with operators across the country and internal teams to find out what staff were saying.

“Since we couldn’t go into the restaurants, we had to depend on the eyes, ears, brains, emotions and thoughtfulness of frontline staff serving guests every day,” she says. “That collective effort allowed us to change in real time.”

Open communications also allowed the team to explore a wide range of approaches being applied in different municipalities and regions. “We were able to find out and share what worked best. It was a testament to the energy and commitment of the operators. By sharing ideas on the daily calls, they weren’t feeling isolated from each other.”

Senecal says A&W has always been a strategy-driven company. It’s an attribute that served them in good stead over the past two years. “In 2018, we created a new strategy for the business and began that work in the early part of the pandemic. When something has changed internally or in the world, businesses want to renew their thoughts. There has been no greater change than this. The past two years have given us great direction and clarity on what we want to carry forward.”

One attribute that came to the forefront during the pandemic was the company’s nimbleness. “For the past 10 years we’ve been on a constant journey towards different ideas that bring something interesting and affordable to the market,” she explains. “We had the ability to change and consider new ideas and get traction with a smaller number of initiatives that could help ourselves and our operators.”

One of those initiatives is a new Brew Bar lineup of beverages being introduced across Canada that will include espresso-based drinks, frozen root beer and more. “We think those will do well. We’re feeling very optimistic about the future.”

As the pandemic restrictions have eased, she acknowledges that some changes have become a permanent part of the A&W ethos. “We are incorporating positive changes we have made in the past couple of years, as well as including old favourites.”

Senecal says the past two years have delivered some silver linings in terms of how people have worked together under challenging and difficult circumstances, while keeping guest and employee safety front and centre.

Overall, she believes A&W’s high-touch leadership style was instrumental in weathering the challenges. “Strategy is central to how we make decisions and invest resources. Our ability to work together, listen to understand, and embrace change came into play like never before. We were able to share our strategic direction and the way to get to our goals, building on what we already had, to keep our business successful.”

What stands out most for Senecal from the pandemic is the resilience of human beings. “People have been able to switch [gears] rapidly. The [challenges] are unimaginable, but they adapted. It’s inspiring to see how many have been able to come back and re-open. That indicates the level of connection we have.”

By Denise Deveau

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