Chuck Thorp's friends and family think he ought to go into politics. They say he's got a gift for telling people like it is without ticking them off, and then getting them to work together.
Problem is, Thorp has no desire to seek office. As the chief operating officer for DoubleDave's Pizzaworks in Austin, Texas, getting people of diverse interests -- in his case a franchisor and its franchisees -- to work toward a common goal isn't the mark of a budding politician. That's just the result of treating others kindly.
But perhaps the 39-year-old Thorp is repressing his latent political predispositions. Not only does he like playing to a crowd as a drummer in a rock band, the group's name is The Johnson Administration. He likes public speaking, though by his own admission, he's not an orator of the late President Johnson's status.
The truth is Thorp's just not fond of government work. The pace is slow, the progress plodding, the bureaucracy too deep. His firsthand experience working two summers with the United States Corps of Engineers taught him just how slowly the gears of government grind.
"What the Corps does for the country is phenomenal; I just think they could do a better job of utilizing the taxpayer's dollar," said Thorp, sounding, well, a lot like a politician. "Things I did without thinking about it, like finishing projects early or working overtime weren't acceptable."
Once when Thorp was assigned to monitor visitor traffic meters around a Texas lake, he was given a month to complete the job. Much to the chagrin of his supervisor, he finished in two days.
When his proposal to construct a new nature trail around the lake was accepted, he worked after hours driving a bulldozer to speed its completion. That extra effort, however, nearly cost the trail its earmarked funding.
"More than once I was lectured on the proper way to do things," Thorp recalled. "I wanted to get things completed, but that caused some clashes on occasion."
When Thorp graduated Texas A&M in 1988, the Corps told him it would have a job for him in six months. But he needed income until then and applied that November at four-year-old DoubleDave's as a delivery driver. By the following January he was an assistant manager, and founder Dave Miller asked him to manage a new store later in 1989.
Thorp, who'd dreamed of working as a forest ranger, realized he'd found his true calling in restaurants and told the Corps not to hold his job.
"I found I liked it because I was a natural from the customer service standpoint," he said. "It just sort of got in my blood after that."
In the years since, Thorp has poured that blood -- plus a lot of sweat and tears -- into DoubleDave's. The Austin-based company now has 28 franchised dine-in, delivery and buffet stores in Texas. Last year the company posted gross sales of $11 million and average store sales of $554,000.
Next year, however, Thorp expects DoubleDave's to double in size. By the end of 2003, new franchisees in Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma are expected to drive total unit numbers to 54.
He said the chance to help run a growing organization was a big draw when Miller offered him the COO's post four years ago.
"I've watched it grow, I've nurtured it, shed the tears and shared the smiles along the way," said Thorp, who will become DoubleDave's CEO on July 1. "I fully believe that the product and the concept we have can be successful anywhere we put it."
Drummer of a different beat
By all accounts, Thorp is a man of methods and standardization, a complementary opposite of his boss, Miller, the blue-sky thinker. According to Sara Vohs, DoubleDave's office manager and marketing director, Miller generates the ideas and Thorp makes them work.
"Chuck gets the vision without Dave even saying it, and he has the vision to see what the end result will be," said Vohs. "And he always finds the best way to get there without making people upset."
Thorp agrees his easy-going nature is a plus, but said much of that comes from reducing stress in his life, which comes by playing drums. In high school, he taught fifth and sixth-graders to pound the skins, and he earned a music scholarship to Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. He turned it down, however, to pursue forestry at A&M.
He also played in a "garage band" called Runnin', which occasionally landed nightclub gigs -- though Thorp was only 16.
"We had to keep that kind of quiet so we didn't lose our drummer," said longtime friend and Runnin' guitarist, Robert Brown.
Brown, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, said that Thorp's drumming skills have matured significantly in the 16 years since the band played.
"Even though he doesn't do it as a profession, I'd call him a professional drummer," Brown said. "He has the attributes and the ability to go that route should he want to."
Thorp, on the other hand, is content with his amateur status.
"I have never had any aspirations to be a star musician," he said. "I toured with a Christian rock band when I was younger, and I decided quickly that college was for me. I didn't want to be a starving artist living like a rat."
Selling out to DoubleDave's has provided him a comfortable lifestyle, but it's not the center of his life, either. Come the weekend, even if he has to "grind the gears a little," Thorp says he shuts down the mental pizza-making machine and becomes a family man to his wife, Natalie, and daughters Cassidy and Taylor. Music, he said, smoothes that exchange, and each morning he starts the day in his sound studio practicing drums.
"My wife understands restaurants and what they demand, and she also knows what music does to help me relax," said Thorp.
He typically works 50 hours a week, but when a new DoubleDave's opens, he wrings about 20 more out of his schedule.
That level of activity requires organization and, according to Vohs, a good memory. "He has the ability to retain tremendous amounts of information in his head." He also oversees facilities designs, approves any and all changes to the DoubleDave's operations manual, and manages product procurement.
Vohs insists Thorp's ability to handle people is his real strength, and a large reason why DoubleDave's is positioned for such growth. Where handling franchisor-franchisee relations is always challenging, Thorp seems perpetually able to sidestep problems before they arise. That, he claims, results from choosing the right franchisee up front.
"There's a real franchising paradox you have to understand," Thorp said. "You want a free spirit who can be managed, but an entrepreneur who can follow a manual. Those are rare people."
Vohs calls Thorp's negotiator-peacemaker attributes equally rare.
"He'll make every attempt to resolve an issue in an amicable way before the hammer drops," said Vohs. "I have seen him call people with a problem, like our phone company, and he'll drop the hammer on them. But he's so stinkin' nice about it that it's hard to tell he's mad."