DENVER — Brian Niccol, currently chief executive officer of the Taco Bell division at Yum! Brands, Inc., has been tapped to lead Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., effective March 5. He succeeds M. Steven Ells, who founded the burrito chain in 1993 and will transition to an executive chairman role.
"Brian is a proven world-class executive, who will bring fresh energy and leadership to drive excellence across every aspect of our business," Mr. Ells said. "His expertise in digital technologies, restaurant operations and branding make him a perfect fit for Chipotle as we seek to enhance our customer experience, drive sales growth and make our brand more relevant."
Mr. Ells announced plans to step down as c.e.o. last November, following a challenging couple of years for Chipotle. The Denver-based company has struggled to recover from a foodborne illness outbreak in 2015 that included 55 cases of E. coli O26 across 11 states followed by a norovirus outbreak at a Boston-based restaurant that reportedly sickened 80 individuals.
Turnaround efforts have been met with tepid response. Introductions of chorizo and queso, operational improvements and a new loyalty program, among other initiatives, have not been enough to restore customer traffic at the chain to pre-food safety crisis levels.
"I am very excited to be joining Chipotle at this pivotal time in its history," Mr. Niccol said. "I have tremendous respect for the Chipotle brand and its powerful purpose. At Chipotle's core is delicious food, which I will look to pair up with consistently great customer experiences. I will also focus on dialing up Chipotle's cultural relevance through innovation in menu and digital communications. This will attract customers, return the brand to growth, deliver value for shareholders and create opportunities for employees."
Mr. Niccol began his career at Procter & Gamble, serving in various brand management positions over the course of a decade. He joined Yum! Brands in 2005, where he held leadership roles at Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, advancing to the role of Taco Bell president in 2013, then Taco Bell c.e.o. in 2015. During his tenure, the Mexican fast-food chain launched several product initiatives, including breakfast, and developed a digital platform with mobile ordering and payment across the 7,000 restaurants.
Succeeding him at Taco Bell are Julie Felss Masino, president of Taco Bell North America, and Liz Williams, president of Taco Bell International, who will jointly assume leadership of the Taco Bell division in their respective roles, reporting to Yum! Brands c.e.o. Greg Creed.
Ms. Felss Masino joined Taco Bell in January from Mattel, with previous experience at Starbucks and Sprinkles Cupcakes. As president, she is responsible for ensuring Taco Bell continues to deliver same-store sales growth by driving innovation, new store development and digital and technology initiatives.
Ms. Williams previously served as chief financial officer of Taco Bell, leading six years of strong sales, profit and brand growth. Prior to joining Taco Bell, she was principal in the consumer and retail practices in U.S. and Asian markets at The Boston Consulting Group.