Frankly Speaking With Franchisees: Turning Obstacles to Opportunities

Feb 15, 2021 1:30 PM ET

Originally published by Yum!

Yum! Brands is a world-class family of restaurant brands with more than 2,000 franchisees who bring their own delicious flavors to the business and individual communities. Each one is unique and serves as the cornerstone of a new series called Frankly Speaking With Franchisees that documents their stories. Between them, they own 50,000 KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill restaurants in 150 countries and territories across the globe, making their voices integral to the company. 

For the first installment, Yum! reached out to three franchisees in the United States to get their perspectives on the race and social justice events of 2020 and entrepreneurship in underrepresented communities. Like many, they watched events unfold surrounding the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and saw the intense movement of feet, voices and action that followed. As first-generation African American business owners, they know how access to opportunity can change lives. 

Yum! hopes to provide this same type of opportunity, through the Unlocking Opportunity Initiative, which is investing $100 million dollars in education, equity and inclusion and entrepreneurship for employees, frontline restaurant teams and communities around the world over five years. It’s starting in Yum!’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, where Yum! and KFC U.S. announced they will invest $6 million in initiatives that will uplift students, educators, entrepreneurs and social change agents in underserved areas. 

All this builds on more than 20 years of investing in Yum!’s people-first culture, in which franchisee George Tinsley, Sr. has been an integral part. As the first participant in our three-part series, Tinsley embodies Yum!’s company value “Belief in All People,” having built thriving businesses from the ground up, while continually working to set up the next generation of franchisees for success.  

Here is his story.

George Tinsley, Sr., KFC U.S. 
President & CEO, PenGeo, Inc.

In the early '70s, George Tinsley, Sr. was coming off a successful career as a college athlete, in which he easily found his place among his peers, winning three NCAA Division II national titles at Kentucky Wesleyan College, and later being drafted by the American Basketball Association, for which he played with the Washington Capitals, Miami Floridians and Kentucky Colonels. But as he transitioned careers and became a training instructor at KFCC Headquarters and later, a district franchise manager for Kentucky Fried Chicken in the South Georgia and North Florida markets, he struggled to find the same kind of acceptance he once enjoyed on the court. 

One day, he found himself in South Georgia, training a team on the newest menu item: biscuits. According to Tinsley, he showed the team how to prepare them, how to mix, knead and roll the dough. But moments later, when the “big, beautiful biscuits,” emerged from the oven, only one person would try them. “The others wouldn't taste them because I'd put my hands in the dough,” he said. “Fortunately, I had the business and intellectual skills to be able to navigate and negotiate through that incident, but to say [racism] wasn't there? It was there.”   

Looking back, Tinsley says if he had lost his composure, that moment could have altered the course of his future. It could have stopped him from opening his first KFC in Auburndale, Florida, and later, in his hometown of Louisville. It could have stopped him from becoming a successful restauranteur and long-serving franchisee. “There were a lot of things that could’ve convinced me to throw in the flag, quit and walk away, but I had a goal to work towards,” he said. 

That goal was to become a franchisee and business owner. And today, Tinsley is just that, serving as President and CEO of PenGeo, Inc., with two KFCs, including one well-known to travelers at Louisville’s Muhammad Ali International Airport, as well as dozens of other quick-service and casual dining franchises across the country. 

Having experienced the sting of discrimination and the elevating support of allies like the KFC executives who helped him to secure financing for his first restaurant, Tinsley is passionate about advancing diversity at all levels, especially in positions of influence. So, he’s encouraged by programs like Yum!’s Unlocking Opportunity Initiative, which will broaden pathways for Black entrepreneurs and other underrepresented minorities and women interested in joining our brands and becoming franchisees. “These programs are ultra-important,” he said. “They're the difference in being able to have an opportunity to get into business at the franchise level.” 

Today, at 74 years old, Tinsley is still running his business with his family, writing books, mentoring employees and giving back to the community. 

“We’ve got former employees who have moved on from our family of restaurants to become lawyers, doctors, judges, nurses, schoolteachers, principals and so forth,” he said. “We work with them and encourage them to be the best they can be.” 

Although, he admits, his age and the challenges of COVID-19 have slowed him down, he’s energized by the movement he sees of people of all races, nationalities and ethnicities coming together to drive positive change for all, which he hopes will lead to greater equity for those from underrepresented groups looking to become entrepreneurs. 

“There's a lot of good, tangible stuff happening today that would have never happened five years ago,” he said. “I love our brand — where I see the commitment towards equity, diversity and inclusion at all levels. I'm optimistic, very optimistic.”

Coming soon: Part 2 of Frankly Speaking With Franchisees with Mike Quinn, Pizza Hut U.S.