How a Childhood Experience Propelled Andy Puzder From Working Class to CEO

Andy Puzder has lived the American dream. Raised in a working-class home, he worked his way to become a CEO in the fast-food industry. “What I didn’t think was, ‘That son of a b—- is stealing from us.’ Or, ‘He’s in the 1%,’ and we’re in whatever percent you were in when your dad sold Fords in the 1960s,” Puzder recalls of his childhood experience seeing a rich man’s mansion. “What I thought was, ‘I could do that.’ And thank God I lived in a country where I could do that.”

Read the lightly edited interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

We also cover the following stories:

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Daniel Davis: I want to welcome back to the podcast a man named Andy Puzder. He is the former CEO of CKE Restaurants, which is the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.

It’s been about six months since we had you on the podcast. Welcome back, Mr. Puzder.

Andy Puzder: It’s good to be back. Thank you.

Davis: So, you have a very interesting story. I think a lot of folks would look at your life and say, “He really lived the American dream and rose from the working class to become a CEO.” And I want to ask you about that.

In your upbringing, did your parents, who came from a working-class background, … encourage you to seek out this path? Or were you really a different kind of black sheep in your family?

Puzder: Well, they were very encouraging of whatever me, my brothers, and my sister wanted to do. They were Depression-era kids themselves. Neither my mother nor my father had a college education, and I think they envied people who had been able to go to college. As I said, my dad fought in World War II, was a combat vet, and that all stuck with him.

But they were very encouraging of all of us to reach our full potential. And matter of fact … my sister didn’t go to college, but my three brothers and I all did. I was the first one in the family to graduate from college and they were the second, third, and fourth. So whatever they did, it worked, I guess.

Davis: When did you first aspire to go into business? Was that when you were a kid growing up?

Puzder: When I was about 10 years old, my dad asked me if I would go with him to deliver a car to a very rich man in a very rich area that was really just a few miles from our house. My dad was a Ford car salesman at the time. I told him I’d go, and we went.

We pulled up to this huge gate, this big gated house. The gate opens up. I was 10 years old. I can’t tell you if it was as big as it is in my memory, but in my memory, this was a big gate. It opens up, there’s a beautiful white house. It’s sunset. It’s in a place called Hunting Valley, which … [is] very wooded. There’s a lot of hunting. There’s a polo field nearby. Beautiful, wealthy area.

And we pull up toward this house and then my dad veers off and goes around it. I looked at my dad and I said, “Why didn’t you stop?” And he looked down and said, “Son, that was the guest house.” So we kept driving.

We then go by these beautiful stables—which were much nicer than the, I don’t know, the 2,000-square-foot ranch house we lived in nearby—and pulled up to the main house, which was … in my mind, it’s like Downton Abbey. I don’t know if it was really that big, but it’s this huge house.

We walk up, the man answers the door. His name was George Humphrey, and his father had been secretary of the treasury, and they owned a business, Hanna Industries, in Cleveland. And my dad and Mr. Humphrey talked for a while, then they traded keys and we’re walking back to the trade-in.

I was just dumbfounded by the affluence … I’d never seen anything like this. And I asked my dad, I said, “What does Mr. Humphrey do that he can live like this?” And my dad said, “Well, son, he’s a lawyer and he runs a business.”

I can still remember thinking, like it was yesterday, “A lawyer. I could be a lawyer.” I think it’s important that I thought that, but I think it’s more important what I didn’t think. What I didn’t think was, “That son of a b—- is stealing from us.” Or, “He’s in the 1%,” and we’re in whatever percent you were in when your dad sold Fords in the 1960s.

What I thought was, “I could do that.” And thank God I lived in a country where I could do that. There was a path. It wasn’t an easy path. It was an arduous path, but there was a path for me to be successful.

And eventually I did become a lawyer, and I did end up running a business, and I had a house just as nice as Mr. Humphrey’s. Maybe not as nice as the one I remember, but I think probably as nice as the one that he actually had.

So I did live the American dream, but I think that’s sort of where Adam Smith kind of tapped me on the shoulder and said, “There’s potential here for you.”

Davis: And you talk about there being a path for you to rise in this country, really a meritocracy that allows the great talent to rise to the top. Do you think that kind of meritocracy is still thriving in America or are we losing it?

Puzder: Well, I think it’s still thriving. I think people still respect the entrepreneurial spirit, the desire of people to better their lives. But we are seeing the shadow of socialism reenter the picture, which kind of discourages individual achievement, and tries to make everybody more or less the same. …

I like to call it the equality of poverty and misery, which is what we’ve had in the Soviet Union, in Cuba, in North Korea, and Venezuela.

And every place socialism has actually been tried, where the policies that somebody like a Bernie Sanders, an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Elizabeth Warren … the policies they’re promoting would have the potential to destroy the incentives to take risk, to invest, to work hard, to try and build a future for yourself, [which] are the hallmarks of capitalism.

Those things are antithetical in a socialist system. And for some reason, they seem to think that people are better off if they’re taken care of. So it is scary, but I think today we’re still fine.

Davis: Right. … There’s so many folks who are in the working class, just as you were growing up, and they would like to pursue the path that you followed. What advice would you give for them?

Puzder: I never looked back. Just keep trying. There’s nothing that can stop you other than yourself. Everything’s not going to be a victory. The path isn’t going to be easy. You’re going to run into hardship. You just have to keep going forward, and if you keep going forward, you’ll be fine.

Davis: You mentioned being the first in your family to go to college. How did you finance that?

Puzder: I painted houses. I cut lawns. One summer when I was going to law school in St. Louis, I busted up concrete with a jackhammer and threw the chunks on the back of a truck. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to St. Louis in the summer, but it is a miserable place to be busting up concrete and throwing the chunks on the back of a truck.

I worked just about every dirty, difficult job you can think of. Whatever [it] would pay, whatever I could get, whatever would help me … By the time I graduated from college—and I went to Washington University Law School, Cleveland State undergrad, so I had an affordable undergraduate school, but law school was expensive.

I decided to go full bore, and I had no family help. My family didn’t have any money, and no government help. I didn’t qualify for any. So it was either I worked my way through or I didn’t get through.

And by the time I graduated, my wife and I had two children and she was pregnant. I had to support my family during this process while going to a top 20 law school, Washington University, so it was difficult.

And there were a lot of kids in school that had it easier. Some of them had parental support. There were a lot that had support from the government that, again, I didn’t qualify for. I didn’t resent them then and I don’t resent them now. I think I learned things going through that process, toughing it out myself, that I wouldn’t have learned if my dad had been paying the bills, or if the government had been paying the bills.

So just hang in there. Fight. Keep going forward. You’ll be fine.

Davis: You mentioned going to law school, but most people who’ve heard of you know you as a business CEO who turned around a couple of fast-food companies. You mentioned your story of being inspired to go into law, become a lawyer. What kind of work were you doing as a lawyer that eventually led you into business? How does one go from doing legal cases to running a fast-food company?

Puzder: In 1997, I became the general counsel and executive vice president for CKE Restaurants, so I was the lawyer for the company, and we bought Hardee’s. I actually did the deal to buy Hardee’s.

After that, we went to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where Hardee’s was located. When you buy a company, you want to reduce overhead if you’re merging two companies together. So we were merging Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, and I had to go to Rocky Mount to tell some lawyers they needed to find other jobs because we didn’t need this many lawyers.

After I did that, I went to a meeting where they were talking about turning Hardee’s into Carl’s Jr., and they said, “Oh, it’s going to be great. We’re going to turn Hardee’s into Carl’s. We’ll change the signs. We’ll keep some of the breakfast stuff.” And I remember looking around the table thinking, “Everybody at this table is from California. The only guy here that ever lived in a Hardee’s market is me.”

So I spoke up and said, “I don’t think that’s going to work. I think that people are going to say, ‘Who’s Carl Jr. and where’s my Hardee’s?’” Because they’d already been here. The company was formed in 1961, so at that point you had like 40 years of brand equity buildup.

And everybody laughed and said, “Andy, go fire a lawyer. … ” I mean, I knew all these guys because I used to represent the founder of the company. And they said, “Go buy a company.” Because I also represented Fidelity National Financial, and I was buying Chicago Title at the time for Fidelity.

So [I] went off, did the Fidelity deal. A couple years later I came back, and the two markets where they had tried to change Hardee’s to Carl’s, one is still the worst-performing Carl’s Jr. market, and the other one they had to change back.

So there was a shareholders meeting in June of 2000 and the stock of the company had gone from $42 to $2. I mean, it was like this Hardee’s thing not working had just killed the company.

In Orange County, California, these Carl’s Jr. meetings were a big deal. A lot of people came because they all loved Carl Karcher. And I walked in, I was secretary of the company and I’d been gone for two years, buying Chicago Title, so I’m thinking, “I didn’t drive it down to $2. I told them not to do this.” I’m kind of laughing, thinking what joke I’ll tell while they’re voting for the shareholders.

The board of directors was meeting in the corner, and they called me over, and the chairman of the board says, “Andy.” I said, “Yeah?” He said, “You’re going to be the president of Hardee’s.” I said, “Excuse me? Why would you make me the president of Hardee’s?”

Another guy named Byron Allumbaugh, [who] used to run Ralphs market in California, [he] came over and said, “No, Bill.” This is Bill Foley, who was the chairman. He said, “No, Bill. If Andy’s going to be the president, he’s going to be the president and CEO. You had your chance.” And Bill laughed and said, because Hardee’s was a disaster, it was really on the verge of bankruptcy, if not technically bankrupt, … “All right, Andy. You’re the president and CEO of Hardee’s.” And I thought, “What are you guys thinking about?”

Anyway, that’s how I became the president and CEO of Hardee’s, and about three months later they made me president and CEO of the whole company. And who knew I could fix it? Yeah.

Davis: Wow.

Puzder: [I have] two theories. One theory is they said, “Hey, let’s see if the cocky lawyer can fix this thing.” That’s Theory One. Theory Two is that they thought I’d take it into bankruptcy or sell it, because I was a lawyer and the company was in trouble.

So I went to Rocky Mount, and [after] about two weeks there I realize, “You know, if I take it into bankruptcy, it really is bad for the investors. It’s bad for the people that are lending us money. It’s bad for the employees. It’s bad for … everybody. Why would I do that?” I said, “I think I can fix this.” And who knew? I could. I did.

Davis: But school didn’t really train you to run a business, right? You went to school to be a lawyer.

Puzder: It’s interesting. When I was a lawyer, I tried complex civil cases, so I represented guys that own businesses. When you’re in a lawsuit representing somebody that owns a business, you have to become as knowledgeable in that business as they are, because if you’ve got somebody on the stand you’re examining or cross-examining, if they know more than you do, you’re in trouble.

Davis: Right.

Puzder: So I was always … learning about one business, and then settling a lawsuit and trying it, or trying the lawsuit and then at the end of it, moving on to another business, learning about it. And these were all people that had gotten in some kind of trouble. because … they’re in a lawsuit, right? So I actually came up with some ideas about how to run a business by trying those lawsuits.

So when I came in, I sort of treated it like I would treat a lawsuit. I learned everything I could about the business.

Also, I had represented Carl Karcher, who founded Carl’s Jr. and CKE, and represented Bill Foley, who became the chairman of that company, and of Fidelity National Financial. And I learned a lot about running businesses from them.

Davis: Interesting.

Puzder: So I did learn—not in school, but I think practicing law because of what I practiced, I learned a lot about business. But I think a lot of it, too, is intuitive. …

A lot of people who knew a whole lot more about business than I did probably couldn’t have fixed these companies. I went into them as a customer. I’d walk in a restaurant and rather than saying, “The temperature’s wrong on the oven.” Or, “We need to change the amount of syrup that we put in the sodas.” I’d walk in and say, “If I walked in as a customer, what would I think?” And that really turned the business around.

Davis: So what was wrong when you walked into one of these franchises?

Puzder: Well, the restaurants were dirty, the food was bad, and the people were rude. Matter of fact …

Davis: That’s about as bad as it gets.

Puzder: … My first board meeting as CEO of the whole company—we had been remodeling Carl’s Jr., and the sales would go way up. We spent $150,000 a remodel, which was a lot of money to remodel a restaurant back in 2000. And we’d do the same amount and remodel a Hardee’s, and sales would go up for a week and then they go right back down, maybe go down worse.

So the board … said, “Andy, why is it that we’re remodeling Carl’s and we’re getting a return, and we’re remodeling Hardee’s and we’re not?” And I said, “Well, the problem is you go into an old Hardee’s that hasn’t been remodeled, and you’ve got a guy in a dirty shirt who’s rude to you and serving you food while you’re standing in french fries. And then you go into the remodeled Hardee’s, and you got a guy in a dirty shirt who’s rude to you and serving you food while you’re standing in french fries.”

If you don’t fix the problem … putting it in a new picture frame, putting a new building around the picture isn’t going to change it. You got to change the picture.

Davis: Right.

Puzder: So we focused on doing that. We put in some procedures and we got a good return. It worked pretty quick.

Davis: Yeah. Well, I got to tell you, as a customer at some of these … I go to Chick-fil-A quite a bit. The whole experience there is … everyone is polite, very kind, professional.

Puzder: Customer service. I’ll tell you, they could teach the people at Disneyland, who are supposed to be like the gold standard for service, … some lessons. Chick-fil-A is a great brand. They’ve done an incredible job with the company. They deserve everything they got.

Davis: Yeah. …

Puzder: You should go to Hardee’s and Carl’s, too. Yeah.

Davis: Hardee’s as well. That’s right.

Puzder: No, you can’t eat chicken all the time. Get a burger.

Davis: That’s right. That’s right.

Puzder: If you feel like you don’t want to eat a burger, they have that Beyond Meat burger now.

Davis: Yeah. Oh, well, I don’t know. I probably would pass on that. How do you feel about the Chick-fil-A cows saying, “Stop eating meat”? … “Stop eating beef”?

Puzder: Look, if I could think of something that clever … Of course, I’m retired now, so it’s somebody else’s responsibility. But when I’d been running the company, if I could have thought of something that clever to get people not to eat chicken, I probably would have used it. That’s very creative. They’re good people.

Davis: Well, Mr. Puzder, I appreciate you being on today on the podcast. Thanks so much.

Puzder: My pleasure. Thank you.

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