Female Fast Risers - Debbie Roberts
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Female Fast Risers - Debbie Roberts

Female Fast Risers - Debbie Roberts

Name: Debbie Roberts

Brand: Panera Bread

Title: Chief Operations Officer

Age: 56

Years in franchising: 11

No. of units: 2,118 (Sept. 2020)

What attracted you to franchising? I liked the idea of identifying strong, performance-focused business leaders who could get up to speed quickly and continue to grow the business in a particular community. It was especially rewarding—even exciting—to watch their journey to success. 

What was your first job in franchising? In the accounting department at McDonald’s. However, I was first introduced to franchising when I took a role as general manager and was responsible for identifying and approving franchisees.

What do you attribute your success to? My ability to work well with franchisees in a collaborative manner by listening to their points of view, keeping my word, and being transparent. That collaboration has been grounded in a “system first” mindset that focuses on the combined success of all stakeholders.

What challenges and obstacles have you overcome in your career? My biggest career challenge was transcending the boxes that people placed me in. For example, I had an accounting degree, but in my opinion, having the degree didn’t mean I had to be an accountant. Being an accountant gave me great professional training and provided me a way of thinking that has been foundational to my career, but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. Many people discouraged me from changing my career track. They said it was risky. I knew I needed to be in the line, responsible for a P&L, and I wasn’t going to stop until I achieved that goal. 

Describe your journey to your current position. I worked as a CPA for 8 years at McDonald’s corporate before transitioning to marketing. From there I worked my way up to become a senior director. I eventually was invited to join the Accelerated Management Program and switched my career track to operations. In operations, I both worked in and managed a restaurant, which included working my way up through all the field positions that support the restaurant and our franchisees. After that, I landed a role as vice president of operations responsible for company-owned restaurants. Then I was promoted to general manager, where I was responsible for the regional P&L and overseeing multiple departments including operations, franchising, accounting, marketing, business insights, and restaurant development. After 3 years, I was promoted to senior vice president of East Division Operations. Three years later, I was promoted to zone president. In September 2020 I took on the role as COO of Panera Bread. 

What are your future career goals? My main focus for the foreseeable future is on being the best leader I can be for Panera to help us achieve our company mission and performance targets. 

Advice to young female executives in franchising: My advice to others is to never let someone put you in a box. Be a student of the business, follow your passion, and most important, never give up. As you embark on your career journey, build relationships along the way with people who can coach, develop, mentor, and cheer you on . No one ever accomplished anything without help from others!

Published: March 24th, 2021

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Franchise Update Magazine: Issue 1, 2021
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