Who's Who: Ken Calwell

March 27, 2002

Jan. 7 dawned as a typically frigid Michigan day, but the weather wasn't about to keep Ken Calwell from the most important run of his life, carrying the Olympic torch.

As executive vice president of marketing -- build the brand, for Domino's Pizza in Ann Arbor, Mich., Calwell, 39, is lucky to be alive at all, much less running.

On Aug. 8, 1991,while on a training ride for the U.S. National Triathlon Championships, a car moving 50 mph struck Calwell, then 28. His right femur was broken, and his pelvis was fractured in three places. Both his left leg and right arm were broken in four places, and doctors considered amputating both. While Calwell said his cycling helmet likely saved his life, it didn't protect him from multiple skull fractures around his right eye.

Ken Calwell

So tattered was his skin from punctures and evulsions that he lost nearly two-thirds of his blood on the pavement of the two-lane road outside Wichita, Kan., where the accident occurred. Stabilizing Calwell, who was then an associate marketing manager for new products at Pizza Hut, required nine hours of surgery, including 400 stitches and staples.

"The expressions on the doctors' faces were pretty intense," said Reed Wells, Calwell's roommate then, who visited him at the hospital that dark day. "The people who'd picked him up in the ambulance said they didn't know if he was going to make it."

Eleven years later, as Calwell ran his Olympic segment, some of those memories -- both good and bad -- came flooding back: years of painful rehabilitation; ceaseless prayers of friends; willing himself against all odds to run again.

"As I was running yesterday with the Olympic torch, I was realizing how God has plans for all of us way beyond anything we can dream," said Calwell. (Three other Domino's execs were nominated and chosen from among thousands to bear the torch the same day as Calwell: Dave Brandon, CEO and chairman; Harry Silverman, CFO; and Hoyt Jones, executive vice president.) "What a huge blessing it was to do that."

Even for Calwell, who said he runs "kind of funny since the accident," the two-tenths of a mile trot was easy. Since learning to run again in 1993, he has worked up to a few four-mile runs a week, something his doctors and physical therapist doubted he'd ever do.

"I knew he'd be able to walk, bike again and swim again," said Cody Barnett, Calwell's physical therapist in Wichita. "But the running, I wasn't sure about that. Still, I didn't discourage him from that either."

Not that he really could.

By all accounts, Calwell is an irrepressible optimist, and even in the tenuous days following his accident he was asking doctors when he could run again.

What concerned Calwell most -- particularly during his Olympic torch run -- was the condition of his right arm. Badly broken and hyperextended in the collision, severe nerve damage rendered it nearly useless.

"I didn't have any use of it for a year and a half," said Calwell, who swam with his left arm through nearly two years of physical therapy. A risky but successful surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in 1996 did restore some movement. "I was determined to carry the torch with right arm that day, and I did it."

Built for the Job

Calwell's ability to motivate himself and others has come in handy in his 15 years working on and leading marketing teams for fast-food companies.

In 1988, he joined Pizza Hut, and worked in research and development until the 1991 accident. By June of 1992, he returned to full-time work creating new products.

Over the next two years, Calwell helped launch the chain's Veggie Lovers and Meat Lovers pizzas. He also served a brief stint with Frito-Lay, which, like Pizza Hut, also was a PepsiCo property then.

Calwell came back to the pizza chain and directed its western market for three years before returning to Wichita to lead its Stuffed Crust Pizza launch.

In 1996, Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers recruited him to head up new products, market research and new concepts. Though Dave Thomas had already retired, Calwell said the founder's insistence on high-quality products and customer focus permeated every level of the company.

"He instilled the mentality in everyone that you treat customers as if they were in your own home," said Calwell, who remained with the company until last July. "I learned a lot there about developing products that worked consistently and could be reproduced easily by store crews."

When Calwell was approached by Domino's last year, he wasn't looking for new work. But the opportunity to polish what he called "a diamond in the rough" in Domino's became too good pass up.

"Getting to work with Dave Brandon was a big draw," said Calwell. "His leadership, vision and what he wants to accomplish here really made me see the potential for what can happen."

Calwell's responsibilities at Domino's include the oversight of an estimated $110 million advertising budget, and all marketing, research and new product development. Team leadership skills in the role are a must since every new product is born of a branding brain trust.

"When we consider (a marketing campaign), we talk strategically about what we're trying to do as a brand, what our strengths and weaknesses are and where our opportunities are," Calwell said. "We decide where we are now, where we want to be and what we have to do to bridge the gap between us and the customer."

Once the mission is outlined, Calwell said he does his best to "get out of the way and let those people do their jobs." That, he said, leaves him time for what he likes best, developing new food ideas.

"I'm no chef by any stretch, but I do like playing around with pizza," said Calwell.

Shattered Dreams, Second Chances

When Calwell's bike and helmet were returned to him after the accident, the bike came in 38 pieces, the shattered helmet in seven.

He now uses those remains as compelling props when he speaks to school-age kids on cycling safety. When only a few raise their hands in response to his question about whether they wear a helmet when biking, he dumps the broken parts out of a garbage bag and in to a heap before them.

"I watch their eyes get huge," said Calwell. "Then I tell them the story about what happened in my accident, how I was being safe, but how a driver fell asleep behind the wheel and hit me.

"And then I ask, 'How many of you are going to go out and get a bike helmet?' You see a lot more hands go up then."

Ken Calwell

Age: 39
Company: Domino's Pizza
Position: executive vice president
HQ: Ann Arbor, Mich.
Residence: Northville, Mich.
Hometown: Topeka, Kan.
Wife: Sandy
Children: Kasey, 5
Hobby: running
Colleges: Washburn University (Topeka, Kan.), Indiana University (Bloomington)
Degrees:BS business, MBA

That Calwell has lived to tell his tale and continued to climb the ladder in the foodservice industry amazes all who hear his story. At every turn he credits the combined work of great doctors and God's timing for saving his life; his friends point to his indefatigably positive attitude as the fuel for his recovery.

"The reason Ken has done as well as he has is because he's worked his tail off," said Barnett. "He's probably the most mentally tough person I've worked with."

Wells concurred, recalling the time a psychologist was assigned to Calwell's case in order to help him cope with and accept the accident.

"Ken was so positive from the beginning that the psychologist was concerned he wasn't dealing with it all appropriately," said Wells. "So, basically, Ken said, 'If you want me to be depressed to show that I understand this, that's your problem. I'm going to be as positive as possible and move forward from here. Life dealt me a little blow, and now I have to deal with it.' That's Ken."

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