The ink is not yet dry on Burger King’s plan to become a publicly traded restaurant company through a merger with shell company Justice Holdings, but one of its newest investors, hedge fund founder William Ackman, is already outlining plans to take on the burger segment’s No. 1 brand, McDonald’s.
To complete its turnaround after years of turbulent sales trends and a large going-private buyout in 2010, Burger King is planning to have nearly all restaurants franchised by the end of 2012, stress international unit growth and continue ongoing brand efforts including remodels, menu makeovers and marketing changes. All steps McDonald’s took when it began its upswing in 2004.
“McDonald’s is a great company. It’s one of the greatest stories of all time,” Ackman said in a conference call Wednesday. “But Burger King has become a very fast moving competitor. Burger King will do the same things, and do it much more rapidly.”
Ackman is a well known activist investor and the current chief executive of hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, which owns about 30 percent of Justice Holdings, which Ackman co-founded and took public in the United Kingdom in early 2011. Ackman had previously invested in — and publicly worked to take over or change management efforts at — Wendy’s and McDonald’s.
Late Tuesday, Burger King announced that it had struck a deal with Justice Holdings, which agreed to buy a 29-percent stake in the burger chain for $1.4 billion. Current BK owner 3G Capital will retain a 71-percent stake under the deal and continue to carry out its ongoing brand turnaround plan. Once merged, Justice will stop trading overseas and begin to trade on the New York Stock Exchange under Burger King Worldwide Inc.
Refranchising plans go into overdrive
Key in the chain’s turnaround is a plan to become an almost all franchised company, Ackman said.
Burger King is already 92-percent franchised, but the goal is to refranchise all but about 100 existing corporate locations around the Miami-based headquarters by the end of this year. The Burger King system includes 12,500 units globally, including 7,200 in the United States.
The company last month agreed to sell about 278 locations to its largest franchisee, Carrols Restaurant Group, which in turn has agreed to remodel 450 locations, accelerating the chain’s ongoing remodel plan.
Ackman said franchisees tend to be much better operators than corporations – which he noted has been true for McDonald’s.
“I believe a meaningful percentage of McDonald’s same-store sales growth since 2006 has been driven by the process of putting [restaurants] in the hands of franchisees,” he said.
Ackman pointed to a number of other quick-service brands that have achieved high valuations as almost all franchised companies, including Tim Hortons, Dunkin’ Donuts, Domino’s and Subway.
International growth also will be key for Burger King, which has seen better results from its restaurants overseas.
“That’s probably the most exciting part of the story,” Ackman said. “In some ways, it’s a more successful brand overseas.”
Burger King is currently operating in 80 countries with 5,300 units overseas, but Ackman said some markets have been barely penetrated.
Ackman said the company will likely do more deals like the recent joint venture with franchise partners in Brazil, in which Burger King will take a minority stake in the franchise operator.