Monday, April 6, 2009

Dave Thomas

Today we note another entrepreneur who started a popular food chain in Ohio. Dave Thomas (1932 - 2002), founder of Wendy's, was born in New Jersey and adopted by Lebanese immigrants. His adoptive mother died when he was five and his father moved the family often to find work. When Thomas was 12 he started his first restaurant job and never left the industry - even when he enlisted in the army during the Korean war. Through some luck and a lot of initiative, Thomas went from successful forays in the enterprises of others to founding his own company, now the third largest hamburger chain in the US.

At the age of 15, when Dave Thomas's family was on the verge of moving to yet another town, he decided to stay where he was in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. He dropped out of school and worked at the Hobby House restaurant in Ft. Wayne until he enlisted with the army at the age of 18. After a stint in Germany where he ran a mess hall, Thomas was discharged and returned to Indiana.

The owner of the Hobby House appreciated Thomas's talents and offered him opportunities of increasing challenge. First they opened a new restaurant together, with Thomas as the manager. Then Thomas moved to Columbus, Ohio, to turn around a group of failing Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. It was during this time that he was mentored by, and helped in turn, Colonel Sanders himself. When he succeeded at this task, his boss sold the franchises back to KFC and Thomas received a handsome profit share. A year later, in 1969, Thomas opened his first hamburger restaurant in Columbus.

Wendy's was a fast success with its fresh hamburgers and milkshakes. Within three years, the company was selling franchises. In seven years Wendy's went public. Thomas is famous for his commercials (over 800 of them), but he didn't get involved in marketing campaigns until well after he had left the helm of the company. He also promoted child adoption and numerous health and education causes.

One of Thomas's mottos was that "profit is not a dirty word," and his success embodies that spirit. As a successful entrepreneur at the head of a very successful chain of restaurants, Dave Thomas profited from making millions of people happy. Not bad for a high school dropout.

Wikipedia entry for Dave Thomas
A remembrance by Lea Davis of QSR Magazine (2007)
Independent Obituary (2002)
Wendy's company bio
Ohio History Central

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