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From rags to riches: Wayne Lobdell

Anne Stanton - August 6th, 2010
From Rags to Great Riches
By Anne Stanton
Traverse City entrepreneur Wayne Lobdell is known as a full-throttle
kind of guy when it comes to running his empire of fast-food
franchises. But he’s been more laid back when it’s come to promoting
his autobiography, “Climb from the Cellar,” which was published in the
Spring of 2009 with sales of a couple thousand copies.
And that’s too bad because it’s a well-written autobiography of a
determined farm kid that deserves a wider audience—readers, perhaps,
who might be in need of some inspiration during these jobless times.
Lobdell modeled his life after his dad, Howard, who achieved his dream
of owning a small farm, which he later lost due to illness. In Wayne’s
case, his dad’s edict of working very hard translated into success for
Wayne beyond his wildest childhood dreams. He now owns 73 restaurant
franchises, including 24 Pizza Huts and 49 Taco Bells. His three sons
are all involved in the restaurant business, either taking the helm of
Lobdell Hospitality Restaurant Group or their own company. Eight
restaurants in Traverse City and Suttons Bay alone belong to a Lobdell
family member.
Lobdell’s story, which took him several years to write, helps explain
his generous donations to a variety of local and national causes that
help disadvantaged kids. One includes the Annual Culinary Scholarship
Dinner at the Lobdell’s Teaching Restaurant at the Great Lakes
Culinary Institute, which has given out more than $50,000 so far in
scholarships. The sixth dinner is scheduled for September 24 (see
details below).

Wayne Lobdell paints in detail the struggle of the post-Depression
days in Ravenna, a small farm town on the outskirts of Muskegon. He
recalls a mother who complained too much, and a father who—well,
Lobdell wouldn’t say he worked too hard. He just always worked.
In 1935, some six years before Wayne was born, his mother, Marion, was
abandoned by her first husband who walked off in the time it took to
“percolate a pot of coffee.” Howard Lobdell soon came along and saved
her from the disgrace of single mother status. The first years were
among the most difficult. Howard worked full-time at a foundry. In his
“spare time,” he built a house with trees he cut down from their $250
lot. “Like a lot of wiry men in their prime, Howard worked bigger than
he was,” Wayne wrote. Marion was lonely, staying home with her three
kids, often seeing her husband when he fell exhausted into bed.
Despite their frugal ways, money was still tight, and the young couple
was forced to rent out the first floor of their newly built house and
move into the basement with sons Russell, Lavern and Gerald. Marion
was nearly nine months pregnant with a fourth child and feared for the
day she went into labor. Her husband was always working and they had
no phone. As it turns out, her worst fears were confirmed.
Fortunately, her neighbor lady heard her voice call out, “Help me!”
and stepped into the basement apartment to deliver baby Wayne.
Wayne lived in the basement only a few months before the family moved
onto a bigger apartment. “Good-bye little dungeon,” Marion sang out as
they packed up the Chevy.  Marion lost her first son, Russell, to
pneumonia, likely owing to the damp basement air and the colds it
brought on.
Lobdell’s life isn’t a straight-on trajectory to success. Quite the
opposite. He was often side-tracked by his buddies. At the age of 4,
he visited an 8-year-old neighbor—someone with whom he desperately
wanted to be a friend—who talked him into smoking a cigarette. Wayne
watched the smoke swirling around as “delicious as cotton candy” and
gave it a go.
Fortunately, for Wayne, his mother had a keen sense of smell and knew
how to pack a punch in her threats. “Smoking stops you from growing.
You will never get to be a big boy if you smoke,” she told him.
That same year, his father bought the farm he dreamed of, though he
continued to work full-time at the foundry. The book recalls the days
of farm chores, chasing pigs, and attending a one-room schoolhouse.
Although his parents always had a close eye on the budget, they were
quick to open their home to a needy relative or child.
Wayne was a quick study when it came to chores. Getting asked to help
out carried prestige, and his older brothers were often pained when
Wayne was chosen over them.  At school, Wayne did the minimum except
for the rare times when he wanted to prove himself to the dour
teacher, who had no expectations of the Lobdell boys, who came from
the smallest farm on the block. She once pulled Lavern up by the hair
and told him, “You’re a no good for nothing, and you’ll always be a no
good for nothing.” Wayne believes that Lavern took her words too much
to heart.
Over the years, Wayne’s father became weak and despondent. When Wayne
was about 13, his dad was diagnosed with tuberculosis owing to years
of breathing in foundry soot that had “coated his lungs with black,
smoky bacteria.” His father was hospitalized, and the Lobdell family
splintered. His oldest brother had already left home to work as a
traveling magazine salesman. His middle brother, Gerald, had been
written off early on by his teacher and was unable to read. He dropped
out of school in seventh grade and got a job as an usher at a downtown
theatre. When Wayne triumphantly told his one-room schoolteacher the
news, she gave him a strange look and said, “You must mean he got a
job as a janitor.”
With his dad in the hospital, Wayne went into high gear, hiring
himself out at farms. He eagerly did what he was asked and then looked
around for even more to do. But Wayne couldn’t make enough to save his
own family’s farm. As he entered ninth grade, his mom moved to
Muskegon to find work, while Wayne moved in with an uncle and aunt in
Muskegon with its big city temptations.
Wayne’s new neighborhood was rough. He made friends with the
neighborhood teens—hoods basically—and was talked into stealing and
fighting. He writes with regret of knocking out a guy’s front teeth
he’d never met before. When he almost got caught as a look-out for a
store burglary, Wayne decided he needed new friends. Soon after, he
met a cheerleader by the name of Terry at a dance. She was two years
younger than him from a “good” family, who normally would have ignored
a hood like him. But she gave him a chance and gently nudged him
toward less wild ways.

The last third of the book details his success years—buckling down to
get better grades and studying journalism at Michigan State
University. To pay for college, he took a job at a hotel/restaurant,
where he worked as a busboy. He ambitiously asked for a chance to work
at all the jobs, ranging from janitor to night auditor. His boss soon
promoted him to manager and persuaded him that restaurants were where
the real money was. Wayne switched his major to restaurant and
hospitality, which led to a job as manager of a country club
restaurant his first year out of school. The shrewd moves he made to
move up in his career make for interesting pointers.
In 1972, Wayne interviewed with Franchise Foods International for a
job based in Traverse City.  His salary offer was low, reflecting the
town’s customary “view of the bay, half the pay” rationale. Still,
Wayne bargained for a slightly lower salary in lieu of partial
ownership and an option to eventually buy in as partner. It turned out
to be the beginning of a spectacular entrepreneurial career, which
earned him tens of millions, yet demanding 85-hour work weeks.
His brothers, on the other hand, struggled—his oldest brother with
alcoholism, and his middle brother, who drowned several years ago,
with a head injury and a mental deficit. Wayne sends his surviving a
brother a check each month and visits him when he’s in and out of
Some might view Climb from the Cellar as old-school. More fathers
today eschew the 60-hour work weeks, wanting instead to spend more
time with their kids and having fun. And far more working age women
are in the workforce than in the late 1950s—75% compared to about 40%,
according to a March 2, 2006 New York Times article.
Yet Jeff Lobdell, his oldest son, told Express that despite his dad’s
intense work schedule, he has fond memories of his childhood; the four
kids are all close to their dad. Jeff said his mother, who also has an
intense work ethic, was vital to the family’s success. Now the
president of nine companies and owner of 15 restaurants, Jeff passes
on his folks’ philosophy to his two young children.
“You have to learn disappointment as you grow up and that you can’t
get everything you want. If you did, you’d be pretty spoiled, and you
wouldn’t have the work ethic,” Jeff said.

 And that’s pretty much the message of the book. Hard work—always
doing more than what’s expected—is rewarded, although wise decisions
play an equally key role. Wayne writes that he came precariously close
to a different and darker path had he joined the Muskegon gang.
“Somewhere along the line someone has to find somebody or somebody has
to find them, or get lucky,” he told the Express. “Everyone needs
something to hang on that they excel at, something they feel they can
do—and stick with it.”
Now 69, Wayne has new interests. He’s writing a fiction book about a
busy executive’s sudden transition into a snowbird retirement.
His newest business venture is a natural gas project that’s taken
longer than expected, but appears to be on a path to success. And he’s
avidly pursuing thoroughbred horse racing.
“He’s totally focused,” said Terry, his wife of 48 years.  “He wants
to find a contender. So for the past six months, all he’s done is
study the lineage of thoroughbreds, and he created his own spreadsheet
to put all his information into. …  Every night he’s on his computer
until 10 or 11 pm, studying the lineage of horses.”
Wayne’s goal is buy a couple of yearlings every year for a stable that
he’ll call Lobdell Charity Stables. He aims to develop a contender for
the Kentucky Derby.
“And if I win, I’ll donate a million dollars to my favorite charity
organizations. I know it’s a very long shot, but I will have fun
Lobdell believes the book can serve as an inspiration to those who are
open to the message.
“I appreciate what a wonderful country we live in. If you work hard,
you have the opportunity to climb from the cellar. My childhood seems
like a whole different world now, but I think about it often.”

Lobdell’s book, “Climb From The Cellar,” is available online and at
Horizon Books for $15.95. Also, the Sixth Annual Scholarship Dinner
will be held on September 24 at the Lobdell’s Teaching Restaurant,
September 24, with doors opening at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $250 per
couple. Call 941-5052, ext. 202, to reserve your seats.

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