By Harvey Mackay
Originally published February 3, 2002
When I read the obituary of Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, I knew I had to write a column about him. He was a great American, a model businessman, a humanitarian of the first rank and a total inspiration.
Marketing surveys showed that 90 percent of Americans recognized his picture. And that 70 percent of Americans knew him from his name alone. That’s not surprising. For 13 years Dave appeared in TV ads for Wendy’s International, the company he founded and grew into the third largest hamburger chain in the world. In the ads he was direct, friendly, down-to-earth and totally convincing. He appeared in more commercials than Lee Iacocca, Orville Redenbacher and Colonel Sanders combined.
Dave opened the first Wendy’s in 1969 in Columbus, Ohio. His mission was to serve a good hamburger at a fair price in a clean and friendly environment. He set out to fill a market need he discovered himself. No matter where he looked in Columbus, he couldn’t find a good hamburger. Ten years later there were more than 1,000 Wendy’s. Today there are over 6,000.
Dave was born out of wedlock in 1932 to a mother he never knew. When he was 5 years old his adoptive mother died. Over the next five years he lost two stepmothers. He traveled around the Midwest with his often-unemployed stepfather. He worked as a paperboy, pinsetter, caddy, and delivery boy. He and his dad stayed in dirty rooming houses and ate at counters in five-and-dime stores. While they ate, his father rarely talked to him. So Dave studied how food was served and how restaurants worked.
He was a genuine Horatio Alger — rags to riches — hero. When he was 12 he got a job working at a soda fountain in a Walgreen’s. He lost it when management learned he wasn’t yet 16. Three years later he got a part-time job in another restaurant. When his father decided to move on, Dave refused to go with him. Instead he dropped out of school in the 10th grade and went to work in the restaurant full-time.
During his stint in the Army he ran a club for enlisted men. After his discharge, he turned around three Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises that were about to go belly up. Next he worked in management for Kentucky Fried Chicken and helped establish the Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips chain. He followed his dream, and it led him to open the first Wendy’s. He named it for his daughter and based his business philosophy on what his adoptive grandmother, Minnie Sinclair, taught him. She always told him never to cut corners. So Wendy’s hamburgers are square.
She also told him that hard work was good for the soul and kept you from feeling sorry for yourself. So Dave never tired of preaching his mantra to mop floors and wipe tables. In every restaurant he worked in Dave did these chores without hesitation. Dave might be the only board chairman in business history to insist he show up on the jacket of one of his books wringing out a mop.
As a humanitarian he lobbied all of his life for the importance of adopting children and putting love into their lives. He was particularly vocal about the importance of adopting children who didn’t fit the perfect mold. He encouraged people to adopt older children and children with physical and learning disabilities. He established the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton both acknowledged him for his work in this field. Adoption wasn’t the whole story. Dave’s checkbook also fought cancer. He backed literacy programs and homes for abused kids and rec centers for physically challenged children.
What do I remember most about Dave? He had the nerve to write about his mistakes. You heard right, mistakes. Two he mentioned were resting on his laurels after Wendy’s turned into a success and building too showy of an office building for a corporate headquarters.
But his greatest regret was not finishing high school. So he hired a tutor and passed the G.E.D. test when he was 60 years old. A high school in Fort Lauderdale made him a member of their senior class and proceeded to vote him Most Likely to Succeed. Dave and his wife were king and queen of the prom.
Mackay’s Moral: Like Dave’s Grandma Minnie would say – Don’t cut corners! If there’s a shortcut, there’s probably a longcut…and, some sense for using it.