John Y. Brown Jr. is in an animated phone conversation about a burgeoning business deal. Motioning his guest toward a sofa in his home office, he covers the mouthpiece and whispers loudly, “It’s Kenny Rogers. Gimmie just a minute.”
That would be the Kenny Rogers, the voice behind the country chart-topping song, “The Gambler,” and Brown’s former business partner in Kenny Roger’s Roasters. The fire-roasted chicken chain took off in the early 1990s and grew to about 300 stores before flaming out in the United States, although it’s still operating in Asia. The septuagenarian pair is discussing a possible restaurant venture that Brown tells Rogers “has about a five-year window of opportunity for us. We’d need to time it right.”
That he says this to Rogers is ironic: In Rogers’ “Gambler,” the protagonist advises similarly and sagely, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run”—all maxims that have guided and girded Brown’s entire life. His sense of timing and nose for great opportunities are not only legendary, they made him tremendously successful in fast food, politics and as an owner of multiple pro-basketball teams.
Now Brown is looking to share that wisdom with others—and his timing is once again just right. Given an economy that he said “has restaurateurs truly scared,” he is developing a seminar series for entrepreneurial operators.
“I want to help people understand that entrepreneurs don’t fail, we just keep changing things until we get it right,” he said. “So this isn’t about motivational speeches, it’s about giving answers to problems.”
Wisdom to dispense
The breadth of Brown’s experience is undeniable:
On buying Kentucky Fried Chicken from Colonel Harland Sanders in 1964: “Jack Massey and I were very lucky to have found the right idea when we did.… We built it to 3,500 stores without closing a single one.… But when the [Heublein] corporate people came in, I had to get out of there.”
On winning Kentucky’s governorship in 1979: “We waited until about two months before the deadline to file before we even got in. Nobody thought we’d win, but we won by a landslide.”
On selling out of Roasters in the mid-1990s: “We were doing a million dollars a store every year, but Boston Market was coming on, and I wasn’t comfortable that the [roasted-chicken] trend was going to last much longer.”
On buying into and selling out of Miami Subs: “We’d grown it nicely, but the owner wanted to take it public, and I didn’t want to go down that road again.”
On getting through law school: “I really don’t know how I ever passed the bar [exam], because all I did in law school was play poker and sell encyclopedias.”
Brown’s memory of law school is reliable, said longtime friend and former KFC executive George Baker.John Y. Brown Jr.
CURRENT ROLE: entrepreneurHOMETOWN: Lexington, Ky.BIRTH DATE: Dec. 28, 1933EDUCATION: B.S., University of Kentucky, J.D., University of Kentucky College of LawKEY ACCOMPLISHMENTS: grew Kentucky Fried Chicken from 600 to 3,500 stores; served as governor of Kentucky, 1979-1983; owner, Lums; co-founder of Kenny Roger’s RoastersPERSONAL: divorced; five childrenFAVORITE SAYING: “Everyone needs something to do, someone to love and something to look forward to.”HOBBIES: searching for business opportunities, politics and country music
“He was pretty bright in law school, so he didn’t have to work as hard as a lot of the kids,” said Baker, who left the University of Kentucky College of Law shortly after Brown started. And while the future barrister’s legal knowledge would come in handy when overhauling KFC’s franchising contract in 1965, Baker said it was Brown’s personality and energy that drove the chain’s explosion.
“John Y. was a great motivator and tremendous salesman,” Baker said. “He was very skilled at bringing people together and getting them to work for a cause.”
He also knew when to leave people alone to do their jobs, said Harold Dunford, a KFC franchisee whose 25 stores were bought back by KFC corporate in the mid-1960s. When Dunford and his partner sold out, they took jobs with the chain.
“We were given very long leashes,” said Dunford, adding that Brown understood entrepreneurs needed a wide berth to perform optimally. “We were opening stores, which was purely an extension of what we already were doing.… And, my gosh, we got a lot of them built fast.”
In 1969 alone, KFC opened 864 stores, a jaw-dropping number that makes Brown grin.
“I said to everyone, ‘We’re going to blitz it!’ and we got pumped up to do it,” he recalled excitedly. “But the truth is we didn’t have a lot of competition at the time, and we knew that would change. So we got after it while we were hot.”
Despite Sanders’ Herculean effort to grow the company, Dunford said a man of Brown’s acumen was needed to push it higher.
“The Colonel was more old-fashioned about it: Open a store, have a little table and serve some food,” Dunford said. “John brought us into the modern age of fast food with the right franchising model, and he really understood that KFC’s future was in take-home [sales]. He was a pioneer in the industry.”
Decades later, Harvard Business School said the same when it named Brown one of its “Great American Business Leaders of the 20th Century” in November 2009. The honor humbles him and triggers a humorous story about his brief visit to Cambridge, Mass., as a would-be student:
As KFC’s growth skyrocketed in the 1960s, Brown’s executive team encouraged him to go to Harvard to learn how to run a large company. The entrance interview found him seated at a table facing 11 professors.
“One said, ‘Mr. Brown, tell us about your sales,’” Brown recalled. “I said we’d gone from $3 million to $100 million, and they looked at me kind of funny. Another said, ‘What about your profits?’ And I said, we’d gone from $300,000 pretax to $10 million pretax, and that kind of stopped them. Eventually, one said, ‘Mr. Brown I think you should go on home, get back to running your business and not let us say anything to confuse you.’”
Ask Brown about the restaurant industry’s current struggles, and he smiles and laughs. Four decades in the industry have taught him that this is but another cycle in the natural progression of the business. He insists that great operators will outlast the recession and that an upturn is coming.
“I’m very optimistic about the restaurant industry, because usually out of crisis comes opportunity,” said the 76-year-old. Leaning forward, he added forcefully, “It will come back.”
Such buoyant belief in tough times isn’t the Pollyanna posturing of a man insulated by his wealth, said his son, John Y. Brown III. It’s a display of the mettle that made him what he is.
“That eternal optimism is part of the John Y. Brown Jr. DNA,” Brown said of his father. “It is a dogged optimism mixed with opportunism that refuses to show up anywhere without finding an angle for success—and a way to have fun pursuing it.”
It’s also optimism based on the fact that mealtimes for American families are irreversibly changed, said the senior Brown.
“Mom isn’t going back to the kitchen,” he said. “And even if she wanted to, the kids aren’t going to allow it—which is good news for restaurants! Kids have soccer and music and everything else going on, and their parents still want to have the family dinner. But they have no time to cook at home, so they’ll have to eat out.
“Bill Young, who was my mentor and served in my [governor’s] cabinet, told me that when the American people become accustomed to something, they don’t want to give it up or change,” he continued. “People are used to eating out, and they’re used to convenience, and I don’t see that changing. And that’s a great thing.”