By Jan Biles of The Topeka Capital-Journal
Before Ken Calwell was a teenager, he had developed a strong work ethic and learned the value of serving others.
At age 12, Calwell began mowing lawns in the neighborhood bordered by S.W. Gage, S.W. MacVicar, S.W. 17th and S.W. 21st. Over the next 10 years, he built the business, eventually known as KC Lawns, by working as many as 87 hours a week fertilizing and mowing lawns and trimming shrubs.
He put the money he earned to good use.
“I used it to pay my way through Washburn University,” he said.
Calwell, a 49-year-old Topeka native who became chief executive officer and board of directors member of Papa Murphy’s International on Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011 looks back at his first job in his hometown as laying the foundation for the skills, savvy and risk-taking he would need later to advance in the food service industry.
Calwell recalls the satisfaction he received knowing he was mowing lawns for elderly residents who could no longer do the task themselves. Working long hours didn’t bother him because he enjoyed what he was doing.
He remembers persuading a couple that trimming their shrubs would improve their landscaping by taking a risk and cutting back one shrub so they also could see his vision.
“I learned values growing up here in Topeka,” Calwell said during a November interview at the Papa Murphy’s store on S.W. 29th St.
PATH TO PAPA MURPHY’S
Calwell, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., attended Topeka Lutheran School and graduated from Topeka West High School in 1980. He earned a degree in business, with an emphasis in marketing, in 1984 at Washburn University and followed that with a master’s degree in business administration in 1986 at Indiana University.
“I started working as assistant marketing manager for Pillsbury (in 1986) in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” he said. “I’ve been in the food service industry since then.”
In 1988, Calwell was hired by Wichita-based Pizza Hut, where he advanced from associate marketing manager to vice president of marketing during his eight years with the company. While with Pizza Hut, he developed the launch of the Veggie Lovers and Meat Lovers pizzas.
He held a two-year marketing position with Frito-Lay from 1996 to 1998 before being hired by Wendy’s as its vice president of new product marketing, research and testing. During his three-year stint at Wendy’s, the hamburger chain introduced a popular line of salads.
From 2001-08, Calwell was chief marketing officer and executive vice president of research and development at Domino’s Pizza, where he oversaw an advertising budget that would reach $150 million and helped the company prepare for its first public stock offering in 2004.
Calwell returned in 2008 to Wendy’s International, where he also served as chief marketing officer and executive vice president of research and development. He helped the company launch its sea-salt French fries, premium salads, Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy hamburgers and freshly squeezed lemonade.
“I was recruited by Papa Murphy’s in June (2011) to be its president,” he said, adding his promotion to CEO and board of directors member of the Vancouver-based take-and-bake pizza company was announced in early November.
Calwell’s career trajectory hasn’t been without curves.
In August 1991, when he was working for Pizza Hut in Wichita, he was on a bicycle training ride for the U.S. National Triathlon Championship when a vehicle crossed the center line of a two-lane roadway and hit him head on. The woman driving the car had fallen asleep.
“I was going 25 miles per hour, she was going 50 miles per hour,” he said.
Calwell was caught underneath the vehicle’s back wheel. He suffered a fractured pelvis, a compound fracture of the right leg and multiple breaks in his left leg, right arm and around his right eye.
His bicycle was shattered into 39 pieces. His helmet was split seven ways.
“I spent 21/2 weeks in intensive care and 11/2 months in the hospital,” he said, adding he was admitted to an inpatient rehabilitation facility after being discharged from the hospital. “I had no use of my right arm for a year. That’s when I learned the power of prayer and perseverance.”
Calwell returned to work at Pizza Hut as soon as he could. By 2002, he had recovered enough to run a segment of the Olympic torch route.
“It taught me I could work through any challenge,” he said. “There’s always a way through.”
Calwell’s management style could be described as hands-on and enthusiastic: He likes to connect with Papa Murphy’s employees, franchisees and customers.
“I like to see the people I’m serving. Since June, I’ve visited 81 Papa Murphy’s restaurants,” he said, adding that he often works alongside employees during the visits. “There’s something fun about handing people their food.”
The pizza company has more than 500 franchisees in the United States and Canada and nearly 1,300 stores, with the most heavily concentrated area being the Pacific Northwest.
“They’re all hard-working people who want to own their own business. It’s the American dream,” he said. “We’re depending on each other (for success).”
Calwell said he often gleans ideas for new products or better ways of doing things from franchisees who are on the front lines every day. Most recently, the company introduced Thai chicken and chicken Parmesan pizza lines.
“Very soon, we will have a mini Murphy’s pizza that kids can make,” he said, explaining how the company would provide the crust, cheese and other toppings so children can build their own pizza at home.
Because Papa Murphy’s is a take-and-bake operation, its restaurants have no ovens or freezers, which means lower electric bills, leaner facilities and no costs associated with delivery service, he said. The money saved is channeled toward more-expensive ingredients.
In the next five to 10 years, Calwell said he hopes Papa Murphy’s stays true to its core principles of providing high-quality, freshly prepared food at a fair price while increasing the number of its restaurants.
“We have 1,290 restaurants now,” he said. “I can’t wait to see the day when we’ve got 3,000 restaurants across the United States.”