Marriage only made Thomas more determined about building his career. It was 1956 when his boss, Phil Clauss, opened a barbecue restaurant called the Ranch House. There, Thomas met the legendary chicken baron, Harland Sanders, better known as "the Colonel," the founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) chain.
"The Colonel was traveling nationwide, promoting his new fried chicken franchise," says Thomas. "He turned out to be a man who had a profound influence on my career."
Seeing an incredible opportunity, Clauss bought a KFC franchise. He sold the chicken through the Ranch House and Hobby House, and Thomas, now Clauss' right-hand man, learned the chicken business.
In 1962, Thomas got an opportunity to prove himself. Clauss made the mistake of buying four failing KFC carry-out locations in Columbus. At his wit's end about the crumbling businesses, he made Thomas an enticing business offer: If Thomas could turn around the stores, pay off a $250,000 debt and turn a profit, Clauss would give him 40 percent of the Columbus franchises. "The Colonel warned me that the stores were almost bankrupt," says Thomas, "but I figured I had nothing to lose. I knew it would be difficult, but with four kids to support on a salary of $135 a week, I'd have been foolish not to try." Thomas studied the ailing restaurants and found a solution.
"There were too many items on the menu, many of which took a long time to prepare," he says. So he trimmed down the 100-plus items to a manageable staple of chicken and salads. To promote the restaurants, he bartered buckets of chicken for TV air time. Business turned around practically overnight. In March 1967, the $250,000 debt was paid off. He and Clauss opened a fifth location in Columbus, before selling their stores back to the parent company in 1968. Thomas was then a millionaire at the age of 35.