Lessons Learned from Restaurant Icon Dave Thomas
One of the great benefits of working at a food marketing agency is all of the incredible people you have the opportunity to meet. Some are fascinating characters, some become close friends, and if you’re lucky, you occasionally meet someone who is truly inspirational and has a lasting influence on your career.
I thought I’d tell you about one such person I met at the very beginning of my career, and the lessons I learned from that experience.
I started my career in the mid-70’s, fresh out of college and eager to make my mark in advertising. I landed a job as an account executive at a long-since-gone agency in Cincinnati, Ohio. The account to which I was assigned was a regional fast food chain that was on the threshold of breaking onto the national scene. Based in Columbus Ohio, the chain was Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers.
Shortly after joining the agency, I heard about how one senior agency executive’s arrogance had almost derailed the agency from working with this client before the relationship even started.
The agency was one of three finalists for the Wendy’s account. On the day of their final presentation, the agency’s pitch team drove from Cincinnati to Wendy’s headquarters in Columbus. Arriving early at their destination, the team lingered in the parking lot so they could talk through their presentation one last time.
“The first thing we need to tell them is to get rid of that freckle-faced kid on their logo,” observed one of the key members of the agency’s presentation team.
“Don’t say that,” cautioned the agency president. “For all we know that kid on the logo is somebody’s daughter.”
Because of the president’s admonitions, the observation about the logo was not shared and the presentation went fine. A few days later the agency was informed that they had won the account.
Not long afterward, the agency discovered that the little girl in the logo was, indeed, someone’s child – it was Melinda Thomas, daughter of founder Dave Thomas. Her family nickname was – you guessed it – Wendy.
This story engrained in me one simple lesson: Never be in a hurry to prejudge or assume you have the answers. Instead, adopt what the Zen philosophers call an “empty mind”. Try to listen, learn, and reflect upon the issues before you offer an opinion.
Had the agency executive offered his opinion about the logo during their new business presentation, he definitely would have offended Dave Thomas and almost certainly would have lost the pitch. So, stay humble, keep an open mind, and get all the facts before you offer a diagnosis or recommendation. It will elevate the wisdom of your words and possibly save you from an avoidable mistake.
Several months after I began my work with Wendy’s, my agency opened a small, one-person service office in Wendy’s headquarters. I volunteered for the assignment and soon found myself moving from Cincinnati to Columbus so that I could take up residency at the agency’s new outpost.
Being new to the area, I had no social life to distract me from work, and I was also (rightfully) worried that I would screw-up my first job and destroy my chance for a career in advertising. So I tended to work a lot of hours. Most nights I was the last person to leave Wendy’s headquarters where my office was located.
The one individual who routinely worked almost as late as I did, and who, as he was leaving for the night, frequently saw my light was still on, was Dave Thomas.
Dave believed that hard work, humility and personal accountability were the necessary requisites to achieve outstanding results. Because I was working late every night, Dave thought he saw those qualities in me. Fortunately for me, he didn’t know that my real motivation was fear of failure and a lack of friends. But in any event, I was soon taken under his wing. Over the next couple of years, I had the privilege of accompanying Dave on many business trips and private meetings. He invited me to sit in on some of his meetings with management, took me to dinner, told me war stories, and shared observations on what it takes to succeed.
Dave was a product of very modest means. As a child, he was adopted and only finished the eighth grade of school. In spite of his humble beginnings, he achieved tremendous business success. His outside demeanor was modest and soft spoken, but on the inside, he carried a fiery passion to succeed.
Dave hated arrogance in others. For example, if you used the word “expertise” in describing yourself or your company, you were finished. To Dave, that word implied you thought you were smarter, better qualified or superior to others, and that just didn’t fly with him. Humility, lack of ego, and a willingness to try your best were the values he held in high esteem. As soon as you invoked the word “expertise”, your meeting with him was over whether you knew it at the time or not.
I have never forgotten these principles, because I think Dave was spot-on. His values have had a lasting influence on my approach to food marketing, whether it’s food commodity boards, branded produce, packaged foods or restaurant chains.
Business success is frequently a mixture of being in the right place at the right time, having some humility, working hard, and a little luck. That has certainly been my experience and I am eternally grateful for the early lessons I leaned during those first few years in the business.