How the CEO of Smoothie King Went From Small-Business Owner to Wearing the Crown
For most college students, healthy eating goes out the window the minute freshman orientation gets under way. Wan Kim was no exception. He came to the U.S. from South Korea to study and became quickly alarmed at how many calories he was taking in. So Kim started replacing greasy meals with nutrient-rich drinks from Smoothie King and developed a love of the brand’s health-focused product. After graduation, Kim returned to South Korea and took his newfound passion with him. In 2003, he opened that country’s first-ever Smoothie King, a full 30 years after the brand launched in the U.S. Then he kept opening them. By 2010, he owned more than 100 locations — but he still wanted more. So he approached founder and then-CEO Steve Kuhnau and made an offer to buy the company.
They sealed the deal in 2012. Kim took over with a focus on rapid growth, and he hasn’t let up: This year, Smoothie King plans to open an additional 125 locations and bring its global storefront tally to 950.
How did you first approach Kuhnau about buying his brand?
I wasn’t rude, but I told him, “I really love your mission, and I strongly believe that I’m the one who can carry it through and make it bigger for you.” He saw what I had accomplished in Korea. A lot of franchisees, when they first open their businesses, want to change the brand, sell something new, really update the menu. I was very good at understanding and selling the brand’s health-driven mission, even though I was in Korea. I think Steve really respected that.
What was the toughest part of transitioning from franchisee to owner?
Making sure execution at every location follows our vision. We want to be an integral part of every customer’s health-and-fitness plans and goals. It’s critical, and very difficult. People’s nutritional needs and wants are different today than they were 20 years ago. We have to deliver what our guests are really looking for, even if the process is hard. Recently, we updated one of our product recipes to make it healthier — low-calorie, low-sugar. Some of our team and our franchisees were afraid because the taste changed a little, and some customers did react negatively at first. Change is always hard, but when you really believe in the mission, you know what’s the right thing to do.
How have you maintained the brand’s founding values while pushing the company forward?
We have kept a lot of loyal, longtime employees on our team. In order for us to deliver consistency, we need team members who care about the brand. We’re 44 years old. Some people started as part-timers at Smoothie King locations when they were kids, and now they work in training, R&D or operations.
The smoothie market keeps getting more crowded. How do you stay competitive?
Juicing companies and other smoothie concepts will come out with a new, exotic fruit smoothie, but we no longer want to compete with just fruit smoothies. That’s not our mission. Our founder invented all his smoothies with a purpose in mind, and that’s what we’re really communicating to stand out. Today, if you look at our menu, we’ve identified four big purposes and categories: Fitness, Slim, Wellness and Take a Break. Some people want to get leaner, some want to lose weight, some want to maintain their weight. We are coming up with the products that can help them all meet their nutritional goals.