Who's who: Tom Morrell

Feb. 19, 2002

Tom Morrell liked his work teaching grammar school in New Hampshire in the late 1960s. Problem was, his father-in-law wasn't as appreciative.

Morrell's $6,200-a-year teacher's salary, the man surmised, wasn't providing the lifestyle he wanted for his daughter. So he dropped a few hints about more profitable careers.

Tom Morrell

"He'd periodically send me different ads for different jobs," recalled Morrell, now president of Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza, in Vancouver, Wash. "Finally I saw one that was a ground-floor position and involved real estate."

The job was with a rapidly growing hamburger chain named McDonald's, and it marked the beginning of a 32-year run of top appointments for Morrell at leading foodservice companies.

Ray Kroc, then president of McD's, befriended Morrell and taught him to appreciate his employees and encourage them toward greater success. A student of the burger king, Morrell became a chip off the old Kroc, and was named the chain's youngest-ever national director of real estate at 27.

In 1982, Morrell was recruited to lead Burger King's western division, before being named its Asia-Pacific vice-president two years later. In 1992, he went to work for Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers as its Asia-Pacific VP, before becoming CEO and president of Coyden Food. During his year and a half there, he helped develop five different franchise operations throughout Southeast Asia.

"It's been an incredible life," said Morrell. "If I hadn't seen that letter and ad, I might still be teaching in New Hampshire."

In 1997, Morrell resigned from Coyden and returned to the U.S, when his daughter, Elizabeth, contracted non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (she has since recovered). Though in a limbo of temporary unemployment, he felt certain he didn't want another executive post. When he weighed his other options, becoming a Papa Murphy's franchisee was one of them.

The company's CEO, Terry Collins, however, said that was no option at all. Morrell was a former McDonald's associate of Collins', and he wanted Morrell in the board room with him.

"I told Terry, 'Been there, done that,' but he was persistent," Morrell said. "We talked for almost five months before I said yes."

What interested Morrell most was the challenge of growing a relatively small regional operation into a national player, something he'd never done.

"(I)t would be very rewarding for me to look back on my career and say I took a concept from A to Z and helped build a tremendous company," said Morrell.

Raw Potential

Murphy's Pizza was founded in 1984 by former deli owner Bob Graham. Graham saw the potential in selling assembled but raw pizzas to customers, who could bake them at their convenience at home.

In 1988, Graham sold Collins 51 percent of the company for $500,000. Seven years later when the chain was 15 stores strong, Collins bought 65-store rival take-and-bake chain Papa Aldo's, and unveiled a new name for the company, Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza.

Tom Morrell

Age: 55
Company: Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza
Position: president
Residence: Vancouver, Wash.
Wife: Mary
Children: 2, daughter Elizabeth, son Peter
Hobby: golf
College: New England College, Henniker, N.H.
Degree: English, BA

When Morrell joined the company in 1997, store numbers were near 100. With nationwide growth as his goal, he began building a broad corporate infrastructure, hiring professionals for development, training, finance and human resources. Convincing long-term employees -- not to mention Collins and Graham -- that such change was good gave him "a lot more gray hair now than when I started," Morrell recalled with a laugh.

"It's almost like coming into a second marriage where your spouse has a couple of children and you're the step dad," Morrell said. "You love them, you want to nurture them and see them grow. But you also have to remember that they're your spouse's children and they have their ways. It's still theirs and you do it their way."

Today, Papa Murphy's is bearing down on the 700-store mark and has become the nation's seventh-largest pizza chain. Gross revenue for 2001 could approach $375 million. The company was named 2001 Chain of the Year by Pizza Today, and Morrell himself was one of six finalists for Nation's Restaurant News' Golden Chain Award, given to an outstanding executive in the chain foodservice industry.

The take-and-bake leader could grow faster, said Morrell, but he's not letting it. Product quality won't take second place to expansion, and franchisees must become profitable with each store before the company lets them add another. That certain-growth theory hasn't always set well with franchisees.

"When I first met him, I didn't care for him at all," said Jim Wolfe of Mankato, Minnesota. "Tom came in, looked at the sites (I chose), and wanted me to slow down. I got in a hell of a fight with him over the phone." Wolfe added that he didn't move from California to build three stores, he wanted 15.

But after watching Morrell's growth plans work successfully, Wolfe's become a little less ravenous about rapid growth. "I trust him 100 percent. I think he's a fair man, a very fair man. And that's all I could ask for.

"We disagree about a lot of stuff, but he's not a guy who holds that against you. He'll hear what you have to say, and if he can't go along, he'll agree to disagree with you."

Morrell, who played semi-pro hockey while studying at New England College, said he disdains the way the game is played today: "When we played it was more ballet than hockey." That sensibility suggests a competitive executive who's not afraid to mix it up, but does so wisely with nuance and precision. Wolfe said that such skills come in handy when Morrell and Collins lock horns.

Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza

Stores: 675, in 22 states
Headquarters: Vancouver, Wash.
Average franchise cost: $175,000
Store features: no ovens or hoods, and average size is 1,300 square feet
* Pizza makes up 93 percent of sales
* No delivery or dine-in
* Store hours average noon to 9 p.m.
* Average check is $9

"Tom and Terry probably fight more than anybody I know, but that's very healthy," said Wolfe. "When you combine both of their personalities and their dreams and goals, it's very powerful. ... And that's where he and Terry are very good together."

A new goal for Papa Murphy's, Morrell suggested, may go beyond a nationwide presence with pizza. Though Papa Murphy's stores operating hours are basically from noon to 9 p.m., "we pay rent on these facilities 24-7, and certainly there are other products we could develop to accommodate our customers at different times of the day," he said.

What those products might be, he wouldn't say. But given the fact that Papa Murphy's stores lack cooking equipment, the options appear narrow.

Meanwhile, the pizza, he said, will continue to sell itself.

"When you have a phenomenal product," Morrell said, "it makes it a lot easier."

Just how phenomenal?

"Well," he said, and laughed again, "I've gained about 20 pounds since I've been here."

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