From engineering major to Chipotle CEO: Brian Niccol's path to success

Brian Niccol talks to students and faculty

It’s safe to say that Brian Niccol might not be the CEO of Chipotle today if it weren’t for a certain Farmer School marketing department lecturer. Niccol said came to Miami in 1992 to get a degree in engineering management. “As part of my plan, I happened to take a marketing class and Jan Taylor taught this class. She was terrific and I thought, ‘You know what? I think this marketing thing is a lot more interesting than engineering,’” he recalled.  “So I proceeded to just keep taking electives in the business school. I took economics classes and the accounting classes and the marketing classes.”

After graduating in 1996 and working his way through several brand management positions at Procter & Gamble over the next decade, Niccol moved to Yum! Brands, where he was general manager of Pizza Hut and CEO of Taco Bell before taking the helm at Chipotle in early 2018. His arrival came on the heels of some food contamination issues that had rocked the company. “That business was in a little bit of a struggle. They had a real perception issue or a reputational issue. But I saw it as a tremendous business,” Niccol said. “You know, there aren't many businesses where you look them and say, ‘This company or this brand has a purpose.’ It was founded on this idea of food integrity and cultivating a better world.”

“This is an organization of 2,500 restaurants with 85,000 employees. So the idea of taking 85,000 employees and 2,500 restaurants and changing the conversation about Chipotle was one that I thought was just a great opportunity and would just be a blast. And it's ended up being that way,” he noted.

Niccol said fixing the contamination issue was a good lesson in learning for everyone involved.  “Sometimes it's really simple things that solve a really big problem. We now cut meat on red boards, we cut greens on green boards and those two things never cross paths,” he recalled. “I think it's important to share this with you guys because sometimes things are way over analyzed and the simplest solution is staring you right in face. The simple solution here was, ‘We need two cutting boards and we need to color code them.’”

Under Niccol, Chipotle has expanded and enhanced its digital presence, through apps, rewards programs, and social media. And while the marketing budget hasn’t really increased, Niccol said, the way Chipotle markets itself has changed.  “I think our digital business, Instagram business is way up, our Twitter is followed a lot more now. All our social media channels now are much more relevant, more engaging and it's changed the narrative dramatically,” he said. “You’ve got to have the brand show up where people are.”

As part of his Executive Speaker Series lecture, Niccol covered a variety of topics with the students attending:

  • On hiring the right people: “When I want to meet somebody, I'm wanting to figure out whether or not I believe they fit in or culture. There's plenty of smart people that we can hire, and fortunately for us at Chipotle, there are a lot of people applying. But I don't want to hire anybody that, if I'm walking down the hallway and I see somebody coming towards me and I want to duck into a conference room because, ‘Oh my God, I don't want to talk to Steve.’ If I do, we've hired the wrong guy.”
  • On that first job out of college: “I would ask a lot of questions about the culture, because you want to be in a place where you believe you would fit in from a culture standpoint and where they'll accept what your skills and capabilities are, as well as your ideas … These businesses are only as good as the people you're surrounded by.”
  • On one key to success: “Figure out what you stand for and then be uncompromising on how you execute against that. We need to be making great chicken. We need to be making the rice correctly. We need to be making the guacamole right. We need to get the chips right. If we do that every time, and we do it fast, we win.”
  • On creativity in the business world: “Don’t get me wrong, analytics are hugely important, but you need to know everybody has access to the exact same data. The trick is who synthesizes the data and figures out how to apply the insight to your business. Where are you finding insights? Where do you find inspiration? Where do you find creativity?”
  • On his favorite burrito: “White rice, barbacoa, fajita veggies, guac. I like the tabasco as well.”

In looking back on his time at Miami, Niccol said that one thing he picked up in his business classes has helped him be successful in the two decades since he left Oxford. “The thing I will tell you I learned the most of all is the idea of problem solving. The thing you need to remember in all of these classes is really what you're learning is how to connect usually disparate things to come up with a solution.”

“Because life is not linear. It never follows a perfect path. Even though it looks like something's working over here, you have to have the ability to understand what's happening over here and to figure out if this can work in my business or whatever I'm trying to accomplish,” he pointed out. “The things that I learned in my time at Oxford was through these classes, I basically learned how to be a critical thinker. I think that prepared me really well for a lot of the things that I’ve done.” And Brian Niccol has done a lot of things really well.

More photos from Brian Niccol's visit

Brian Niccol talking with students and faculty in Taylor Auditorium