Wendy's founder Dave Thomas dies at home in Florida, company says

Tuesday, January 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) _ Dave Thomas, the portly pitchman whose homespun ads built Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers into one of the world's most successful fast-food enterprises, died Tuesday of liver cancer. He was 69.

Thomas died around midnight at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the company said.

Thomas had been undergoing kidney dialysis since early 2001 and had quadruple heart bypass surgery in December 1996.

``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,'' said Jack Schuessler, chairman and chief executive of Wendy's, based in the Columbus suburb of Dublin.

The founder and senior chairman of Wendy's International became a household name when he began pitching his burgers and fries in television commercials in 1989. The smiling Thomas, always wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and red tie, touted the virtues of fast-food in more than 800 humorous ads, sometimes featuring stars such as bluesman B.B. King and soap opera queen Susan Lucci.

``As long as it works, I'll continue to do the commercials,'' Thomas said in a 1991 interview. ``When it's not working any longer, then I'm history.''

Industry analysts and company officials said the ads helped the company rebound from a difficult period in the mid-1980s when earnings sank.

``He's given Wendy's a corporate identity ... a down-homey type image. The lack of sophistication is a real benefit for the company,'' Diane Mustain, a financial analyst, said in 1991.

``Although Dave was wildly popular, he was never very comfortable as a celebrity. He kept reminding us he was simply a hamburger cook,'' Schuessler said.

But burgers weren't his first love. Thomas, who was adopted as an infant, became a national advocate for adoption.

He created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a not-for-profit organization focused on raising public awareness of adoption. The profits from his books, ``Dave's Way'' and ``Well Done!'' go to the foundation.

He once testified before a Congressional committee about the importance of creating incentives for adoption.

``I know firsthand how important it is for every child to have a home and loving family,'' he testified. ``Without a family, I would not be where I am today.''

Born July 2, 1932, Thomas was 12 when he got his first restaurant job _ as a counterman in Knoxville, Tenn.

In 1956, he was working at a barbecue restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind., when Col. Harland Sanders of KFC fame stopped in on a promotional tour. Thomas's boss bought a KFC franchise, and six years later, Thomas came to Columbus to take over four failing Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.

He sold them back to the founder in 1968 for $1.5 million, making him a millionaire at 35.

He opened his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in Columbus a year later. He named the restaurant after his 8-year-old daughter Melinda Lou, nicknamed Wendy by her siblings.

The chain now has 6,000 restaurants worldwide. In 1996, Wendy's acquired the Canadian-based Tim Hortons, the coffee and fresh-baked goods chain which has grown to more than 2,000 stores. Both have combined sales of more than $8 billion.

Thomas was a forgiving businessman.

The city of Philadelphia in 1994 wanted to fine Wendy's $98,400, claiming the restaurant was selling quarter-pounders that were up to a quarter of an ounce short. The city later announced it made an error and withdrew the fine.

``I understand what happened,'' said Thomas, who visited the city shortly after the controversy. ``Things happen. Mistakes happen. As far as we're concerned, we just want to go to the future. A bright future.''

He tried to retire in 1982, but came back in 1989.

``They took the focus off the consumer,'' he said of the executives who took over the company.

Despite his success, it wasn't until 1993 that Thomas earned a high school equivalency certificate.

That year, he told 2,500 Columbus public school seniors his biggest mistake was not finishing high school.

``We have 4,000 restaurants today, but if I had gotten my high school diploma, we might have 8,000,'' he said.