Chipotle Names a New CEO. Here's What to Watch For

Steve Ells, founder, chairman, and CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, is seen in this undate photo released from Chipotle Mexican Grill in Denver, Colorado, U.S. on October 24, 2017. Courtesy of Chipotle Mexican Grill/Reuters

Chipotle, the popular fast casual food chain, named a new CEO late yesterday. Brian Niccol, CEO of Taco Bell, replaces Chipotle founder Steve Ells, who becomes the company’s executive chairman. Wall Street applauded the news; Chipotle’s slumping stock price shot up by as much as 12% in after-hours trading.

Don’t let the Mexi-inspired commonalities fool you—Ells and Niccol couldn’t be more different. Ells, 51, is the exacting chef-turned-entrepreneur-turned-executive who founded Chipotle in 1993. Nicole, 43, is a corporate fixture who spent a decade managing brands at P&G before six years at Pizza Hut and seven at Taco Bell, two as its CEO. One man brought forth a fast-casual revolution; another crafted a quick-service evolution.

But evolution is exactly what Chipotle needs right now. The chain’s scale—it now has more than 2,400 locations—long ago outran Ells, leading to 2015 and 2017 food safety scares that sullied the brand’s reputation for quality among consumers. Tapping Niccol, who presided over some 7,000 Taco Bell locations and repositioned the brand as a lifestyle choice, is the jolt of operational experience Chipotle needs.

Will Ells give Niccol enough room to revive the burrito purveyor? If he’s a student of business history, he will—founder-CEOs are rare for good reason. Because the only thing worse than a stomach bug that won’t quit is an executive that does the same.

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