David Thomas was born in 1932 to an unmarried mother that he never got to know – he was given up for adoption at 6 week’s old to Rex and Auleva Thomas. Auleva died when Dave was just 5 years old and he moved with his father (a distant man) around the United States of America as his father sought work. As such, he never stayed in a particular school for any length of time, the same adversely affecting his education. At 12 years old, Dave landed his first job at The Regas, a restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, but then lost it in a disagreement with his boss. This did not daunt him, however, because he had fallen in love with the restaurant business. As he had travelled with his father since a small boy, they ate out almost every night. The only place where Dave ever felt the warmth and closeness of family life was when he sat next to families in restaurants. So, by the age of 12 years, Dave had decided that he would own a restaurant one day. Leaving school in his teens, he worked in restaurants for the next 10 years, when he met an eccentric-looking senior man, wearing a cream-coloured suit and a black string tie – it was Colonel Saunders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. He was asked to take over the management of four failing KFC restaurants in Columbus, Ohio, revived them and sold them back to KFC for $1.5 million. In 1969, Dave opened his first Wendy’s, named after the nickname of his 8 year old daughter, Melinda Lou. So was born “Wendy’s Old Fashioned Burgers”.

In 1982, Dave resigned from day-to-day operations at Wendy’s, but was recalled by the company’s new president in 1985 to a more active role. Dave began to visit franchises and espouse his hard-working “mop-bucket” attitude. He personally got involved in the marketing strategy of the company and appeared in over 800 commercials for the chain from 1989 to 2002. These self-deprecating and humorous advertisements proved to be very popular and Dave Thomas became a household name. Wendy’s has gone on to become the third most popular burger restaurant in the USA, with over 6 000 restaurants, many in dozens of countries. Dave died in 2002, but will not only be remembered for his quality beef and chicken offerings, but also for donating money to the Dave Thomas Centre for adoption.

In spite of many difficulties affecting him at the youngest of ages, Dave had the grit to get going and keep going to fulfil his passion. We can perhaps learn the following from him:

  • A compelling dream – nothing was going to stand in the way of him fulfilling his dream, not even hardship. Tom Clancy said: “Nothing is as real as a dream. The world can change around you, but your dreams will not. Responsibilities need not erase it. Duties need not obscure it. Because the dream is within you, no one can take it away”.
  • A strong family orientation – Dave recognised the need, out of his deficit, of providing a place where families could eat and relax together. He became a family man, with a wife of 47 years, 6 children and 15 grandchildren.
  • He networked appropriately – ongoing interactions with Colonel Saunders (of KFC) kept him “on his toes” and stimulated him towards greater heights.
  • He set an example – his hard-working “mop-bucket” attitude became an operational environment for all staff in the chain, thus enhancing client service.
  • He was “present” in his business – he was “larger than life” and became a household name, not only through appearances on TV Commercials, but through his devoted visits to branches in the chain. His staff knew him, were able to communicate with him and learn from him.

Dave Thomas is testimony to the power of passion. Overcoming the most trying of times and personal tragedy, Dave had the grit to get going and went on to have his photo on the cover of Fortune magazine. His foundation, the Centre for Adoption, still continues representing his passion for people.