From Africa to Asia, chocolate slabs to chicken boxes – Suhayl Limbada is the name that rings among 2023’s cohort of young and progressive global brand leaders under 45. Having tempered his teeth on confectionary retail and sales across the Middle East and Africa region, Suhayl is no stranger to the risk (and reward) that comes with leading brand innovation in lower-middle economy states and emerging markets.
Two decades on, a deep-seated knack for challenging markets, a craving for creative customer oriented ideas, and a string of brand awards to match, Suhayl makes no bones about his secret to breaking ground: it always begins with the people, he says. For Suhayl, cultivating a heart-led team culture that keeps building on its laurels, will always win the bottom line.
While seated at the helm of Thailand’s most innovative consumer brands (2022 and 2023), Suhayl maintains that freedom of expression, curiosity, diversity of skill and brand authenticity is the main ingredient to the success of any business. As KFC Thailand’s business recovers from the impact of COVID, Suhayl is bringing the heat, whilst adding a whole lot of heart to the Quick Service Business, as we know it – and the customers are coming back for more. In a recent interview with Suhayl Limbada, we chased the golden nuggets from this grounded leader – and here they are:
You’ve never been short of diverse and exciting experiences in your career–do you believe you got lucky? Tell us about the office blocks in your career.
I don’t believe in luck, I believe in the word ‘Yes’. ‘Yes’ to any opportunity, ‘Yes’ to hard work, ‘Yes’ to Getting your hands dirty, and ‘Yes to any challenge, even if it means you start out cleaning office blocks (I did that!). And, about Luck- it isn’t a strategy, it’s your ability to keep raising your hand that ultimately carves out your career experience.
I remember my very first job was cleaning office blocks in the UK – it taught me a lot on so many levels. And it is those humble beginnings that have helped me stay grounded in my career, and in my leadership. Pursuing my Masters’, I worked in various positions, because I said ‘Yes’ a lot of the time, and this included customer service jobs at various call-centers, and eventually sales.
I later moved to South Africa as part of Cadbury S.A’s first ever graduate program and I trained in both Sales & Marketing functions. My first ‘big job’ found me as Brand Manager in the Cadbury Chocolate team. I was really proud of that. From thereon, life was pretty sweet (excuse the pun), and I got to work on South Africa’s favorite Chocolate, Gum and Candy brands. I worked incredibly hard to climb in my career, I traded off a lot of my free time to keep learning, to keep growing. I eventually took the plunge and left marketing to be Country Manager/GM for the Cadbury Indian Islands business based out of Mauritius – this has been one of my greatest career experiences to date, in terms of learning the brain of a business, and getting to know the deeper truths of an island community. I loved it.
Joining the KFC business in 2015, was a significant shift for me, and I became a part of the New Africa team looking after 16 markets in Sub Saharan Africa. This broad level experience led to my promotion as Marketing Director for KFC South Africa where I was part of the incredible team that turned around the South Africa business. This led to my current role of Chief Marketing Officer in Thailand. Who knows what’s next!
Share your most memorable career highlight?
I’d have to say the KFC ‘Neymar’ 2018 World Cup campaign that went viral globally. It was a beautiful story of simply not taking no for an answer and taking a big risk that was handsomely rewarded. Everybody involved in that campaign believed deeply in the idea and I think that’s what made it special. Seeing a collective do something that scared everyone was awesome and what we learnt through this experience was that the biggest risk in business is not taking any risk.
You are exceptionally driven - what gets you up in the morning?
The mere fact that, every day, I get another shot at learning something new. I hold a deep passion for learning and generously listening. I believe we are here to share and learn from one another – no matter who you are– there is always room for more. As human beings, we’re meant to share our experiences and learn new things on the daily. This, for me, is thesource of leading an inspired life. As long as we are learning, we are growing. And this is why I love leading teams who are willing to learn, but most importantly, willing to teach me! I don’t hire smart people to teach them what to do, I hire smart people for them to teach us what to do.
What’s your leadership style?
I consider myself a heart-led leader, and I put people at the center of my daily life. People before profit, and love before legacy – this is my motivation. Nothing good ever comes at the expense of people. I am hands-off; I prefer to lead from the back, allowing my team to collaborate and innovate. I believe business will always be a cauldron where everyone has to pitch in to win. By encouraging fearless thinking, brave decision making and risk taking combined with heaps of creativity, I hope that my teams not only win but learn every step of the way.
How would you define KFC Thailand as an organization and its current position in the market?
KFC Thailand is the leading Quick Service Restaurant in Thailand. We established our first restaurant in 1984 at Central Ladprao, and since then, we have gone onto build +1000 restaurants across the entire country. Food is at the heart and soul of our business, and this, combined with an aggressive restaurant build program has resulted in us making our food as accessible as possible to as many Thai people as possible. We are the Number 1 QSR brand in Thailand (voted Most Powerful Brand of Thailand for three consecutive years), Social Media Brand of the Decade (2022), and look forward to bringing even more Finger Lickin’ Good moments to our customers for decades to come.
As the CMO, what are the latest strategic plans you have adopted to expand/optimize operations and subsequently engage customers?
KFC Thailand has been part of the fabric of Thai society for over 38 years, and we continue to embed a keen social spirit of generosity across the market. Though the brand is already rooted, we’re facing tough economic times now, and as the CMO, one of my core missions in Thailand is to elevate our brand purpose and bring to life the action of doing good across our people, our food and our planet.
Strategy doesn’t make you smart. Your People do
Strategy doesn’t make you smart. Your People do
We have a number of initiatives that we are championing to ensure that not only do we play an active role in society but that we always put purpose before profit. Our Bucket Search programme where we provide scholarships to school ‘drop outs’ or our ambitions on sustainability where we are building fully sustainable restaurants are a few examples of our commitments and we look forward to investing a lot more time, energy and resource in this space.
You’ve been globally recognized for your strategic thinking on brands - how do you accelerate brand evolution and viability, but mostly, how do you keep up with rapidly changing trends?
Brand relevance is key. We need to ensure the brand remains relevant to all aspects of Thai society. Digitizing the brand experience is an obvious one but we cannot forget the importance of elevating the restaurant experience by creating a culture where we synthesize the team member experience and the customer experience, building on the spirit of our founder, Colonel Sanders.
What are the future market opportunities that you look forward to investing in?
Investing in people at all levels. This is not just a title for me, nor just a job. It’s a life-giving experience which I take seriously; I believe I hold a great responsibility to impact the hearts, minds and lifestyles of my teams and customers, in what I do – and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to build community, the right way, for the right reasons. Investing time in increasing customer value is priority: brainstorming ways to keep the value system high inside our customer experience is huge on our list of targets this year. Investing in digital opportunities is an additional must-do, paralleled with investing in creative, lateral thinking from my team at all costs.
Suhayl Limbada, CMO, KFC Thailand
A heart led marketing leader, committed to a creative economy, customer value and the elevation of the employee experience