Natalie Brennan General Manager Muffin Break is a retail franchising expert, who has experienced the growth and changes in the sector’s business model since her first Maccas job at age 15. Initially completing a Teaching Degree, her career trajectory grew through operational training roles. Completing a commerce degree further reinforced Natalie’s passion for HR Management.
She currently holds the executive role of General Manager Muffin Break, leading a number of departments including Franchisee Training, Accreditation, Customer Satisfaction, Retail Training Facility, National Contracts for procurement of the brands, Human Resources & Industrial Relations and Project Management of joint ventures and acquisitions. Natalie’s industry thought leadership was recognised when she was named 2016 NSW/ACT Franchise Woman of the Year by the Franchise Council of Australia.
Natalie also volunteers as a peer mentor through JDRF Australia, contacting parents of young children newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, to assist them with any questions they have in relation to coping with T1D.
You were named 2016 NSW/ACT Franchise Woman of the Year by the Franchise Council of Australia. What are the ingredients for success in the world of franchising?
The franchising industry is unique with success being dependent on each party establishing common goals. Often these goals can be in conflict, where a franchise partner has a goal to only want to be in business for 2-3 years to maximise their profit potential and then, sell their business. The franchisor, or brand builder, looks to build the brand for long-term growth.
The key is in the strength of the relationships built between both parties. The ingredients for success must reflect open and transparent communication, mutual respect and common goals. The more time invested in this relationship, the more likely that there will be mutual success.
You’ve been involved in franchising since your first part-time job at age 15. How has the industry changed over this period, and what are the future trends affecting retail?
Similarly, to all industries, technology has created the greatest change. When I started with McDonalds at age 15, I was tested for mathematics skills prior to employment because the registers didn’t add up the items. I was given a notepad and a price list for multiples of popular menu items. I wrote the order on the notepad, did the math then entered the total bill amount into the register. Then I calculated the correct change mentally and counted it back to the customer. Something our modern-day cashiers seem incapable of doing. Rosters and payroll were also a manual process.
One job I had was to “balance” the hours for 150 staff. It took eight hours to complete this with a calculator. The fax machine changed the way we sent orders to suppliers, the computer changed the way we recorded sales and ultimately, analysed sales. And then Smart phones disrupted the way consumers communicate with us. They have changed the way customers can order our products and in turn, we can predict what they want in real time through analytics now available with these hand-held devices.
Specifically, in franchising, as a franchisor we invest more resources into building our technology for the business than ever before, ensuring we provide best of breed systems for our franchisees. Our IT department has expanded along with our Marketing team, housing specialists in Digital marketing – a job I could not have even dreamt of when I went to school.
What we believe will be the next trend affecting retail is how AI (artificial intelligence) integrates into daily transactions, with e-bots, robots and drones being an integral part of our day to day retail transactions.
Tell us about some of the innovative programs you have spear headed at Muffin Break to improve customer experience?
Capturing customer preferences to improve their experience has been critical in the current retail environment. Technology again, has assisted us to analyse how we adjust our strategy or offering in enhancing the customer’s experience.
Data collection was the key to this. Improving and enhancing the customer’s experience is critical to keeping customers engaged with the brand, with continued loyalty. A number of years ago, we started capturing data from handfuls of sources such as customer comment cards, phone feedback and the traditional mystery shopping programs. The Customer Satisfaction department was born to manage the feedback, analyse it and strategise with broader teams to create programs of innovation and operational excellence. This has enabled us to change, modify and grow into a very different Muffin Break than the one that started 29 years ago.
One example of innovation is our Gluten Free range. We were first to market with a product that was created to meet our customer’s needs. They asked for it and we listened. Equally, we listened to our customers about their milk preferences and the extra charge associated. Again, Muffin Break was first to market launching a national policy, “No Charge for Soy”. We provide the best barista-specific soy milk to add their coffee and at no extra charge.
The next phase to enhance the customer experience sees Muffin Break currently in the process of rolling out a nationally live feedback portal. Our customers are providing feedback in real time, giving us the opportunity to respond instantly and remedy any less than positive feedback. Having trialled the program to a third of our network, feedback we’ve received has more than tripled. We have this great opportunity to be even more nimble with meeting our customer’s needs.
You led training for over 3000 catering staff for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. How did this experience influence your leadership approach?
The greatest leadership lesson learnt – one can’t do everything on their own. It was impossible to train 3000 staff (although, I think I did give it a good go). As a leader, my role was to ensure that line managers were well equipped with the resources to train quickly and efficiently, especially in a workforce that was generally unskilled, being their first job. Once the games began, it was a matter of moving into a support role for the supervisors on the ground. Establish the strategy, ensure they’re sufficiently resourced and trust your people to do their best work.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Working in the franchising sector hasn’t presented me with specific challenges. Rather, being a working woman has. In my career, I have had to overcome industry stereotypes. In the early years of my career, I was terminated after being propositioned by my superior (and refusing his advances), slapped in the face by a peer manager at a function when he was drunk and generally treated as though there was an inevitable end to my career with marriage and a baby. I was determined to educate myself and purposefully set out to position myself in a company, where I could influence management and ensure this no longer was an experience for other women.
Regarding career and motherhood, traditional expectations dictate that women have to choose, but I’ve proven that it is possible to juggle both career and family and continue to meet the demands of work. As well as raising a well-adjusted happy children.
I have never worked for a female. My entire career I have always worked for male bosses and this has influenced a conscious decision to make my journey about paving the way for other women to keep rising up the ranks. Thankfully, this is changing.
What are you most proud of?
Besides being a mum to my twin boys (my greatest achievement), professionally, it’s been the ability to create a working environment that allows flexibility; for women and men, but particularly having choices for women. When I first joined Muffin Break, in my first year there was a person in the Accounts department who fell pregnant, and once she went on maternity leave she never came back because we didn’t have any workable arrangements. I knew that if I was going to have children and continue to work, then I needed to create that environment within my own team. So, I did.
I now have staff working remotely (one manager even in another country). They work part-time, on timesheet and full-time. We manage using the technology of online meetings. Staff now have babies, take leave, return to work and repeat the cycle for their second child. It means we don’t lose valuable skills and also means that women in particular don’t lose the “place” in their career and then have to either give it up or start again.
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
“Good” girls don’t get the corner office.
Even I have suffered from the syndrome of wanting to be the good girl – wanting to be liked, popular and not create waves in an organisation. I haven’t asked for pay rises or for promotions. And guess what, when I didn’t ask, I didn’t receive. No magic fairy waved her wand and gave me what I deserved just because I was a good girl.
Society taught me from a young age, that if I was a good girl, I would get rewarded for that. Rubbish! What I’ve learnt is to ask and ask repeatedly. Sometimes that can be uncomfortable and confronting, but if you don’t, you won’t be challenged to grow and develop. And you know what, I have the only corner office in the building!
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