In his five years with Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza, Tom Morrell has grown used to the soggy setting of Vancouver, Wash. But were it up to him, every day would begin and end with warm, dry sunshine.

In two weeks, he'll get his druthers.

Tom Morrell

On May 1, Morrell, 56, will step down from the president's post at the world's largest take-and-bake pizza chain, and he and wife Mary will move to La Quinta, Calif., where they have a home.

Unlike the gray rain outside his window, Morrell isn't glum about the departure, but nor is he elated.

"It's been a great ride," said Morrell. "Now it's just time to turn it over and give someone else the chance to take it to the next level."

On April 15, Papa Murphy's released a statement saying Morrell was changing positions from president to executive vice president of external development. It didn't, however, note his imminent departure.

According to Morrell, the switch in positions is only temporary and will allow him to finish a few projects before what he said will be an amicable exit.

"We're parting on good terms," he said.

Terry Collins, CEO and majority owner of Papa Murphy's declined comment on Morrell's departure, and Mark Strickler, vice president of marketing, also said he couldn't comment beyond the contents of the release.

Franchisees had mixed reactions to Morrell's leaving.

"I'm a franchisee, so I don't really know a lot about his duties, but I don't think his leaving will hurt the company at all," said Mike Phillips a 13-store franchisee based in Portland, Ore. "I do know that he's a fine man, though."

Eric Olson, a three-store franchisee in Omaha, Neb., said he hopes Morrell's replacement fosters a better relationship with operators.

"He doesn't do much for his franchisees," Olson said of Morrell. "He is the president of the company, and he should be listening to everyone."

Olson stressed that he still loved Papa Murphy's product and system, but that in general, during Morrell's tenure, help from Vancouver was lacking.

"It's all little stuff, but all that little stuff adds up to big stuff," he said. "The company just needs some management. I just don't think the support's out there."

Jim Wolfe, a nine-store franchisee in southern Minnesota, said he was shocked at the news of Morrell's exit. Franchisees were told of the change on April 12.

"I thoroughly enjoyed his leadership," said Wolfe, who represents 26 franchisees as president of Papa Murphy's Minnesota franchisee co-op. "But I think it's a move that he feels is best for the company.

"We'll still be successful without him, and he'll still be successful, too. But I'll miss him."

Into the Unknown

During Morrell's term with Papa Murphy's, store numbers soared from 225 to 716, spread over 23 states. Given its average annual growth rate of more than 100 stores, it's likely the company will exceed the 800-store mark in 2002.

Morrell's restaurant career spans 32 years, including executive posts at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers and as CEO and president of Coyden Food in Southeast Asia.

In 1997, he resigned from Coyden and returned to the U.S., when his daughter, Elizabeth, contracted non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (she has since recovered).

After a quarter century in executive roles, Morrell was weighing entrepreneurial options, including one as a Papa Murphy's franchisee.

Collins, who worked with Morrell at McDonald's, wanted his former cohort to join him in the executive offices of Papa Murphy's. Unsure about the opportunity, Morrell kept Collins at bay for months before accepting.

Morrell said he leaves Papa Murphy's with no regrets and is happy with his accomplishments.

"I was brought in to build a program for future growth, and we've done that," Morrell said. "We've been able to professionalize the company, and it's a much stronger and better company than it was five years ago. It's nice to be able to say that."

Wolfe agreed that Morrell's impact on Papa Murphy's has been positive. Still, he said he's confident Collins can lead the company in Morrell's absence.

"If it's not Tom leading it, then it should be Terry," said Wolfe. "His livelihood is in it. So I know the decisions that are made will be beneficial to everyone in the system."

Though he'll take the next couple of months off to plan his next move, Morrell said retirement isn't one of them. He hasn't hired a head hunter, but he said his contacts in a few different industries have an ear to the rail for him. At present, however, nothing is up for consideration.

"I'm just going to sit back for a while and see if I want to climb another mountain," Morrell said. "But if the right opportunity to do something presents itself, we'd jump at it."

Morrell, a former English teacher, said he'll likely will do some public speaking. The New Hampshire native has received invitations to lecture at a couple of East Coast universities, and he said he wants to become a stronger advocate for the restaurant industry.

"I'd like to speak out more on career development and what we offer to young people in this industry," said Morrell. "I think we've done a poor job educating the community about all levels of opportunities in the restaurant industry."

But first, a little R&R is in order, something Morrell said is long overdue.

"My golf game has suffered quite a bit since I've been here, and my wife and I have some traveling we'd like to do," he said. "I think it's exciting to be looking at new things."

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