A version of this article will appear in the forthcoming food-and-drink-themed issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine, which will be published next month.
One week, he jets off to Singapore for a global convention of franchise partners. The next, he dances with Maasai warriors to celebrate a new restaurant opening in Kenya. Then he's back home in Dallas, meeting with board members and poring over earnings reports.
For David Gibbs, the chief executive officer of Yum Brands and a member of Johns Hopkins University's Class of 1985, no two days ever look the same. And that's the way he likes it.
"One reason I've stayed with Yum Brands for 33 years is that I'm constantly learning and growing, and there's tremendous diversity in what I do each day," Gibbs says.
Made up of more than 55,000 restaurants in over 155 countries and territories, Yum Brands operates some of the world's most popular food brands—KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and The Habit Burger Grill. Gibbs started with the company, then part of PepsiCo, in 1989, after earning a bachelor's degree in mathematical science from the Whiting School of Engineering and an MBA from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.
"In between undergraduate and graduate school, I worked on Wall Street and realized the enormous growth opportunity in the restaurant industry," says Gibbs. That realization prompted Gibbs to pursue an MBA at Duke and eventually accept a position in the restaurant division of PepsiCo. Before joining PepsiCo, however, Gibbs spent half a year in a doctoral program in finance at Stanford University, considering a career path in academia.
"At Stanford, I found myself wanting something more practical and less theoretical than a PhD program in finance could offer, so I shifted gears," Gibbs explains.
Gibbs started at PepsiCo as a real estate manager for Taco Bell and quickly climbed the organization's ranks. From there, he held a smattering of real estate-related positions before serving in senior roles that include chief financial officer of Pizza Hut U.S.; President and CFO of Yum Restaurants International; CEO of the global Pizza Hut Division; and then president, CFO, and eventually chief operating officer of Yum Brands. He has served as Yum Brands' CEO since 2020.
Unlike the millions of professionals in the United States who hop around to different employers, Gibbs intentionally stayed put. "If you have an employer who's vested in your development and skill building, and who consistently helps you find ways to rise to new challenges, like PepsiCo and Yum Brands did for me, then there's no reason to ever go anywhere else," he says.
When asked what he finds rewarding about his current role as CEO, Gibbs says it's the people and the opportunities Yum Brands offers them. "We create close to 100,000 new jobs every year, and each one of those jobs can be a pathway to something bigger in our system," he explains. "You can start, say, as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut, and I can check back with you 10 years later, and you're a franchisee who owns five restaurants and is building generational wealth for your entire family," Gibbs adds.
Thinking back on his undergraduate days at JHU, where he played two years of junior varsity basketball and four years of varsity tennis, on top of joining a fraternity and selling peanuts and beer at Orioles games, Gibbs realizes that he never created or followed a concrete career plan. He advises today's students to do same.
"You don't need a master plan that spells out where you're going to be 30 years from now," he says. "I didn't have one—I just took opportunities as they came that seemed interesting and allowed me to grow."
He also cautions about the dangers of wishful thinking. "People often think, 'Oh, I'll be happy when I get this bigger job,' when in reality, that isn't the case," Gibbs says. "The key to a successful career is to enjoy the journey, while knowing that the destination is never more fun than the adventures involved in getting there."