When you transport yourself back to 1961, knowing what you know in 1991, you can't help but think that the fast-food business was a no-brainer. Americans had more and more disposable income and more wives were working. Thus there was a growing tendency to eat out. There also was little competition, and the cost of entry was low, not much more than the cost of kitchen equipment, really. In 1961 a man with a spatula and griddle was in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, knowing only what you knew in 1961, that man may have been presiding over a real dud.
Richardson had no particular conviction about the infant industry. It's just that an old buddy, Charlie Bradshaw—his Wofford quarterback, in fact—invited him to go thirds on Hardee's first franchise, in Spartanburg, and Richardson happened to have the wherewithal, thanks to that $4,000-plus '59 championship check. Richardson and Bradshaw were the working partners (a relative of Bradshaw's chipped in the other third) and, eventually, the 50-50 owners. But on Oct. 19, 1961, they were simply two fry cooks, dipping fries, picking up the trash in the lot and scratching their heads when it came time to balance the checkbook.
"The cooking was not complicated," says Richardson. "It turned out we didn't need to go to that Cornell restaurant school. Fixing the milkshake machine could be difficult. But the real disaster was the bookkeeping, one of those basic things that it's helpful to do if you want to operate a business. Just paying sales tax! Think about it, two guys, 25 years old, starting a business with a company's first franchise—the franchiser [Hardee's Food Systems, Inc., based in Rocky Mount. N.C.] didn't know any more than we did. It was a miracle that we made it."
On those days when things seemed to be going well, with lots of orders ("Hamburger, fries and a drink were 36 cents with tax," says Richardson) and not so many bills, Richardson and Bradshaw were confident enough to articulate their foolish dream. Some day, they told each other, they might make as much as $15,000 a year. Unitas money.
But their first Hardee's did well enough that their goals soon appreciated, along with their abilities to do bookkeeping. They opened their second store only months after opening the first. Their third outlet quickly followed. Lack of financing might have stalled further growth, even though, Richardson says, the budding business never operated even one month without profit. After all, Richardson and Bradshaw were trying to make something big out of a business that was selling hamburgers for 15 cents.
"The banks thought we were crazy," Richardson says. "They had to invest in our enthusiasm, not our balance sheet. It was an unknown concept." A junior bank officer named Hugh McColl seemed to recognize that enthusiasm, and he persuaded his bank to keep writing loans. By 1976, Richardson and Bradshaw operated 169 Hardee's franchises, and their company, Spartan Food Systems, Inc., had $56 million in sales and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Three years later, with their Hardee's franchises numbering 221, Bradshaw and Richardson sold Spartan food to Trans World Corp., then the parent company of Trans World Airlines, for $80 million. Both men continued to run Spartan Food until 1984, when Bradshaw became president and COO of Trans World Corp. On Dec. 30, 1986, Trans World was liquidated and the remaining food service subsidiaries, including Spartan, were merged into TW Services Inc., which went public as an independent company. Richardson became president of TW Services nine months later. Then, in '89, Richardson endured the leveraged buyout of TW Services by a group of New York corporate raiders, emerging as president and CEO of a company reeling under a $2.4 billion debt. Still, he owns about 4% of TW stock—4.1 million shares that have a value of more than $14 million—and his overall net worth, built on investments and his payoff in the various corporate takeovers, is believed to be in the neighborhood of $100 million.
Richardson is maddeningly self-effacing, especially when it comes time to explain this success story. He is surrounded by good people, he tells you. When that doesn't satisfy the question, he offers up luck. "We're as lucky as a dog with two.... Shut that tape recorder off for a minute." This shtick about his being lucky is a running joke among family, friends and business associates.
He seems hopelessly hokey, not the sort of businessman who employs 100,000 people. On his desk are some Post-it notes that, if you listen to him, detail his corporate philosophy. For this day, anyway, that philosophy is threefold: SAY NO, AVOID NEGATIVE PEOPLE and TEAMWORK MULTIPLIES THE POTENTIAL OF EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING. "I make 'em up," he says. This seems straight out of The Old Farmer's Almanac.
Richardson is a big list maker who is forever enumerating his thoughts, one through 10. These lists fly out of his office at an astonishing pace. Any piece of mail sent to him is liable to be returned with a list scrawled over your message: "1—How is your wife; 2—Our goal is to be the best food service in the world by 2000; 3—Keep up the good work." Once he wrote a note to his son Mark. It read: "M, 1—You're doing good; 2—We're proud of you; 3—We love you. JR."