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Sweet success for Cinnabon's 35-year-old president | Business

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Sweet success for Cinnabon's 35-year-old president
Sweet success for Cinnabon's 35-year-old president

SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. -- At Cinnabon's headquarters, there's a constant stream of samples from research and development. While many taste buds are considered, one young lady in particular must sample the sweets.

That's 35-year-old Kat Cole, Cinnabon's president. When she assumed the role, Kat says she wasn't nervous.

"It was exciting," Cole said. "I had given so much of my time learning the industry and being a student of the industry."

The eldest daughter of three girls raised by a single mom, Kat started working as soon as she could.

"If you wanted something, you went and got a job," she explained.

Her first job was in retail in the mall, then she was recruited to join the Hooters team., first as a hostess, then a waitress when she was old enough. Kat says she was always open to opportunities.

"When the cooks quit one day, I hopped back in the kitchen and learned how to fry chicken wings and make burgers, and when the managers quite one day I learned how to help run shifts," she said.

When describing her drive, she said she worked morning, noon and night.

"It was this mixture of being really eager to help and incredibly curious about learning every little piece of the job," she said.

While customers may have noticed her short orange shorts, management noticed how dedicated the Jacksonville, Fla., teenager was.

At age 19, she was asked to open restaurants overseas.

"I had never been on a plane. I didn't have a passport," she said. But she quickly got that passport and her first assignment was in Sydney, Australia.

By this point, Cole was enrolled in classes at the University of North Florida, but found it was tough to juggle classes and international travel. So she dropped out.

Her strategy was to save enough money for college and eventually go to law school. But her 20's brought promotion after promotion at Hooters' headquarters in Atlanta. Her highest position was vice president.

"I have been asked for so long, not only how long I dealt with working at Hooters, but how now I can even reconcile that I do so much work to advocate for women in business and yet I worked in this concept that was known for socially acceptable female sex appeal and was even criticized for exploiting women," she said.

Kat is passionate when she explains how grateful she is for her career at Hooters.

"My story was not unique in that company at all," she said. "So many people have given me a shot. And so I've lived in fear of letting people down because I know I've been given chances."

Her next chance came in 2010 from the leaders of Atlanta-based Focus Brands, the parent company of Cinnabon, Moe's Southwest Grill and Auntie Anne's. She moved over to Cinnabon and became chief operating officer, then president just a few months later at the age of 32. Her age is an obvious conversation point.

"It's pretty easy, in my mind, to be running a company or a division at my age when you started so young," she said. "Occasionally, of course, I would be a fool to not think there's someone in a board room thinking 'What is she doing here' or 'She's so young, how did she get here' or 'She's not ready for this opportunity'."

Kat says she always over-prepared and says she got to work early, stayed late and worked harder to get the job done.

Her job now is to continue expansion with what she calls Cinnabon's "disturbingly delicious treats."

Those treats aren't ideal if you're watching your weight. The biggest Cinnabon is 880 calories, while the bites are 90 calories.

"We're not a health food, clearly," she said. "We're a treat and if you believe people want to treat themselves, and I do, and if you believe they're going to want to do that with sweet treats, and I do, then there's a place in the world for indulgent companies."

Already in malls, airports, casinos, the grocery aisle and 56 countries, Cinnabon's target is to be a billion dollar consumer brand by the end of 2013.

Away from her corner office, Kat is also busy with non-profit work in Rwanda and Ethopia.

"It humbles me, it inspires me," she said about the perspective she gained from international philanthropy.

She also mentors young women. After all, Kat knows how critical support has been to her own sweet success.

"There were times when I was young, moving up in restaurants, and some people that treated me like I could be the president of a company someday and some people didn't," she said. "I think it is so important for every human to realize that every person they come into contact with has some potential greatness and if you treat people that way and look at them through that lens, it is much more likely that it will become true."

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