Frank Carney is the picture of success: a 66-year-old trailblazer to whom retirement seems as distant now as the day in 1958 when he and brother, Dan, founded Pizza Hut.

After leaving Pizza Hut in 1980, his second career as a venture capital investor nearly doubled his net worth. And then came 1989.

Over the next four years, his American dream became a nightmare as the companies in which he'd invested began to fail miserably. By 1993, Carney's millions were memories. The lessons he learned from those failures, however, ultimately drove him back to his forte: pizza.

A new start

In 1994, Carney got a call from former Pizza Hut board member and then Houston-based Papa John's franchisee, Martin Hart. Hart encouraged him to visit a Papa John's store because it was Carney's kind of chain: fast growing and focused on quality.

Carney said he understood what Hart meant after he finally got around to seeing a store and tasting the pizza. "I realized then that (becoming a franchisee) was going to be a pretty easy decision," he said.

In 1997, Papa John's, seeking to capitalize on Carney's pizza comeback as a Pizza Hut competitor, released a TV commercial in which Carney announced to a mock assembly of Pizza Hut's board that he'd found a pizza better than theirs. Spurred by that and other Papa John's commercials, Pizza Hut filed suit claiming the advertisements were false. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Papa John's in 2000.

Carney's pizza peers, however, weren't as convinced. At the 1999 Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, Carney told a crowd of about 900 pizzeria operators he had no regrets about speaking out against the company he founded. He said he believed he was free to do so because the pies Pizza Hut was selling were below the quality of the products it delivered when he led the company.

"They had become an assembly line product company," said Carney. He said PepsiCo's drive for growth at almost all cost caused them to reduce the product's quality. Still, Carney said his old company is making progress to set things aright.

Back to the future

Today Carney travels weekly to monitor his stores in one of the largest franchisee groups in Papa John's system. Hart says this makes for a schedule that would exhaust men half Carney's age.

Asked to compare his success at Pizza Hut to that he's having now, Carney said he can't because that was a different situation, day and time in the pizza business. What he knows for sure is that this time around, he's not taking his achievements for granted.

"Right now I'm having a ball, a lot of fun," said Carney. "But I've learned that the tough times made me a better manager and person. It's in those times that you really learn who you are, and that builds character."

And then he added with a laugh: "But if I could have ducked those bad times, I would have."

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