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LEADING QUESTIONS: Fast-food guru digs philanthropy

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Leading Questions

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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  • Good Job
    Good job Charlie! Thanks for making a difference in childrens lives.
  • Great Job!
    Wow what a great contribution to the community! Great Job!
  • Leadership
    Charlie, thanks for taking a leadership role and showing others the importance of giving back to the community.
  • Charlie makes us proud to call him friend
    Having known him well for 40+ years, he is a quiet guy who does things right, in a big way and quietly. He sets a high standard with great humility and touches those who have contact with him. Indianapolis is fortunate to have Charlie's attention and loyalty.

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  1. Cramer agrees...says don't buy it and sell it if you own it! Their "pay to play" cost is this issue. As long as they charge customers, they never will attain the critical mass needed to be a successful on company...Jim Cramer quote.

  2. My responses to some of the comments would include the following: 1. Our offer which included the forgiveness of debt (this is an immediate forgiveness and is not "spread over many years")represents debt that due to a reduction of interest rates in the economy arguably represents consideration together with the cash component of our offer that exceeds the $2.1 million apparently offered by another party. 2. The previous $2.1 million cash offer that was turned down by the CRC would have netted the CRC substantially less than $2.1 million. As a result even in hindsight the CRC was wise in turning down that offer. 3. With regard to "concerned Carmelite's" discussion of the previous financing Pedcor gave up $16.5 million in City debt in addition to the conveyance of the garage (appraised at $13 million)in exchange for the $22.5 million cash and debt obligations. The local media never discussed the $16.5 million in debt that we gave up which would show that we gave $29.5 million in value for the $23.5 million. 4.Pedcor would have been much happier if Brian was still operating his Deli and only made this offer as we believe that we can redevelop the building into something that will be better for the City and City Center where both Pedcor the citizens of Carmel have a large investment. Bruce Cordingley, President, Pedcor

  3. I've been looking for news on Corner Bakery, too, but there doesn't seem to be any info out there. I prefer them over Panera and Paradise so can't wait to see where they'll be!

  4. WGN actually is two channels: 1. WGN Chicago, seen only in Chicago (and parts of Canada) - this station is one of the flagship CW affiliates. 2. WGN America - a nationwide cable channel that doesn't carry any CW programming, and doesn't have local affiliates. (In addition, as WGN is owned by Tribune, just like WTTV, WTTK, and WXIN, I can't imagine they would do anything to help WISH.) In Indianapolis, CW programming is already seen on WTTV 4 and WTTK 29, and when CBS takes over those stations' main channels, the CW will move to a sub channel, such as 4.2 or 4.3 and 29.2 or 29.3. TBS is only a cable channel these days and does not affiliate with local stations. WISH could move the MyNetwork affiliation from WNDY 23 to WISH 8, but I am beginning to think they may prefer to put together their own lineup of syndicated programming instead. While much of it would be "reruns" from broadcast or cable, that's pretty much what the MyNetwork does these days anyway. So since WISH has the choice, they may want to customize their lineup by choosing programs that they feel will garner better ratings in this market.

  5. The Pedcor debt is from the CRC paying ~$23M for the Pedcor's parking garage at City Center that is apprased at $13M. Why did we pay over the top money for a private businesses parking? What did we get out of it? Pedcor got free parking for their apartment and business tenants. Pedcor now gets another building for free that taxpayers have ~$3M tied up in. This is NOT a win win for taxpayers. It is just a win for Pedcor who contributes heavily to the Friends of Jim Brainard. The campaign reports are on the Hamilton County website. http://www2.hamiltoncounty.in.gov/publicdocs/Campaign%20Finance%20Images/defaultfiles.asp?ARG1=Campaign Finance Images&ARG2=/Brainard, Jim

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