Feasting on Human Drama in the Hamburger Business

For starters, I know nothing about the internal wranglings of the hamburger business. Beats me whether a moderately priced burrito is the answer to the problems at Carl's Jr. or not.

And yet, how can anyone not be fascinated by the power struggle shaping up at the hamburger chain, once one of the classic success stories of Orange County's modern entrepreneurial era?

Poring over the now-yellowed newspaper articles about the early days of Carl's Jr. and its charismatic founder, Carl Karcher, provides all the backdrop you need to appreciate the current drama.

Most of us don't know what it's like to be an eighth-grade dropout, push a hotdog cart for a living and then watch it all pay off in a flourishing business with hundreds of outlets and hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

That kind of success breeds a certain kind of person, or is it the other way around? Typically, people who have hit it that big feel either that they've been blessed by the gods or that they're geniuses. My hunch is that Karcher, a devout Catholic not shortchanged in the ego department, thinks he's a combination of both.

After all, this is a father of 12 and a physical bear of a man who did his own TV commercials and wanted a city street renamed "Karcher Way." This is a man who wasn't embarrassed to moralize in his public comments or hand out Bible verses as well as hamburger coupons to people he'd meet.

He's perhaps too easily stereotyped, but even allowing for the nuances of someone's personality, the Karcher profile that has emerged over the years makes it easy to understand why he's fighting fellow board members today.

The profile is that of a man certain of his own rectitude. Born in the Midwest, reared on a farm, steeped in religion and the virtues of hard work, Karcher came West like many a young man. Southern California in general, and Orange County in particular, still had many blanks to be filled in during the late 1930s and early 1940s, and Karcher set out to do his share.

He settled for good in Southern California in 1939, first in Anaheim and then in Los Angeles County. By the mid-1940s, he had his first restaurant in Anaheim, calling it Carl's Drive-In and Barbecue. Karcher was his own cook.

He became part of that phalanx of free-enterprise businessmen that populated Orange County and gave the place its conservative reputation. It's an Orange County that has shifted over the years, in the sense that people like Karcher and Walter Knott could be openly linked to people sympathetic to the John Birch Society. For his part, Karcher eventually backed away from his personal support of John Schmitz, a conservative Orange County congressman and former Bircher, but it calls to mind a time in the county's history when such support wasn't political suicide.

By 1976, Karcher had aligned himself with more conventional conservatism, heading Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in Orange County. One of the honorary chairmen was a fellow named John Wayne. Karcher wore American flags on his lapels and once told an interviewer he bought Cadillacs because they were American made. He donated heavily to politics but also to civic and charitable causes that transcended politics.

I don't know who's right in Karcher's dispute with fellow board members. I get a kind of perverse enjoyment from watching how the gentility and public relations image attached to a company suddenly go out the window once a corporate fight goes public.

For years, we were force-fed the image of happy, smiling Carl Karcher, whose hands-on management style was considered his strength. As recently as 1988, a corporate insider said of Karcher: "He's in there every day, very much aware of what's going on. He can tell you the gross of every store, who's losing and who's making money, how much they paid for land in 1939. He's got the kind of mind that can click out those figures."

Now he's characterized by one of the board members as a "strong, domineering man who has a tremendous disregard for other people's ideas and inputs."

Well, that's show biz.

It doesn't take much imagination to contemplate how many hundreds of business decisions Karcher has made over the years, all the things he tried that others advised against. To him, what's one more naysayer now that he decides he wants to experiment with Mexican food at some of his restaurants?

Where were these upstarts when he was selling hotdogs for 10 cents?

You wonder how much it galls him that his successor in last week's coup, although handpicked for the board 10 years ago, earned her stripes in the department store business.

Oh, the indignity of it all.

Is the old man right? Is the business acumen he once had still there?

Or has he hung on too long, caught in his own time warp and too blind to see it?

Whether this is the last great struggle of Carl Karcher's life remains to be seen. At 76, you figure he may not have many more left in him.

But for now, the only ending I can't foresee is of the Hamburger King timidly walking away.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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