One of the small triumphs of global commerce is that anyone who craves Cajun-spiced drumsticks can now find them at 285 Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits restaurants in 21 countries, from Australia to Saudi Arabia. But the worldwide spread of America's fat-drenched fast food is an old story. What's new is the way that more and more of these businesses are run: by managers based in the U.S. who direct and assist their overseas branches through the Internet, e-mail, phone and videoconferencing. Call them virtual bosses. They offer a more efficient way for hundreds of U.S. multinational firms--from restaurant franchisers and hoteliers to Web-hosting firms and chemical manufacturers--to export management expertise without having to relocate key personnel to other countries.
From a high-rise office building just off a freeway in suburban Atlanta, for example, the eight virtual bosses of Popeyes last month orchestrated a restaurant opening in Iceland, designed a new outlet in Honduras and handled a chicken-supply crisis in Fairbanks, Alaska (which is so far from both the Atlanta headquarters and its vendors that it's treated like a foreign outpost).
The breast-and-thigh emergency at the new Popeyes outlet in Fairbanks landed in the e-mail box of Karen Youstin, 43. She's Popeyes' director of international training and operating systems, based in Atlanta. She explains that the hard part about opening a Popeyes in a remote location is not getting people to come for the chicken; it's getting the chicken to the people. Popeyes' chicken is always fresh, never frozen, and the chain normally requires that shipments spend no more than eight days traveling from farm to franchise. But it will take 12 days to transport the chicken by truck and ship to Fairbanks--a detail that the local supervisor of the franchise realized just 20 days before the store was scheduled to open.
Transporting the chickens by plane would work, but the freight bill would push the price of a three-piece dinner into the realm of surf and turf. After two hours of e-mail, phone and fax consultations, Youstin has a solution: vacuum-pack the chicken, for a small additional cost, and keep it fresh enough to survive the extra four days of shipping. From the corporate headquarters, Youstin can quickly access the company's experts and key decision makers to craft a timely fix. Explains her boss, international COO Anthony Pavese: "We are ground zero. We have centralized the information base. We can't just jump on a plane every time we need something somewhere."
Only a few years ago, almost all U.S.-based franchising chains and other multinational businesses opted to send American managers to oversee their foreign offices. Lately, though, skilled U.S. managers have been saying "no, thanks," when asked to move their families to Guam or Glasgow. Relocation abroad is harder for the growing ranks of two-career couples. Another reason: a tight labor market obliges companies to accommodate their managers' preferences.