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New Carl's Jr. Star Might Eclipse Company Founder : Corporations: Donald Doyle, who took top job with Carl Karcher's blessing, now is fighting him for control.

September 26, 1993|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — It was a bold move for two Southerners so deeply rooted.

Donald and Roberta Doyle sold their plantation-style house in Louisville, Ky., bid longtime friends farewell and migrated to Southern California, where their only tie was a job--albeit one that pays $300,000 a year.

In December, Don Doyle took the throne at Carl's Jr., an Anaheim-based hamburger chain that for 50 years had been ruled by its founder. Carl N. Karcher personally blessed Doyle as his successor, the board of directors heartily approved, and all concerned seemed happy.

Only nine months later however, Doyle finds himself squared off against the very man who crowned him president and chief executive officer. "It looked like such a calm place to work at first," Doyle quipped.

And in the high-stakes battle for control of home-grown Carl Karcher Enterprises Inc., Doyle finds himself facing off with one of the county's premier business executives--a fast-food pioneer, charity benefactor and the star of his own TV commercials.

Suddenly, the spotlight is on the 47-year-old Doyle, too, as stockholders, employees, franchise owners and community leaders want to know more about the newcomer while they ponder what the fight will mean for the future of Carl's Jr.

Company employees know that one of Doyle's first jobs here was to fire 70 corporate employees and that he has moved to cut prices at Carl's Jr. and speed up service. Less well-known is his record of boosting sales as a top executive at Kentucky Fried Chicken for most of the 1980s, his work as Louisville's leading business booster--and his teen-age days in a rock band.

"He's very businesslike," Roberta Doyle said, "but he does have another side."

*

The Doyles don't seem like the kind of people who would have been brought together by rock 'n' roll, but such is their love story.

He was a 19-year-old student at a small technology college in southern Indiana, performing Rolling Stones songs in honky-tonks to pay tuition. She was a 17-year-old high school senior dating the drummer in the band--until the guitar player turned her head.

"I thought he was going to be a recording star," Roberta Doyle said, giggling. "This is so embarrassing to talk about."

When told that he doesn't quite fit the image of a Mick Jagger wannabe, the soft-spoken and conservatively attired Doyle remarked, "I had hair then."

They married two years after meeting and had three sons, one right after another.

Today, their children are grown. "It's nice because we can do whatever we want," Don Doyle said.

He still enjoys strumming his guitar, but that doesn't mean he's a Bill Clinton brand of baby boomer.

"I'm pretty conservative from a business perspective, though I'm a little more liberal on social issues," said Doyle, a registered Republican.

*

Doyle's first job out of college was with an Ohio oil company, where he used his math degree to concoct gasoline formulas. "As soon as I got there, I realized I was much more interested in the business side of the company than in the technical aspects of it," he said. So he started taking night classes at Bowling Green State University's business school.

In 1973, MBA in hand, Doyle joined the strategic planning department of Louisville-based Kentucky Fried Chicken--now KFC. By 1982 he was president of KFC's domestic operations.

In 1986, R.J. Reynolds sold KFC to Pepsico Inc. Doyle and the new owner never hit it off.

During Doyle's reign as chief of domestic operations at KFC, sales increased from an average of $388,000 per restaurant in 1982 to $597,000 in 1988--an achievement that analysts call impressive. Still, when Pepsico took the helm, it had its own way of doing things.

Within a year of the acquisition by Pepsico, Doyle could see that his personal philosophy "just wasn't a good fit."

"I told them I didn't think it was going to work, and they agreed," he said.

For Doyle, leaving the company he virtually grew up in was traumatic. "I was really close to all the people there," Doyle said. And, when he left in 1988, he didn't have another job lined up.

Roberta Doyle recalls the ensuing yearlong limbo as bittersweet: "It was really sad when Don left KFC. But I rather enjoyed having him home, not traveling as much. He went to every soccer game the boys played in."

*

As far as Louisville officials were concerned, 1989 was a fortuitous time for Doyle to be job hunting.

Suffering a severe recession, the city had just formed the Greater Louisville Economic Development Partnership. Its mission was to attract companies to the area. Mayor Jerry Abramson appointed Don Doyle the organization's first president.

From the start, Doyle viewed the post as temporary. It paid an annual salary of about $110,000--good money for a city job, but much less than he could make in the private sector. "I looked at it as something rewarding I could do until the boys graduated from high school," he said.

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