The Hungry Jack’s founder has clocked up 50 years in business. His next step? Taking plant-based patties to the masses.
Current roles: Chairman and managing director, Competitive Foods Australia; chair, Domino’s Pizza Enterprises
Previous roles: Chancellor, Western University, Canada; director, Fairfax Media; director, BridgeClimb
How do you define good leadership?
Good leadership is making people want to follow you. How do you get people to share the vision that you have rather than paddle a canoe and follow the boss’s orders? How do you get people to act like they’re shareholders in the business? What would you do if this was your business and you had to make this decision?
Do you actively ask those questions of people who work with you?
It’s a subconscious thing. I have an expression: “You delegate authority to make decisions but as the CEO you don’t abdicate.”
What are your values?
When I started the business in 1969, I wanted to create a venture that would survive and make a profit. As you grow the company and become established, your values change. What are we really trying to do here? As time goes along, I think you develop a responsibility to your employees to build something with continuity – a business that will survive any one particular person leaving.
How do you think you have changed as a person over the 50 years you’ve been in business?
I don’t think I’ve changed that much. I think I’m curious, I’m ambitious. I see new opportunities and get excited but I have to show some discipline and restraint because I can’t do everything, even though I may want to. By the time people get to my age, most are either on the verge of gaga or their health goes so business becomes somewhat of an irrelevance but I’m still on the day-to-day treadmill; going here, there and everywhere. I do it because I like the stimulation and I like people. It’s hard to sit on the sidelines.
When there are so many opportunities catching your attention, how do you know when to say yes and when to say no?
Well, you don’t, that’s the problem. I call it the pretty girl you see across the room when you come to the dance – it’s that flirtation with new ideas. My biggest problem in business and life is the overload of things that I want to read or do. But the ability to say no is discipline. I think I could have been more successful and probably made more money if I’d been more disciplined but I would have had a more boring life. I like the fact that I’ve had different businesses and investments. It’s been more interesting than if I was just the hamburger king of Australia.
You’ve said that there are two ways to make money – to come up with a new idea or find an idea that already works and plug it into a new environment. Have you mostly done the latter?
I’m probably not that creative. The conversion rate of new ideas to end products that are successful is very low. The success rate in franchising is much higher than for someone who is hanging out their own shingle because you’ve had other people who have tried and failed. Being able to plug into something that’s worked someplace else is probably what I have done rather than, “Eureka! Here’s a revolutionary idea that will change the world.”
Is that why you’re such a fan of the franchise model?
Yes, you’re taking an existing format and the success rates are just a whole lot higher. You’re trying to take advantage of other people’s mistakes they’ve made before you make them yourself. The Domino’s business [of which Cowin is chair] is in nine countries – thousands of stores in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand – so you get a lot of different learnings when you go into different markets and hear different ideas. The franchising system is without a doubt one of the great marketing and business success formulas in the world, taking proven ideas and implementing them.
But Hungry Jack’s stores are mostly company owned, not franchised. Why is that?
We’d like to get more expansive on the franchising side of it. But it takes a lot more money to open a Hungry Jack’s than it does a Domino’s, which appeals to the hands-on worker who can get into business for $300,000 to $400,000. The Hungry Jack’s business is an investment of a couple of million dollars so it’s a very different model.
Now you’re trying something quite different. You’re funding V2Food, which has partnered with CSIRO to create plant-based patties. Could you have imagined such a thing 10 years ago?
Ten years ago, no. There’s general awareness in the fast-food business that roughly half the population don’t eat fast food. Why? What are they looking for? We’ve tried to sell salads in our stores without any success. McDonald’s did the same. What people say they want to eat and what they do eat are often two different things. So I’m trying to figure out how you have a broader offering of items that will appeal to the greatest number of people. About three or four years ago I became aware of a particular meatless product being made by a company called Impossible Foods in America. I wrote the president a letter but I didn’t get a letter back. Nothing. But if you’re involved in an industry you have your antenna up and you hear what’s going on.
How successful do you think it will be?
Australia has good sources of grain so we think we can have a product that tastes good and is as nutritious as the existing plant meat is, at a lower price.
How much does social conscience come into it and how much is purely good business for you?
Well, you come back to this argument of seven billion people increasing to 10 billion. How are we going to feed that many people? The amount of agricultural land that’s available to produce food in the current format doesn’t work so we have to develop new ways of doing things. I don’t think the beef market is going to go away but it’s also not going to grow in volume enough to be able to solve this problem. The cow is an inefficient producer of protein. If there’s a better way by getting the protein out of vegetables and using that to put it into a product that tastes good – it has to taste good – then it may also help solve the issue of how we feed the world.
And it’s also obviously very profitable because CSIRO is projecting this industry will be worth more than $6 billion by 2030 in Australia.
Yeah but you must be competitive in price. We think the price of plant-based meat will be lower than meat and that’s where the growth will come from.
Where do you want to take V2Food?
There aren’t many companies or institutions around the world that have 2500 PhDs working for them so we think we have the people, in the development stage, to create a world-class product. The prospect of being able to produce something that can go around the world is exciting.
What do you think is your greatest strength?
When I went to university, I studied psychology. I have often said, “I can hire lawyers, I can hire accountants and I can hire people who have the skills to be able to do distinct jobs.” But the greatest ability for running any business is the people side – making sure you choose the right people and create a climate that staff can work and prosper in. I have an interest in people and why they do what they do.
What do you think is your biggest gap as a leader?
Maybe I get too much into the detail. My biggest problem is information overload, which comes back to curiosity. I take my work home at night to read and try and keep up with things. How do you manage what’s important and what’s not versus trying to sort out what the real issues are before they kill you?
Do you ever stop? Is there any such thing as work-life balance for you?
You can’t separate them. My theory is if you’re unhappy at work, you’re going to be unhappy at home and if you’re unhappy at home, you’re probably also going to be unhappy at work. You have to be able to blend the two.
Do you wind down, though?
My wife would probably describe me as a workaholic because if you can’t tell the difference between work and play, you’re in the right place. If you’re not enjoying it, have the courage to get out.
When you’ve had a significant setback, how do you bounce back?
When I was at university I was a wrestler. I was the 1964 heavyweight college champion in Canada. Competitive sport teaches you a lot about life. As a wrestler, when you’re about to be pinned onto the mat and you’re struggling and you want to give up because it’s all too hard, you just have to keep fighting. If something isn’t going well, how do you tough it out? I’m reading a book called Grit [by Angela Duckworth], which is excellent. The smartest people, the most talented, are not necessarily the most successful because somewhere along the line they get thrown off course and run onto rocks. Really successful people are those who have the courage to grit it out, tough it out and see their way through. I would be classified as a positive thinker. I look at what’s the right side rather than what’s the downside.
Has there ever been a time in your career that you’ve genuinely been scared?
Not really. You know, I’ve faced lots of challenges. I’ve had legal fights but I think I find that somewhat motivating.
You like a stoush?
Well, I don’t know whether I like a fight or not but you don’t want to give up. If you think you’re right, you need to stand up for yourself. The great majority of people cave in, whether they’re right or not. A lot of big companies attack the little guy because they know he’ll fold. But you just have to defend yourself.
Have you ever made mistakes and felt that you needed to admit those mistakes?
Sure, my wife cheers when I say I think I’m wrong [laughs]. If you don’t make mistakes, if you don’t fail, you’re not pushing the envelope. You have to take risks – but just make sure it’s not fatal. You don’t bet the farm on every roll of the dice.
What advice would you give a brand new CEO?
Be diligent – you need to have the capacity for hard work. And know that you can’t do it alone. This is a team sport, not an individual one.