DUBLIN, Ohio/PRNewswire/ — (NYSE: WEN – news) – Dave Thomas, 69, founder and senior chairman of Wendy’s International, Inc. passed away early this morning at his home in Florida from cancer of the liver. Thomas had a carcinoid tumor, which is a slow growing cancer, for more than a decade.
“Dave was our patriarch, a great, big lovable man,” said Jack Schuessler, chairman and CEO of Wendy’s International, Inc. “He was the heart and soul of our company. He had a passion for great tasting hamburgers, and devoted his life to serving customers great food and helping those less fortunate in his community.”
Thomas founded Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurants on November 15, 1969 in downtown Columbus, Ohio. He named the company after his second youngest daughter.
Wendy’s has grown to more than 6,000 restaurants worldwide, with a reputation for fresh, high quality food, and fast and friendly service. In 1995, Wendy’s merged with Tim Hortons, Canada’s largest coffee and fresh baked goods chain, that now totals more than 2,000 units. Together, the two chains have system sales exceeding $8 billion.
Thomas is best known as the caring, amiable spokesman in Wendy’s television commercials, appearing in more than 800 since 1989. Research showed consumers strongly believed in Thomas’ sincere, often humorous commercials that were very successful for the company.
“Although Dave was widely popular, he was never very comfortable as a celebrity. He kept reminding us he was simply a hamburger cook,” Schuessler said. “He was a humble man who was very comfortable in an apron behind a grill or in a business suit in a board room.
“Dave passed his torch to all of us in the company he loved. We’ll miss him dearly and we promise to carry on the culture and tradition he created for us,” he added.
Thomas was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was adopted at six weeks old by a Michigan couple. Late in his life, he became a passionate advocate for the cause of adoption, and in 1992, created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. The foundation is dedicated to raising awareness for the 134,000 foster children available for adoption, and helping to make adoption easier and more affordable.
Thomas is survived by his wife of 47 years, Lorraine, five children: Pam, Ken, Molly, Wendy and Lori, and 16 grandchildren. Arrangements are pending and will be made public as they are available.
Dave Thomas – Founder, Wendy’s International, Inc.
“Only in America”
Dave Thomas was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in July 1932. Rex and Auleva Thomas adopted him at six weeks old. When he was five, Auleva died and his early years were spent moving from state to state while his adoptive father sought work.
His fondest memories of his childhood included summers spent with his Grandma Minnie Sinclair in Michigan. She taught him about doing the right things, treating people well and important lessons about quality and service – all things he later used in his business life.
Dave got his first job at age 12 as a counterman at a Knoxville restaurant, and fell in love with the restaurant business. When Dave was 15, he found work at the Hobby House Restaurant in Ft. Wayne. It was then that he made what he considered his greatest mistake: he dropped out of school to work full-time. His father and stepfamily were preparing to move again and Dave decided to stay in Ft. Wayne, move into the YMCA and work full-time. This decision to drop out haunted him until he went back to school 45 years later and received his GED from Coconut Creek High School in Ft. Lauderdale. He said this was one of his greatest accomplishments, as was being named “Most Likely to Succeed” by the graduating class of 1993.
Through his work at the Hobby House, Dave met Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) and the man who became one of the greatest influences in his life. In 1962, Dave had a chance to turn around four failing KFC restaurants in Columbus, Ohio owned by his Hobby House boss, Phil Clauss. Four years later, by using his experience and determination, he turned the stores around, sold the restaurants back to KFC and received a percentage of the sale — a millionaire at age 35.
Dave often said he was lucky to have been born in America. “Only in America,” he said, “would a guy like me, from humble beginnings and without a high school diploma become successful. America gave me a chance to live the life I want and work to make my dreams come true. We should never take our freedoms for granted, and we should seize every opportunity presented to us.”
His “rags-to-riches” success story earned him the Horatio Alger Award. It was presented to him in 1979 by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a man he greatly admired.
“Innovative Twist on an Old-Fashioned Idea”
Ever since he was a child, Dave dreamed of opening a hamburger restaurant. Over the years, this dream never faded and on November 15, 1969 it became a reality when he opened the first Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. Named for one of his daughters, Wendy’s was everything Dave dreamed of: an old fashioned, homey place where families could be together and enjoy great tasting, made-to-order hamburgers.
Dave’s restaurant experience and vision enabled him to devise a method to prepare fresh, made-to-order hamburgers in a mass production industry. “We don’t make a sandwich until it’s sold, so every Wendy’s sandwich is served hot-off-the-grill with the customer’s choice of toppings. They aren’t pre- made and put under a heat lamp,” Dave said. His innovative system allows Wendy’s to prepare individually made sandwiches while serving more than 5 million customers a day.
Dave revolutionized the industry in other ways as well. Wendy’s became known for fresh (not frozen) ground beef hamburgers that are square rather than round. Dave explained, “At Wendy’s, we don’t cut corners!” All hamburger patties that were cooked but not sold became chili meat. At a time when American fast food restaurants featured plain plastic chairs and linoleum floors, Dave created an old-fashioned atmosphere by carpeting the dining rooms and furnishing them with Bentwood chairs, Tiffany-style lamps and newsprint table tops. Dave also created the modern-day Pick-Up Window, revolutionizing the quick service restaurant industry.
Under Dave’s leadership, Wendy’s was the first in the quick service restaurant industry to introduce the salad bar and baked potatoes nationwide.
Dave hated the phrase “fast food.” He felt his competitors were fast food chains, while Wendy’s is a quick service restaurant. To Dave, the difference was the focus on quality preparation. “Those other guys pay more attention to advertising gimmicks to get people into their stores and less attention on food quality and product preparation,” he said. Dave also never used the word “burger.” To him, they were hamburgers. It was as if using the full name elevated them to an art form, and in Dave’s eyes, they were.
The restaurant industry and the business community have applauded Dave’s innovation and success with Wendy’s. Dave received every major industry award and was honored as a pioneer in the restaurant business. Though business experts would point to different elements of Wendy’s operations as the reason for its success, to Dave it all came down to one thing: the customers. “If we take care of our customers every day and exceed their expectations, we’ll earn their loyalty,” he said. “It all comes back to the basics: serve customers the best tasting food at a good value in a clean, comfortable restaurant and they’ll keep coming back.”
“America’s Favorite Hamburger Cook”
While his success elevated his status in the business world as a pioneer, he never lost sight of his roots. “I’m just a hamburger cook,” Dave said on many occasions. Indeed, he was most at home when talking with Wendy’s restaurant managers and operators because he understood them and what they face on a daily basis. And to those managers and operators, Dave wasn’t just the founder of the company, he was a role model and stellar example of how hard work, dedication and commitment can lead to success. He’d tell them, “If I can do it, so can you.”
One of Dave’s greatest joys was knowing he created jobs and careers for people. “When I got into the restaurant business, I never dreamed that I’d create a restaurant chain that would provide jobs to so many people,” Dave said. “I’m gratified to know that I gave people an opportunity to make a living or a career in this business. By going after my dream, people had the chance to make their own dreams of success come true.”
He shared his experiences and knowledge he gained in his autobiography, Dave’s Way, published in 1991. Dave saw it as a way to give back, and provide insight into how he turned his dreams into reality. As he put it, “It also tells people about my mistakes and what they should avoid. It’s important to learn from your mistakes and I hope people can learn from mine and not make the same ones.” He later published a book on success called Well Done!, and the business book Franchising for Dummies.
His success enabled him to travel around the world. But his favorite gourmet meal never changed: a Wendy’s Single with cheese, mustard, pickle and onion, fries, bowl of chili, a Frosty and a diet Coke.
Dave was probably best known as the “guy on Wendy’s TV commercials.” In early 1989, Dave agreed to appear in a few Wendy’s commercials. During his nearly 13-year run (and 800+ commercials) as Wendy’s spokesman, Americans came to love him for his down-to-earth, homey style. This campaign made Dave one of the nation’s most recognizable spokesmen. The Guinness Book of Records recognized the Dave Thomas Campaign as the “Longest Running Television Advertising Campaign Starring a Company Founder.”
Throughout the campaign, Dave appeared with many famous celebrities, including blues great B.B. King, Olympic Gold Medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, and soap opera star Susan Lucci. Because of his honesty and old-fashioned values, Dave emerged from Wendy’s advertising campaign as an American folk hero.
That he was recognized everywhere he went had its pros and cons as far as Dave was concerned. As a private and shy person, Dave was a reluctant celebrity. He was always a bit surprised that people wanted to meet him or hear what he had to say. He often said, “The one good thing about being famous is that it gives me an opportunity to attract attention to causes and issues that are important to me.”
“Adopting the Cause”
One of those issues was adoption. Adopted as an infant, Dave felt a strong personal tie to those children who were waiting to be adopted. He said he was lucky to have been adopted and wanted every waiting child to have a permanent home and loving family.
In 1990, President Bush asked Dave to head the White House Initiative on Adoption. With his background as an adoptee and his stature in the business community, he accepted the challenge of raising awareness for the cause. Dave found that there were several obstacles to adoption: the red tape and paperwork was usually overwhelming, and the process too expensive for prospective parents. There were families in America who wanted to adopt, but the obstacles were often too great.
With this focus, Dave set his course. “If we can get just one child, just one boy or girl adopted into a loving family,” Dave said, “all our work will be worth it.”
He devoted time and energy to special adoption programs, including a letter-writing campaign to Fortune 1000 CEOs asking them to make adoption benefits available to their employees (about 75% now offer adoption assistance for employees). He also met with U.S. Governors and asked them to offer adoption benefits to state employees.
In 1992, he established the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a not- for-profit organization that provides grants to national and regional adoption organizations for programs that raise awareness and make adoption easier and more affordable.
He realized many successes in his work for the cause. In 1996 President Clinton signed the Tax Credit Bill into law that gives adoptive parents a one- time tax credit of $5,000 when they adopt. At the signing of the bill, President Clinton said of Dave: “I also want to thank Dave Thomas, himself adopted, who went on to found Wendy’s and has done so much for our country. Perhaps more than any other American citizen, he has made these adoption provisions possible, and we thank him.” And in 1997, President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which reduces waiting time for children in foster care, speeds up the adoption process and has built-in accountability and state incentives.
These two bills have reduced some of the obstacles to adoption in making the process easier and more affordable. In an effort to bring more attention to the cause, Dave and his foundation partnered with the U.S. Postal Service to create the 33-cent adoption postage stamp. It was unveiled in October 1999 with Rosie O’Donnell at Rockefeller Center, and was available in May 2000. The colorful stamp featured the phrases “Adopting a Child, Shaping a Life, Building a Home, Creating a World.”
While much of Dave’s time was focused on the cause of adoption, he actively supported many other community organizations that improved the lives of children.
He was a long-time supporter of the Children’s Hospital in Columbus and was instrumental in creating the Gordon Teter Chair for Pediatric Cancer Research in honor of Wendy’s late chairman. Additionally, he created the Dave Thomas Family Primary Care Center at the hospital with a $1 million donation. An earlier contribution created the Dave and Lorraine Thomas Clinical Laboratory.
Dave contributed $2 million in cash and stock to the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital at The Ohio State University. This contribution established the R. David Thomas Outpatient Chemotherapy Center at the hospital.
He and his wife Lorraine supported the Children’s Home Society of Florida, providing seed money to build a temporary home for children in Ft. Lauderdale. Called the I. Lorraine Thomas Children’s Emergency Home and Family Support Center, the home has room for 28 children who are in protective custody.
Dave supported many other organizations including St. Jude Children’s Cancer Research Center in Memphis, and Charity Newsies and Recreation Unlimited, two Columbus-based organizations.
A strong believer in education, Dave established the Thomas Center at Duke University. The Center houses the Fuqua School of Business’ Executive Education programs. He also supports the Enterprise Ambassador Program at Nova University in South Florida. The program introduces the free enterprise system to high school students through classes and a mentoring program. Dave was also a founder of The Wellington School, a private school in Columbus, Ohio.
“Giving back is the right thing to do,” Dave would tell people. “If you can provide financial support to community groups, do that. If you can only afford to give your time and energy, that’s just as important. When you give back, you get something important in return — the knowledge you’ve made a positive change in the community and lent a hand to someone in need.”
Dave was conferred a 33 degree Mason in 1995, and was presented with the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Grand Lodge of New York in 1994.
Dave’s commitment to Wendy’s and to children is what motivated him to continue working when others might have retired. He accomplished a great deal in his life, but considered his family — his wife Lorraine, their five children and 16 grandchildren — his greatest accomplishment.
SOURCE: Wendy’s International, Inc.