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Chairman Carl's Back--Much to Delight of Employees : Fast food: Carl's Jr. founder is warmly greeted on his return to his Anaheim office, albeit in a new role.

March 18, 1994|CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — After six months of corporate upheaval, Carl N. Karcher on Thursday returned to his office at the fast-food empire he founded half a century ago--by the back door.

While he is warmly greeted everywhere he goes, the 76-year-old Karcher--who usually comes in through the rear entrance--said he has avoided direct contact with the headquarters staff given the animosity that accompanied his ouster as chairman last year.

"It's going to take a while for people to feel they can talk to Carl," said Karcher, who now carries the title of chairman emeritus. "What happened to me--it's not easy to swallow that bitter pill."

Or, for that matter, his pride. A year ago, Karcher was majority stockholder and television pitchman for the 649-unit Carl's Jr. hamburger chain that he had built from a single hot dog cart in central Los Angeles.

He met popes and presidents, won dozens of industry awards and was firmly ensconced in that pantheon of local legends reserved for the likes of Gene Autry and Walt Disney.

Then came his involvement in a failed bid to buy back his company, the publicly owned Carl Karcher Enterprises. It was followed by public revelations that his personal finances had been racked by bad real estate investments.

Driven to the brink of bankruptcy, Karcher was ousted as chairman last October after the board of directors balked at his plan to boost sales at some restaurants by testing Mexican-style items from the Green Burrito chain, also of Anaheim.

Restructuring and paying off about $60 million in secured debt shrank Karcher's stake in the company from more than 35% to about 12%. His lawyer, Andy Puzder, said negotiations are continuing with unsecured creditors.

"If they are reasonable, things will be fine. If they are unreasonable, Carl could still face a bankruptcy," Puzder said Thursday.

An investor group friendly to Karcher now controls the company, leading to an apparent truce and Karcher's reinstatement as chairman emeritus under a deal reached March 7. The new role limits his direct control while still allowing the company to count on his sage advice and outstretched hand.

Though his troubles are taking their toll, Karcher on Thursday seemed much like his old self. He wore a bright green tie for St. Patrick's Day, noting that it clashed with his dark blue pin-striped suit. He was bubbly and enthusiastic, clicking off a busy schedule ranging from appearances on a Christian cable television network to a restaurant visit in Bakersfield.

"I'm very thankful. Everything is OK. I'm going to work here, and visit units, and support the management team 100%," Karcher said.

Sometimes he was a little too bubbly, invoking a sort of self-censorship when he caught himself straying into talk that might offend the new brass. "Quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet," he muttered at one point before lawyer Puzder, sitting at his side, could intervene.

Karcher said he is looking forward to showing up at his office five days a week, getting there at his usual 7 a.m. start time after attending Mass and poring over the morning papers.

His grandly appointed office is in the same shape he left it, right down to the gleaming pewter finish of the model hot dog cart that sits on a walnut coffee table.

Familiar surroundings? Yes. But Karcher would be the first to admit that things still seem a little, well, strange after the half-year absence.

"I'm taking things kind of slow," he acknowledged. "I've been gone six months and that's a long time after you have spent 52 years here."

One thing Karcher has not lost is his instincts as a restaurateur. After walking to an adjoining Carl's Jr. restaurant in the Anaheim complex that was once his father-in-law's orange groves, Karcher is quick to grab an empty soda cup left on a windowsill and point out the smudge marks on the door.

"Tell Steve to tuck his shirttail in," he tells a manager, later saying that cleanliness and attention to detail "are the nuts and bolts of this industry."

In the kitchen, Karcher walked around and inquired, "How many years?" of every employee he encountered, his trademark greeting to encourage them to stay on the job. Two, three, six, some declared, but the clear winner was Rita Rea, who logged in 11 years as a cook. She gave the grandfatherly man a big hug and declared, "That's my Pops!"

Back at headquarters, Karcher did not get hugs, but was greeted warmly by 16-year receptionist Rosemary Ryan.

"There have been lots of changes and the best is having you back," Ryan said.

Karcher smiled.

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