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LEADING QUESTIONS: Fast-food guru digs philanthropy

August 17, 2011
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Brown recorded more than 5,000 hours of volunteer service for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana. (IBJ Photo/Mason King)

Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.

On July 21, Charles W. Brown, 62, arrived at what he thought was a board meeting for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana to recognize a fellow volunteer. Instead, it was a happy ambush of sorts, as the organization instead feted him with the newly minted Charlie Brown Living Legacy Award, honoring 20 years of volunteering for the group and donating more than $1 million over those years.



“It was a total surprise. My daughter was there, and sister, and the whole board, which was very meaningful. And the whole staff of Big Brothers Big Sisters was there—which was probably the best part of it,” said Brown, a former board president.

He also has contributed money to the youth-oriented Kids’ Voice of Indiana and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, as well as his alma mater Ball State University and other not-for-profit organizations.  “I just want to make a difference in kids’ lives,” Brown said. “I think that is where we can be the most impactful, and I think that is where we need help."

Brown has lived in the Indianapolis area all his life, graduating from North Central High School and then Ball State with a bachelor's degree in business administration. He initially joined his father in the family business, licensed-product maker Brown Collegiate Manufacturing. In 1982, he and Craig Fenneman, a friend from a local softball team, decided to get into the fast-food field and purchase two Taco Bell restaurants in Columbus and Bloomington.

Today, Southern Bells Inc. owns 75 restaurants in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, including 67 Taco Bells. As co-owner and executive vice president of the firm, Brown has spearheaded raising more than $550,000 for the Taco Bell Foundation for Teens through the restaurants. In late 2010, Southern Bells raised about $150,000 for the foundation’s Graduate to Go Scholarship Program, $120,000 of which will be dedicated to college scholarships for youths in the central third of Indiana.

“That program focuses on the kids who are not graduating from high school,” Brown said. “To me, that may be one of the biggest problems we have in this city or state. Male graduation rates [in some schools] are deplorable. We have to do something to encourage those kids. When I talk to them, they don’t really have any direction. If there is something we can do, something to encourage them to go onto post-secondary education, … it could make a big difference in their lives.”

Brown can trace his interest in philanthropy at least in part to a formative experience working on a construction detail during the summers of 1967 and 1968. Landscaping the fledgling Interstate 465, he became friends with black project superintendent in his 60s who opened Brown’s eyes to the value of integrity, work ethic and passion for family. In the video at top, he discusses the experience and its personal impact.

Brown also sees value in his role as an employer.

“In the Taco Bell business or any fast-food business, you have the opportunity to hire kids still in high school; you’re hiring people who didn’t graduate from high school; and you have some who have graduated from college," he said. "You can really make a difference in people’s lives by employing them, first of all, and making sure they understand integrity and loyalty and some of the values that you want to instill in them.”

A few other notes from Brown conversation with “Leading Questions”:

— He has learned to embrace his name, the same as the loveable-loser protagonist in the “Peanuts” comic strip. “I remember going through high school kind of regretting it, but it’s a good thing to have. People remember your name. You can introduce a million people, but they’ll always remember ‘Charlie Brown’ when you’re introduced.”

— Asked about his biggest boneheaded mistake in business, Brown admitted that he and Fenneman tried early on in their fast-food venture to spiff up their restaurants by adding carpeting. “We thought that would make them feel a little quieter and more comfortable and homey. And I tell you, that carpet was so hard to keep clean with the ingredients we have at Taco Bell. It was a nightmare.”

— One of their biggest successes was adding drive-through windows to their restaurants back in 1982, when the feature was still a bit unusual. “The first two restaurants that we bought, the first thing we did was add drive-throughs. Even though you almost had to do a three-point turn to get around one of them, it still bumped up our sales almost 30 percent as soon as we opened it up. And now drive-through business is almost 65 to 70 percent of our sales.”


 

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