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Heroes of Business: Happy Birthday Dave Thomas

Community Support
Community Support
July 2, 2017
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Who hasn’t had an old fashioned Wendy’s hamburger or a Wendy’s Frosty at one time or another in their life? If you are a child of the 70’s & 80’s you remember his him in the long running Wendy’s Restaurants Dave Thomas Campaign that made him a folk hero because of his honesty and ole fashioned values as well as one the nation’s most recognizable faces. During this time he appeared with many famous celebrities of that era such as soap opera star Susan Lucci, NHL star Mike Richter and many more.While he is most famous for being the founder of the very successful Wendy’s fast food restaurant chain his life was much more than that. He enlisted in the United States Army at the age of 18. Thomas was also believed to be the youngest soldier ever to manage an Enlisted Man’s Club.Dave Thomas loved people almost as much as he loved food and he left us an example of what can be accomplished if you combine your passion with your business. If you share with others what you learn along the way, and give back to the communities you serve you, will not only be successful, you will have lived a good life.Rex David “Dave” Thomas was born July 2nd, 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey to woman he never knew. He was put up for adoption and was adopted just six weeks later by Rex and Auleva Thomas. Dave’s adoptive mother Auleva died when he was only five years old. As a child, Dave spent many summers in Michigan with his Grandma Minnie Sinclair. From his Grandma he learned about treating people with respect and doing the right thing. She also taught him important lessons about quality and service that helped Dave in business but most importantly in life. He said she taught him that, "Hard work is good for the soul, and it keeps you from feeling sorry for yourself because you don't have time."Dave Thomas took his first job at the age of 12 at a fine dining restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn., named Regas. At age 15 after moving with father, he was working with the Clauss family at their Hobby House Restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind. when his dad decided to move again. Dave stayed behind after his father moved and at the age of 15 lived at the local YMCA. He dropped out of high school to work full time at the restaurant. He knew if he wanted his own restaurant one day that he would need to know how to do every job properly so he worked his way through the restaurant. Like many successful entrepreneurs Dave had a business mentor in owner Phil Clauss who motivated Dave and taught him everything he knew about business. Dave said, “From the very beginning, I never thought of myself as anybody special. And whatever I’ve accomplished throughout my life, when I look in the mirror, I still see myself as a hamburger cook.”[caption id="attachment_12724" align="aligncenter" width="720"]

Photo Courtesy Wendys[/caption]In the early 50’s the Korean War was beginning so Dave joined the Army at 18. He went to the Cook and Baker’s School in Ft. Benning, Georgia. He served for two and half years in Germany and used the knowledge and skills he learned in the Army in building his business. Dave said, “We tend to make courage too dramatic. Courage is often doing something simple, unpleasant, or boring again and again until we get it down pat. People who are physically challenged and who have the determination to get around their handicaps are great examples because their courage makes them test their limits every day.”After being honorably discharged Dave returned to his job at the Hobby House Restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind., and met a new waitress at the restaurant. Ms. Lorraine Buskirk became Mrs. Thomas in 1954.[caption id="attachment_12725" align="aligncenter" width="720"]

Photo Courtesy Wendys[/caption]When his business mentor Phil Clauss bought into the KFC business, Dave also became part of KFC history. Colonel Sanders himself became one of Dave’s strongest mentors. Dave worked with Sanders on many projects including increasing the KFC brand and profits. Thomas, like Sanders, was even made an honorary Kentucky Colonel. He sold back his shares in KFC to Sanders for reportedly over $1.5 million dollars in 1968 making him a millionaire.In 1969, Dave decided to go out on his own and opened the very first Wendy’s on November 15, 1969 in Columbus, Ohio. Dave named the restaurant after his 8 year old daughter Melinda whose nickname was Wendy. Wendy’s is now an international restaurant chain and has 6,500 outlets worldwide.[caption id="attachment_12727" align="aligncenter" width="673"]

Photo Courtesy Wendys[/caption]After 45 years, dropping out of high school still bothered Dave so he went back to school and received his GED from Coconut High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He said, “One of my biggest mistakes led to one of my greatest accomplishments. I dropped out of school when I was 15, so I could work full time. That was the biggest mistake I ever made. I was ashamed to be known as a ‘drop-out.’ One day while talking to high school students about getting a good education, a student asked how I could tell them to stay in school when I dropped out. So after 45 years, I went back to school, studied for and got my GED. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it, and it’s something I’m very proud of. I was ‘adopted’ by the senior class of Coconut Creek High School near my home in Ft. Lauderdale. They voted me Most Likely to Succeed, and elected my wife Lorraine and me Prom Queen and King.”[caption id="attachment_12728" align="aligncenter" width="720"]

Photo Courtesy Wendys[/caption]In the years that followed, Dave became a champion for adoption and started the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. President George Bush asked Thomas to serve as the head of the White House initiative on adoption, 'Adoption Works…for Everyone' campaign. Dave’s main focus in giving back was adoption but he helped many other community organization that make the lives of children better. Dave said, “Everyone has a responsibility to support their community. My rule of thumb is: support the community that supports you. Find a cause that means something to you and support it with your time, energy, and money. For me, that cause is adoption, but you should find something that’s important to you. Giving back is the right thing to do.”[caption id="attachment_12726" align="aligncenter" width="720"]

Photo Courtesy Wendys[/caption]Dave Thomas has received every major industry award and honored as one of pioneers of in the restaurant business. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale awarded Dave the Horatio Alger Award. When receiving the award this was his advice on his secret of success, “People ask me about the secret of my success, and I tell them there’s no secret. You have to have persistence, a burning desire to succeed, and a passion for the business. These things kept me motivated and focused on what I wanted to accomplish. It sounds simple, and it really is. I believed in my dream of opening a hamburger restaurant, and I was willing to put in the time and make the commitment to succeed.” He added, “Honesty and integrity are the foundation upon which every successful person stands. Dishonest people don’t make it in the long run. Throughout your life, you’ll have the opportunity to cut corners and take some short cuts. Don’t do it! If you lose your integrity, you’ve lost everything you set out to gain. Earn and appreciate the trust of the people you work with and respect. You earn your reputation by the things you do every day. And at the end of the day, all a man has is his integrity.”In 1996 President Clinton signed a tax credit bill into law giving adoptive parents a tax credit of $5,000 when they adopt. At the public signing, the President personally thanked Dave for the work and the impact he had made on adoption across the country. Many organizations benefited from Dave’s generosity and his capacity to give was limitless. He died of cancer on January 8th, 2002 at the age of 69. Dave had four daughters and a son. His son died in 2013, but his daughters still own and operate multiple Wendy’s locations.Dave Thomas was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2003. He was truly a Hero of Business and left a great example and legacy for all of us to follow. As today is his birthday, let’s raise a glass to Mr. Dave Thomas! Cheers to a life well lived!

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