On Oct. 6, more than 300 undergraduate and MBA students gathered to hear Todd Penegor, president and CEO of Wendy’s, speak as the executive guest at the 2022 Sylvan T. Warrington Visiting Lectureship in Ethics and Leadership. Through the event, esteemed Broad College alumni lend their experiences to the conversation and share advice for tomorrow’s business leaders.
Penegor — a two-time Broad College graduate — joined Interim Dean Judith Whipple in a “fireside chat” to discuss topics including his personal leadership style, how he and his team are driving growth at Wendy’s and his candid advice for emerging business leaders.
When Penegor reminisced on his time at Broad College, earning a B.A. in Accounting in 1987 and an MBA in 1989, teamwork was something that resonated with him throughout his undergraduate and graduate studies.
“You want to have an all-star team, not just a collection of all-stars,” he said. “This is why I pride myself so much on all the group work we did here at Michigan State — you had to work as a team, you had to get the best out of everybody. You have that strong work ethic, but ultimately a lot of pride and passion for what you’ve done.”
Penegor has an unwavering commitment to the college, remaining involved in many ways over the years and currently serving as president of the Advisory Board. In this role he continues to expand this teamwork foundation, leading a group of accomplished alumni who dedicate their time, expertise, leadership and financial support to their alma mater.
Beyond the banks of the Red Cedar, teamwork and collaboration have been pivotal for Penegor in leading Wendy’s growth across all facets of the business. He said he values the insights he gains from interacting with team members, whether at restaurant locations or the company’s headquarters. This approach allows Penegor to empathize and take note of their insights as feedback on how to continuously improve Wendy’s operations.
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When curating a business strategy, Penegor ensures not only that it’s embedded in the company’s values but also that it resonates across all the people to bring the strategy to life.
“Dave Thomas [the founder of Wendy’s] left us with some unbelievably strong values: treat people with respect, do the right thing, profit means growth,” Penegor shared. “Our franchise system knows the values, our people know the values, our general managers work hard to deliver on those values every single day. It’s that common thread that defines our culture, and it’s very much a family feel.”
This values-based approach ensures that Wendy’s employees are empowered to arrive every day ready to be their very best and tackle new challenges.
“We’re OK if people fail,” Penegor said. “Failure is a great opportunity to learn along the way. We have a lot of talented folks, and when you get cross-functional teams working together ideating, putting down all the ideas on the table, special things happen. I’m blessed. You got to have the courage to surround yourself with folks a lot smarter than you.”
Throughout the discussion, Penegor enjoyed using relatable sports analogies to articulate how his servant leadership style supports the business strategy at Wendy’s.
“I work hard to make sure my team not only has the resources available to them, but any barriers that they have, I work to help break those barriers down so they can be successful,” he said of his responsibilities at Wendy’s. “We work hard to ensure our strategy is very clear and our higher purpose is to create joy and opportunity through our food, family and community.”
Wendy’s culture is something Penegor is very proud of. “‘Quality is our recipe’ is not just about food. It’s everything we do and the communities that we serve.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Penegor has worked to maintain the culture and focus on people’s needs. Employees at Wendy’s headquarters are given the autonomy to manage their own work-life balance, which has benefited productivity rates and helped attract and retain talent. He has also built a strong collaborative partnership with the franchise community that only grew stronger throughout the pandemic.
“We quickly put together a financial relief package for our franchise community,” he said. “We were deemed an essential business, and that was hugely important to our franchisees and our communities. We encouraged our franchisees to really celebrate all the team members who worked day in and day out to feed customers. It built a sense of pride and culture during a very difficult time. This was our opportunity to prove we had our franchisees’ backs, and because we had their backs during such a difficult time, our relationships are stronger.
“We spend more time with our work families than our real families,” he continued, “so we better have a lot of love and a lot of care for each other, like a family would.”
Creating a culture that people want to be part of is just one element of Wendy’s corporate responsibility platform, which has been branded “Good Done Right.” The campaign also encompasses focus areas of food and footprint, which strive to responsibly source food, to benchmark, track and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to increase sustainable packaging. Penegor mentioned how Wendy’s has made a commitment to provide 100% sustainably sourced packaging by 2026.
The Warrington Lecture is designed to not only cover critical business topics in an open discussion but also allow students to engage with the guest speaker. Penegor shared advice with the eager students and answered questions from the audience about leadership resilience, networking, how they can optimize their time at Broad College and more.
“You learn more in those challenging times than you ever do during good times. Never forget that,” he shared. “The most challenging of times, you’re going to learn more about who you are, what your team can do, what your capability is, than any great five-year run that you have, so embrace it when you have those times.”
One of Penegor’s biggest pieces of advice was to take advantage of opportunities to meet new people and network.
“You never know where [the people you meet will] end up, and maybe you’ll have the opportunity to work with those folks in the future. Connect with faculty and build resources that will last a lifetime.”
He added, “Folks that have taken the initiative to connect, it means a lot. The way I look at it, somebody had the courage to look me up, actually send me a note and ask for my time. That’s pretty special.”
To hear more from Penegor, watch the full recording of the 2022 Warrington Lecture: