Dave Thomas died last Tuesday morning. He and I coauthored a book together-Franchising for Dummies(IDG Books)-and because of that, many of my friends called to make certain I had heard the news and to chat about his passing.
I imagine most people will think of Dave as the folksy pitchman for Wendy's. And I guess that's fair after 800 commercials. But in real life he wasn't the folksy, ah-shucks character who appeared on the TV screen. He was just so much grander.
When Dave started Wendy's, he challenged a market that most people considered already saturated. In its first decade, Wendy's grew faster than McDonald's did in its first 10 years, despite the fact everyone said there simply was no room for another burger chain. He did it by focusing in on the simple things: a great product, service, a passion for detail, innovation, a genuine love for his people and a commitment to never cutting corners.
Dave's focus and that of Wendy's was on things such as shorter wait times at the drive-thru windows, better products and cleaner restaurants. You didn't see Dave touting movie tie-ins or children's meal promotions in his commercials. His message was simple: Wendy's sells great-tasting food. People believed Dave because Wendy's delivered on his promise.
Dave wasn't flashy or overpowering-he looked you in the eye when you talked and he genuinely listened. He respected people with experience and did not suffer fools easily. An orphan, he lived in squalor as a child, had three stepmothers by the time he was 12 and was on his own before he was 15. Later he became a restaurant manager and creating his initial nest egg as a franchisee of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He even wore the white suit like Colonel Sanders. Dave was one of the founders of Arthur Treacher's before he began Wendy's. He had a lifetime of achievements before he was 35. He defined the word entrepreneur.
Dave was never satisfied with the status quo, and innovations that were introduced at Wendy's have changed the way the quick-service restaurant industry functions today. For example, the single line at Wendy's is called a snake-Dave invented it, and other restaurant chains copied it.
He was the most naturally gifted businessperson I have ever known. While other large companies suffer greatly from the loss of a senior executive, Wendy's in the past few years lost two major figures and never missed a beat. His brilliance is that he respected people and held them responsible, but let them do their jobs without interference. The culture he created at Wendy's is clearly a product of Dave Thomas' personality. But while Dave will be missed, I can't imagine how the Wendy's organization will miss a beat. That's a part of his legacy.
Some people have speculated that the brand will be hurt because Dave was the spokesman for so long, and people will view the company differently in the future. Nonsense! Even though he was the brand's number one spokesman, people didn't view the company as Dave. In his commercials, he always focused the audience on the product, the service and the Wendy's brand. Sure, the commercials will change, but the underlying message won't need to. Dave focused the brand on what was important to the consumer: the quality of the product and of the Wendy's experience. He never allowed himself to get larger than the brand itself.
Dave didn't graduate from a leading college or get any advanced degrees. In fact, it was only in 1993 that he got his GED and graduated from high school. That year, at the prom at Coconut Creek High School in Ft. Lauderdale, he and his wife Lorraine were named king and queen of the senior prom, and Dave was voted most likely to succeed. The prom picture is in his home office prominently displayed near pictures he took with various presidents of the United States. Next to his family, getting his high school diploma was one of his greatest accomplishments.
Dave's passion has long been on other more important matters than Wendy's. He was dedicated to children and to creating programs and raising money for adoption services. Through his hard work, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of postage stamps dedicated to the cause of adoption last year. All the proceeds from his books, including the one I coauthored with him, were donated to his Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Dave leaves behind a large family-Lorraine (his wife of 47 years), five children (yes, one is nicknamed Wendy), 16 grandchildren-and a lot of people who will miss him. I am very glad I got the chance to know him.
Michael H. Seid is managing director of Michael H. Seid & Associates, a West Hartford, Connecticut- and Troy, Michigan-based management consulting firm specializing in the franchise industry.