New Carl's Jr. Star Might Eclipse Company Founder : Corporations: Donald Doyle, who took top job with Carl Karcher's blessing, now is fighting him for control.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a bold move for two Southerners so deeply rooted.

Donald and Roberta Doyle sold their plantation-style house in Louisville, Ky., bid longtime friends farewell and migrated to Southern California, where their only tie was a job--albeit one that pays $300,000 a year.

In December, Don Doyle took the throne at Carl's Jr., an Anaheim-based hamburger chain that for 50 years had been ruled by its founder. Carl N. Karcher personally blessed Doyle as his successor, the board of directors heartily approved, and all concerned seemed happy.

Only nine months later however, Doyle finds himself squared off against the very man who crowned him president and chief executive officer. "It looked like such a calm place to work at first," Doyle quipped.

And in the high-stakes battle for control of home-grown Carl Karcher Enterprises Inc., Doyle finds himself facing off with one of the county's premier business executives--a fast-food pioneer, charity benefactor and the star of his own TV commercials.

Suddenly, the spotlight is on the 47-year-old Doyle, too, as stockholders, employees, franchise owners and community leaders want to know more about the newcomer while they ponder what the fight will mean for the future of Carl's Jr.

Company employees know that one of Doyle's first jobs here was to fire 70 corporate employees and that he has moved to cut prices at Carl's Jr. and speed up service. Less well-known is his record of boosting sales as a top executive at Kentucky Fried Chicken for most of the 1980s, his work as Louisville's leading business booster--and his teen-age days in a rock band.

"He's very businesslike," Roberta Doyle said, "but he does have another side."

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The Doyles don't seem like the kind of people who would have been brought together by rock 'n' roll, but such is their love story.

He was a 19-year-old student at a small technology college in southern Indiana, performing Rolling Stones songs in honky-tonks to pay tuition. She was a 17-year-old high school senior dating the drummer in the band--until the guitar player turned her head.

"I thought he was going to be a recording star," Roberta Doyle said, giggling. "This is so embarrassing to talk about."

When told that he doesn't quite fit the image of a Mick Jagger wannabe, the soft-spoken and conservatively attired Doyle remarked, "I had hair then."

They married two years after meeting and had three sons, one right after another.

Today, their children are grown. "It's nice because we can do whatever we want," Don Doyle said.

He still enjoys strumming his guitar, but that doesn't mean he's a Bill Clinton brand of baby boomer.

"I'm pretty conservative from a business perspective, though I'm a little more liberal on social issues," said Doyle, a registered Republican.

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Doyle's first job out of college was with an Ohio oil company, where he used his math degree to concoct gasoline formulas. "As soon as I got there, I realized I was much more interested in the business side of the company than in the technical aspects of it," he said. So he started taking night classes at Bowling Green State University's business school.

In 1973, MBA in hand, Doyle joined the strategic planning department of Louisville-based Kentucky Fried Chicken--now KFC. By 1982 he was president of KFC's domestic operations.

In 1986, R.J. Reynolds sold KFC to Pepsico Inc. Doyle and the new owner never hit it off.

During Doyle's reign as chief of domestic operations at KFC, sales increased from an average of $388,000 per restaurant in 1982 to $597,000 in 1988--an achievement that analysts call impressive. Still, when Pepsico took the helm, it had its own way of doing things.

Within a year of the acquisition by Pepsico, Doyle could see that his personal philosophy "just wasn't a good fit."

"I told them I didn't think it was going to work, and they agreed," he said.

For Doyle, leaving the company he virtually grew up in was traumatic. "I was really close to all the people there," Doyle said. And, when he left in 1988, he didn't have another job lined up.

Roberta Doyle recalls the ensuing yearlong limbo as bittersweet: "It was really sad when Don left KFC. But I rather enjoyed having him home, not traveling as much. He went to every soccer game the boys played in."

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As far as Louisville officials were concerned, 1989 was a fortuitous time for Doyle to be job hunting.

Suffering a severe recession, the city had just formed the Greater Louisville Economic Development Partnership. Its mission was to attract companies to the area. Mayor Jerry Abramson appointed Don Doyle the organization's first president.

From the start, Doyle viewed the post as temporary. It paid an annual salary of about $110,000--good money for a city job, but much less than he could make in the private sector. "I looked at it as something rewarding I could do until the boys graduated from high school," he said.

For Abramson, recruiting the former KFC president was a coup. "There weren't many communities in America that could offer someone of Don's stature as their business spokesman," the mayor said.

Four years later, the partnership's founders proclaimed it a success--citing about 50 companies that have set up shop during its existence. Doyle, officials say, gets much of the credit for laying the groundwork.

"When he left, everything kept moving," said Charles Buddeke, a Louisville businessman who at the time was president of the Chamber of Commerce. "That's the mark of true leadership."

More than a respected business associate, though, Buddeke considers Doyle his best friend--someone who saw him through a painful divorce, then taught him to loosen his necktie.

"My divorce took my legs off," Buddeke said. "Don was always there any time I needed him. He's a great listener."

On a business trip together in New York, Doyle confronted Buddeke about his workaholism. "He said, 'The problem with you is that you don't know to have fun.' It was a major turning point in my life," Buddeke said.

Doyle himself has little trouble relaxing, friends say. In Louisville, he played tennis every Sunday morning with Mayor Abramson. He also fishes, golfs, skis and, of course, practices his guitar.

Brought up Catholic in the small town of Seymour, Ind., Doyle later switched to the Presbyterian Church--though he confesses to a spotty attendance record.

He owes the change purely to the fact that he and his family discovered "a delightful minister" at a church two blocks from their Louisville home.

Doyle brings his laid-back demeanor and quiet sense of humor with him to the office.

"Even when there is chaos all around him, he does not get rattled," said Phil Payne, who owns an advertising agency in Louisville.

"I couldn't tell you one person who doesn't like Don Doyle."

That sense of Doyle apparently permeates all levels of people who have worked with him.

"Oh, my favorite person!" enthused Annavive Kissinger, a secretary at the Economic Development Partnership. "He never made you feel like you had to bow down and worship him. In other words, you could insult him and he'd laugh."

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When he resigned from the partnership, Doyle again embarked into the unknown. Search firms came calling--including one for Karcher Enterprises after its president, Donald Karcher, died in May, 1992. Carl Karcher saw the changing of the guard as the right time to pass along his CEO title as well.

Doyle interviewed for the job. "I came out here and met with Carl and heard that everyone thought I was wonderful," Doyle said. "Then I didn't hear anything for a month and thought, well, maybe I wasn't so wonderful."

Karcher, meantime, had decided to take the company private with a Los Angeles-based investment group, Freeman Spogli & Co. The firm flew Doyle out for another interview and told him he was the preferred candidate for president should a leveraged buyout attempt succeed. Freeman Spogli hired Doyle as a consultant on the project.

A few months later, however, the outside directors for Karcher Enterprises rejected the proposed sale, deeming the price too low. Once again, Doyle went home empty-handed.

But the company still needed a president and CEO. Karcher brought him back for yet another interview. "We were skiing with friends in Colorado when I got the call," Doyle said. "I bought a shirt and tie in Vail and took the next plane out."

The board members expected to like Karcher's choice, director Betsy Sanders said. But they were surprised by how much they liked him.

"Our reaction was, 'This guy is terrific,' " Sanders said. "It was like going on a blind date that a dear friend set up, and you're thinking, 'I hope he's not too bad'--and then you meet him, and he's the man of your dreams."

Doyle was finally hired late last year. His three-year contract provides him an annual salary of $300,000.

There was no honeymoon. Under an edict by the board to cut costs and revitalize stagnant sales, Doyle immediately faced the unpleasant task of laying off 70 employees at corporate headquarters. "One of the hardest things is to lose your job," he said. "But it's also very hard to have to tell someone they're losing their job."

Little did Doyle know that the real roller-coaster ride had yet to begin.

In July, Karcher presented the board his proposal to boost sales at Carl's Jr. by test-marketing Mexican menu items from Anaheim-based GB Foods' Green Burrito restaurant chain. The board declined, and Doyle assumed that was the end of that.

But Karcher would not go quietly. On Sept. 1, he returned with a shocking announcement: Give burritos a try, or brace for a battle.

"I realized that anytime someone has run a company for as long as Carl ran Karcher Enterprises, it was going to be difficult for him to give it up," Doyle said. "But I had not anticipated that Carl's beliefs or motivations would be so strong that he would say, 'If you don't agree with me, board, I'll get a new board.'

"We were in a position where the company was energized, everyone was charging ahead--and all of a sudden it's like, screech !" Doyle said, making the sound of braking tires on pavement.

Whether a proxy fight will actually occur is anyone's guess, Doyle said. But until he can close this latest chapter in the saga of Karcher Enterprises, one can hardly blame him for feeling homesick at times.

One recent morning, Doyle called an old friend from his car phone while driving to work. "He told me, 'I'm in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway,' " Mayor Abramson said. " 'If I were in Louisville, I'd still be in bed.' "

Despite the uncertainties, the Doyles have every intention of staying put. They have bought a house in Laguna Beach, trading their two-acre lawn in Louisville for a small courtyard and an ocean view.

"I'd like to have a good, long career at Karcher Enterprises," Don Doyle said.

* CHOOSING SIDES: In-fighting could divide Karcher Enterprises staff. D1

Profile: Donald E. Doyle

Position: President and chief executive officer, Carl Karcher Enterprises

Age: 47

Education: MBA, Bowling Green State University, Ohio, 1973

Family: Married for 26 years; he and wife Roberta have three sons

Background: Joined Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1973. In 1984, he became president of KFC-USA, overseeing domestic operations.

Karcher connection: Met Carl Karcher in 1991 while serving as adviser to a Los Angeles-based investment group attempting to buy outstanding shares of Carl Karcher Enterprises. The purchase fell through, but Doyle was hired as president of Carl Karcher Enterprises in 1992, succeeding Donald Karcher, who died of cancer.

Source: Carl Karcher Enterprises

Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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