R David Thomas founder and senior chairman of Wendy’s International Inc., has been called many things in his day. His franchisees citing his barnstorming market tours as a sources of inspiration, call him the “Great Communicator”. Most of Americans know him as the funny, folksy character on Wendy’s renowned television commercials. Some may even recognize him as the lonely boy from his autobiography, Dave’s Way. But Jim Near Wendy’s chairman and CEO sees him as “Wendy Dad”. According to Near, no other chain has an active founder like him leading the way.
Indeed, few companies can boast a founder as well known and well liked as Dave Thomas. Ironically, however, such stardom was not among Thomas’ goals. In fact, after years of virtually nonstop work building the Wendy’s name, Thomas retired from day-to-day management in the early 1980s. He left the company to people smarter than Him (he says) to run. His charming modesty proved to be a liability however, for shortly after his departure, franchise problems arose on the heels of the celebrity “Where’s the Beef?” television spot that boosted Wendy’s up the fast food charts. Funny things happen when people start to make money. Near noted, it is easy to take mind off what is important. Many of Wendy’s original franchise owners have sold their stores to owners who were not interested in Thomas’ standards of excellence, which had become integral to the restaurant chain. Other owners, assuming the business could run itself, simply left their Franchise stranded. Some franchisees can be seen decided to go public. Very quickly Wendy’s began to lose its customer oriented focus and the chain suffered.
Aware that something had to be done, but reluctant to relinquish his hard earned retirement, Thomas attempted to leave the situation to Near, who had been drafted in 1986 to become president and COO of the company. Thomas hoped he had found his savior in Near, a board member since 1981 and on of Wendy’s most successful franchise owners, but Near was less enthusiastic. This was the last lace he wanted to be, he recalled. Franchisees had just given management a vote of no confidence. They weren’t even giving them a chance. But Thomas persisted and eventually Near agreed to take over. As a conditions of accepting the position, though, Near insisted that Thomas become an active Wendy’s spokesperson and ambassador. Thomas consented and so was born “Dave”.
Although Thomas may have been initially reluctant he has thrown himself whole heartedly into the role of Wendy’s figure head, maintaining an office next to Near’s. Thomas tours the country regularly for market visits, promotional appearances and television spots. Thomas’ spots have scored consistently high in audience recognition and he has become a favorite of critics. Wait till you see the latest creative, praised Near. We had no idea that Dave would be so good on TV.
The Wendy’s Wildest Tie Contest, which began in April 1994, illustrates how well Thomas has learned to play his audience. Prior to the contest a television spot Wendy’s “Spicy Chicken” sandwich featured Thomas sporting what he considered the “wildest tie around”. Always the showman, Thomas decided to hold a contest to see if anyone could top his exotic neck wear. If you got an old tie that’s looking wilder every year then send it on in, he said. If I think mine, I’ll give you an entire collection of new designer ties. The winner received a choice of either a $ 1,500 neckwear wardrobe featuring ties by designers such as Armani Hermes, Nicole Miller, or the cash equivalent. Two runner ups received a $500 collection or the cash equivalent.
Such visibility has not only made Thomas a well known figure, but it has also helped to shoot Wendy’s profitability and popularity back up and make it one of Wall Street’s favorite restaurants. In 1988, Wendy’s posted an unprecedented $5 million loss. By 1994 with the help of “Dave”, Wendy’s claimed 4,200 restaurants worldwide and annual sales near $4 billion. Many people attribute Wendy’s astonishing comeback to the enthusiasm and energy emanated by their appointed leader. For Thomas himself, however; the success of Wendy’s belongs to those people who helped bring it about: his employees [I’m] nobody really Thomas confessed I just make hamburgers for a living.