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Burger King

Leader of global fast-food corporation comes from Utah roots

They called him "King George."

Robert Nilsen's sisters laugh when they talk about the little boy they knew — the rambunctious, determined boy who grew from Utah roots to lead some of the world's biggest, most visible companies.

"He has always been very driven," said Nilsen's sister, Diane Knorr. "We called him King George from the time he was about 3 years old. We've been grooming him for a lifetime!"

Nilsen, 43, last month was named president of Burger King, a global corporation with more than 11,400 restaurants and 340,000 employees. A graduate of Highland High School, the University of Utah and Harvard University, Nilsen most recently led "turnaround teams" for Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut (the trio operates under the Yum Brands umbrella).

At a time when Burger King's throne is threatened by myriad regional and national fast food restaurants and the growing popularity of "casual dining" establishments, someone with Nilsen's experience and passion should be warmly welcomed, according to Jerry McVety.

"The industry has become more competitive," said McVety, president of McVety & Associates, a food service consultancy based in Farmington Hills, Mich. "It isn't just competitive among the 'burger boys' — Burger King, McDonald's and Wendy's. It's all the other competitors out there.

"When the economy was good, there was a switch in the marketplace. Many people who frequented quick-serve restaurants tried the next level: casual dining. They found that for a few dollars more, they could sit down and be served."

That competition, combined with operations and leadership lapses, declining customer service levels and franchisee bankruptcies, meant that Burger King was in trouble. Enter Nilsen.

"Unfortunately, there are several major chains that need to be turned around, and Burger King is one of them," McVety said. "Given his (Nilsen's) background, he sounds like an obvious fit. He's not coming from the widget business, trying to turn around a food business."

During Nilsen's tenure as chief operating officer of Taco Bell, the company moved from 14th place to third place in QSR (quick serve restaurant) drive-through quality ratings and saw dramatic improvements in sales and operations results. He helped facilitate similar improvements for KFC and Pizza Hut in Australia and New Zealand, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Now, Burger King hopes he'll do the same for the Whopper, and Nilsen seems more than happy to oblige.

"It's a great brand," he said, the words spilling out faster and faster as he talked about BK's turnaround potential. "There's a new group of owners in place. There's a new ownership structure, with tremendous opportunities for growth.

"We're focusing on bringing back to life some of the really great brand attributes that are already associated with Burger King, like food cooked over an open fire. We're going to expand the menu. We're going to focus heavily on restaurant operations, to ensure that the millions of people who come to us each week have a great experience. There are a lot of things that we can do, and we're confident that as we work with our franchisees and team members, we'll establish a new level of partnership and teamwork to really be able to move this thing forward."

He has all the tools to make it happen, said BK vice president of corporate communications, Rob Doughty.

"He knows and understands quick-serve operations, and he also has extensive international business experience," Doughty said. "He has a proven track record of strengthening business performance. So, though his learning curve has been steep, he has been able to grasp how our restaurants operate very quickly. All we had to do was teach him to make a Whopper, and he was ready."

He's been ready for a long time, said Nilsen's father, Frank Nilsen.

"He was always a leader," the elder Nilsen said. "Whatever task he decided on, he was always a winner. He didn't take a lot of crap, and he didn't give a lot of crap. What you heard from Bob, that was the way it was.

"All his life, he never tried to fool anyone. He doesn't walk on water or anything, but I will say that it has been one of the joys of my life to follow his career."

There was an uncharacteristic pause as Frank Nilsen gathered his thoughts. Then, leaning in with a soft smile and a twinkle of pride in his eye, he said, "The biggest thing, though, is that his family remains his biggest priority. I like to think I taught him that."

Work has taken Nilsen, his wife, Kathleen, and their five children to four continents in 13 years. This month, they packed up another house (this one in California) to move closer to Burger King's headquarters in Miami.

"I love challenges," Nilsen said via cell phone, the soprano voices of his children ringing in the background. "My wife is very adventurous. Together with our kids (ages 12, 11, 8, 5 and 2), we've been given some fun and unique opportunities. We would never have been able to do these things without her support and her love. We've made the decisions to do these things together, and have tried wherever we've gone to give it our best shot."

But no matter where the new job takes them, Nilsen said his roots — in life and in work — lead back to Utah.

"I loved growing up in Utah," Nilsen said. "I loved the outdoors. I loved the University of Utah. I had my first job washing dishes at a local restaurant in Salt Lake and worked for years at Log Haven Restaurant busing tables and waiting tables. That's where I gained my love of restaurants, and the teamwork that you build.

"At a good restaurant, there's a feeling almost of family. I can remember to this day the great people I worked with at Log Haven. That's where the food business got into my blood."


E-mail: jnii@desnews.com