The Burger King

The Burger King

José Cil brings a collaborative touch to running a 27,000-restaurant empire.
By Aisha Labi L’96
José Cil L’94, who steered Restaurant Brands International through the pandemic, was recently named Restaurant Leader of the Year.
Photos: Sonya Revell
In 2003, José Cil L’94 was at a professional turning point. He had made a major career shift and was manning the Whopper® station at a Miami Burger King. As he struggled to master the intricacies of assembling the flame-grilled beef patties and their crucial toppings under the watchful eye of a trainer, he saw a vaguely familiar figure enter the restaurant.
Staying focused on his task, he cast a few surreptitious looks and realized that it was a friend of his youngest sister. Another glance yielded eye contact and full mutual recognition. “Not long after that, my Blackberry started ringing off the hook,” he recalls, but the demands of the Whopper® station during the lunchtime rush prevented him from answering. When he finally returned the missed calls, his sister, who had understood him to be an up-and-coming corporate lawyer, came straight to the point. “Did you get fired?”

No, Cil had not been fired from the legal team at Burger King Corp., which shortly before had been acquired by a private equity consortium. Rather, he had decided to stop practicing law to work on the company’s operations side. He had kept the move quiet, confiding in only a few people, including his father. The elder Cil, who died in 2016, had been in the restaurant business, rising from an hourly job to become a district manager for Lum’s, a once-ubiquitous Miami-based casual dining chain. He knew the grueling hours and unflagging commitment the work required and his reaction to his son’s news that he was leaving the security of practicing law and following him into the business of running restaurants was blunt: “Are you crazy?”

Cil’s decision proved career transforming. He moved steadily up the business-side ranks, with a brief detour to Walmart, and in 2019 was named CEO of Restaurant Brands International (RBI), the parent company of Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons. His current role, at the helm of a company that includes more than 27,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries, would seem to have little in common with that Miami Whopper® station, but Cil brings the same ethos of camaraderie and collaboration to running a vast conglomerate that he has applied through his life and career. “I thoroughly enjoy being with people, not just socially, but also trying to solve problems and come up with a game plan to improve or tackle what’s in front of us,” he says.


he past year

has served up plenty for Cil and his team to tackle. The global pandemic upended dining patterns, virtually eliminating in-restaurant service, shuttering outlets in venues such as airports and travel plazas and wiping out the reliable traffic of millions of office workers. As government officials calibrated their responses to the growing public health crisis, Cil and his counterparts worked to ensure that policy makers understood that theirs was an essential industry. “We explained that if you cut restaurants off completely, Americans won’t be able to eat.”

RBI already had a strong drive-thru business in place in the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe and has relied on that, as well as enhanced digital and delivery options, to meet demand. In some ways, the pandemic simply accelerated trends that were already underway, such as an increase in delivery and drive-thru, and technological shifts such as growing reliance on apps to pre-order and pay. But the pandemic also caused the company and its franchisees to pause on capital investments as they worked from the depths of the lockdowns and quarantines. This delayed ambitious international expansion plans in 2020, and the company has outlined a path back to growth in 2021 and beyond as a main driver of future development.

At the peak of the pandemic, nearly 6,000 of RBI’s 27,000+ restaurants were closed. Some 95 percent of the company’s outlets have now reopened, business is rebounding, and the most recent quarterly figures largely show a return to pre-COVID form. Burger King’s first-quarter sales this year were up, representing a return to 2019 levels. Tim Hortons has struggled in Canada, however, where the lockdown has been more restrictive than in the US, impacting its dominant breakfast business, and sales growth figures for the most recent quarter were down 14 percent compared to 2019. In contrast, Popeyes has enjoyed a stellar run, with growth up 30 percent from 2019, driven by its dominance in the hotly contested chicken sandwich category. Popeyes performance and RBI’s growing international strength propelled Cil to the recent accolade of Restaurant Leader of the Year, awarded by Restaurant Business magazine in recognition of an industry leader’s performance over the past year.

As if a global pandemic that has disrupted normal dining routines isn’t enough of a challenge, the burger business is facing important changes in consumer behaviors. Plant-based alternatives to meat have become mainstream and beef consumption is increasingly challenged by critics as an unhealthy food choice whose production is environmentally destructive. The burger behemoth has worked on a number of initiatives, including one with scientists to develop a bovine diet that potentially reduces the production of cattle-based methane emissions, a climate-altering greenhouse gas. Consisting primarily of dried lemongrass, the formula is a scalable solution that continues to be tested across the supply chain globally with the aim to help develop concrete actions on climate change. Cil says feedback from researchers in Mexico and Austria has been positive.

The expertise Cil has acquired in the chemical basis of bovine burping offers insight into the far-reaching scope of his portfolio. RBI is a mammoth operation, with 5,200 employees, including 1,400 corporate employees in its restaurant support centers and serving franchisees from the field. The franchises, which are independently owned, employ an additional 500,000 people. Cil likens his job to being the managing partner of a large law firm whose task is to focus on how best to run the enterprise and shape its long-term future while the lawyers engage in the daily practice of the law through their individual cases and deals, but who is also called upon to weigh in on thorny issues and arbitrate internal disputes among “partners” as needed.

Cil normally divides his time between Miami and RBI’s Toronto headquarters. He spends roughly two days of every week working with the leaders of RBI’s three brands and even with top franchisees to address their current business demands and support functions, such as operations, digital and supply chain. He holds a monthly meeting with the business teams from each brand during which they assess the landscape and discuss future plans. After each of these preview meetings his own RBI leadership team will in turn dissect the takeaways and work on executing the plans.

A day or so each week is devoted to governance issues, such as dealing with the company’s board, investors, and analysts, as well as external relations. He allocates another chunk of time to thinking about the future, including hiring for key positions and growth and new business possibilities. RBI’s strategy hinges on international expansion and Cil sits on the boards of two of the joint ventures the company has entered into for spearheading international growth, one focused on the Iberian Peninsula and the other on China.

Cil cites advice he received when he became CEO from Daniel Schwartz, former Burger King Corp. and RBI CEO and now Co-Chairman of the board. “You’re so accustomed to running the business and having your hands in everything and you can’t do that anymore and you shouldn’t do that anymore,” Schwartz counseled. “You’re going to come to a moment where you’re going to say, ‘I don’t have any task to do,’ and it’s going to feel strange. That’s a good thing.” Cil says the role is all about leading people and thinking big, not managing tasks.

For that weekly day or so of what he calls his “free agent” time, during which he can pivot to whatever issue demands his attention or strikes his fancy, “ideally I think about where we’d like to be in five years,” Cil says. “But sometimes you’ve got to go clean up in aisle six.”

José Cil leaning up against a wall


il’s parents

were Cuban émigrés who fled to Miami with their families as children and he grew up steeped in Cuban culture. His parents divorced when Cil was 11 and he recalls his father picking him up on weekends and taking him along to the restaurants he oversaw. “He’d leave me there with the management while he took care of things and I had a chance to see the environment,” Cil says. “I talked to the waitresses, the line cook. I had a great time. It felt like a family, a team.”

Cil’s mother, Marta, is a lifelong educator and former school principal who instilled in him and his sisters a deep appreciation of the importance of education and hard work. Although retired, she continues to teach master’s degree students at the university level.

Cil quarterbacked for the varsity football team at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, which was founded in Havana in 1854 and reestablished in Miami in 1961 by priests who had fled the communist regime. He was also active in student government and a Catholic campus ministry group. The school’s president, Father Guillermo “Willie” Garcia-Tuñon, has been a close friend since they were in ninth grade and Cil has sought his counsel for major decisions, such as uprooting his family to move to Europe. Father Willie also seeks Cil’s input. “We’re each other’s mutual confidantes,” he says.

Cil began his undergraduate studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, but for the Florida native the weather was a deal-breaker and after a year he transferred to Tulane. He contemplated a career in communications, but an internship at the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Orleans altered his trajectory. “I loved it, I loved the energy,” he recalls. Newly focused on law, he worked as a messenger at Holland & Knight’s Miami office every vacation until he graduated. A key mentor there, J. Raul Cosio L’85, “was a kind of Pied Piper down here in Miami for Penn Law,” Cil says, and steered him toward the law school.

“I had been a messenger as well and José was somebody who stood out. He’s just a funny, witty, smart guy and we hit it off,” says Cosio. “I started talking to him about Penn Law very early on and he was super smart and got into a whole bunch of different schools, but there was no way I wasn’t going to convince him to go to Penn Law.” Cil’s son José has in turn followed his path to Penn and is a member of the undergraduate class of 2023.

Even in the sometimes competitive atmosphere of law school, Cil’s enduring memories of Penn are of collaboration. “Prepping for classes and exams, it was very much a team approach,” he says. “A lot of people do it individually, but for me, studying together in groups and having the back and forth in preparation for exams was always enjoyable and, in addition to the social aspects, was what I enjoyed most about being in law school.” During his first summer internship he met his wife, Annie, a fellow lawyer who is also a Miami native of Cuban origin. During his second, he secured an offer from Holland & Knight, where he started as an associate after graduating.

His practice area was mostly in bankruptcy and commercial litigation. Although he enjoyed aspects of the practice, such as the expertise it required in bankruptcy code, the inherently adversarial nature of litigation held little appeal and he became increasingly restless. “I did not see myself being a partner and being satisfied with that,” he says. By then, he and Annie had a young daughter, Nicole, and the long hours were taking a toll on his family life.

A weekend religious retreat in early 2000 spurred him to action. “When I came back, I was convinced that I had to do something different,” he says. Days later, Annie happened to see a legal job listing for a corporate lawyer with patent, trademark and supply chain experience at Burger King. Cil possessed none of these qualifications. He reached out to Jill Granat, now RBI’s General Counsel and at the time a Burger King real estate lawyer whom he knew from the local bar association’s young lawyers’ group. She cautioned that he didn’t have the necessary experience but agreed to mention him to the hiring manager. “He said, ‘Just get me in the door, and I’ll do the rest.’”

Elsie Romero, until recently General Counsel and Chief Administrative Officer at Restaurant Services, Inc. (Burger King’s purchasing co-op), was the hiring attorney. “He wrote a phenomenal cover letter and I remember very clearly writing on it: ‘great writer, but he is a litigator,’ because he was a bankruptcy lawyer by training,” she says. Cil made a compelling case for why he wanted a transactional job in a company like Burger King. He was also candid about his career ambitions. “He had so much charisma and from day one, from our first conversation, he said to me that he had a dream or goal of eventually moving into the business side.”


hen Cil came on board,

the Miami-based company was owned by Diageo, a British beverage giant that planned to spin it off. As he helped prepare for that transaction, Cil became familiar with all aspects of Burger King’s operations. “It was a very fragmented, and somewhat broken business,” he recalls. As the lawyer tasked with sorting those fragments, which included franchise and real estate agreements, aspects of HR, finance, and supply chain dynamics, Cil developed a unique skill set. “Putting all the pieces together and then being able to articulate to the buyers who was who and how all these seemingly distinct pieces worked together–no one knew how that worked, so it was on me to figure out.”

He had so much charisma and from day one, from our first conversation, he said to me that he had a dream or goal of eventually moving into the business side.
Elsie Romero
former General Counsel and
Chief Administrative Officer at RBI
The company was acquired in 2002 by a private equity group and Jim Hyatt, a veteran Burger King franchisee, was among the new hires brought in to overhaul the company and prepare it for going public. Hyatt, who is now CEO of California Pizza Kitchen, oversaw operations and soon spotted Cil’s potential. “If you ever think about coming to the business side and taking a sabbatical, I’d be happy to support you,” Hyatt told him. “If you don’t like it, you could always go back.” A week later, Cil told Hyatt he was ready for a change. He insisted on learning all aspects of how the restaurants functioned, including prepping Whopper® sandwiches and running shifts. After six months, Hyatt pulled him back into the business side.

Cil’s first assignment as Director of Operations Services and Programs was to raise cleanliness standards across the company’s restaurants. “It sounds simple, but it was a big deal,” Hyatt says. In the pre-COVID era, handwashing and hygiene were not yet a universal priority, and Hyatt chuckles at the incongruity of assigning his “legal beagle” to the “clean-and-safe platform.” Cil embraced the challenge and, what’s more, had fun with it. Attendees at that summer’s global convention of franchisees, Cil’s introduction to this crucial constituency, still recall his entry on stage to the strains of the ’80s Men Without Hats hit “Safety Dance,” with mops and buckets as props. The approach succeeded, injecting levity into a serious topic. “He nailed it and he had fun with it,” says Hyatt.

Developing a rapport with the franchisees was essential to Cil’s success, says Hyatt. “A lot of executives in the restaurant space look at franchisees as noisy and problematic, and Burger King was historically a turbulent franchise community.” In Hyatt’s 35 years with the company, it cycled through 21 different CEOs, while McDonald’s had three over the same period. Franchisees were wary of new corporate initiatives and the relationship was sometimes contentious. “Remember, franchisees are investing money into all these restaurants and they don’t want somebody 18 months from now telling them to now paint their buildings purple when they just got done painting them blue,” Hyatt explains. Cil’s personal skills helped bridge the divide. “He has this influencing ability,” says Hyatt. “He thinks more about who he’s talking to than what he’s talking about.”

Even as the focus of his work shifted to the operations side of the business, Cil’s appreciation of the tools his legal training had given him deepened. “I started to realize the value of the education that I had at Penn Law and how it applied broadly to business,” he says. The law school maxim of breaking down a problem through the acronym IRAC — issue, rule, analysis, and conclusion — applied equally well in the business context as an effective way of approaching problems, “which is essentially what you do in business every day,” he says.

Cil spent three years in Madrid covering the company’s 800 restaurants in southern Europe and the Middle East, then returned to an operations role in the US. By the end of 2009, however, he was becoming frustrated, as a succession of leadership jobs went to outside hires. He decamped to Walmart, but 11 months later was hired back to the Burger King brand. The company had been acquired by a 3G Capital-led private equity fund, and the new owners tapped Cil to head the Europe, Middle East and Africa operations. In four years based in Switzerland he oversaw the fastest growing and highly profitable portion of the company, which in 2014 merged with Tim Hortons Inc. to become RBI. He was promoted to Global President of the Burger King brand in 2014 and in his four years in the position the brand had its best growth results ever. In 2017 RBI acquired Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc. and in 2019 Cil was named CEO of RBI.

The multinational giant that Cil now leads is a very different entity from the Miami-based burger chain he joined in 2000. Each of the companies in RBI’s portfolio has a unique history and culture and faces singular challenges. Changing consumer preferences pose daunting hurdles for fast-food purveyors. “There is a move toward people wanting to have a healthy alternative,” Cil concedes. “But even more important than that, people want to know what they’re eating. If they want to indulge, that’s their choice, but they want to make sure that they’re having the best quality they can have for that choice.” By focusing on quality ingredients, freshness, and provenance, the company aims to keep pace with evolving tastes. Burger King’s plant-based Impossible Whopper® has been a hit — Cil has it a few times a week, plain, with mustard — but the all-beef Whopper® retains its preeminence. (Cil’s preference: all the toppings, hold the onions.)

For Cil, the key to how effectively the company negotiates the changing landscape is a simple matter. “People are what will drive the business forward,” he says. “Yes, we have competition. Yes, technology is changing the way consumers engage with brands. Yes, COVID had an impact in changing the behaviors of consumers. But the reality is that how you become a leader and how you grow is a function of the quality and the talent of the team, and how well you do engaging them, empowering them, helping them prioritize, and also holding them accountable. For me, that’s it, that’s the whole thing. If I can do that well, it will be okay.”