Former Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr. CEO Inspires Students to Effect Change

Andy Puzder
Andy Puzder

KENNESAW, Ga. (Sep 17, 2021) — Twenty years ago, Andy Puzder’s leadership helped turn things around for struggling restaurant brand Hardee’s. This week, he shared that success story – as well as his own inspiring career journey – with business students at Kennesaw State University.

Puzder, who served as CEO of CKE Restaurants from 2000 to 2017, spoke as part of the Michael J. Coles College of Business’s Tetley Distinguished Leader Lecture Series. Made possible by a donation from former Tetley, Inc. CEO Hank McInerney, the Tetley series has brought prominent business and community leaders to Kennesaw State since 1990 to discuss the importance of leadership.

Born into a working-class family, Puzder became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. He played in a rock-and-roll band to support himself while earning his undergraduate degree from Cleveland State University and his law degree from Washington University. While money was tight during these years, he relied on his parents’ advice to see him through.

“By the time I graduated, I had a wife and two kids,” Puzder said. “We were always fighting to make sure we had money for food, rent, utilities, and healthcare. We were one stumble, one lost job away from living in abject poverty. But, my parents always said I could be whatever I wanted to be if I put in the work.”

He channeled that determination into a successful 13-year career as a St. Louis trial attorney before moving to California to serve as the personal attorney of Carl’s Jr. founder Carl Karcher. Puzder later became executive vice president of Carl’s Jr.’s parent company CKE Restaurants, which purchased distressed fast-food brand Hardee’s in 1997. Puzder became president and CEO of Hardee’s and, following a successful rehabilitation of the brand, became CEO of CKE.

When Puzder became president of Hardee’s, sales at the restaurant were sluggish and the acquisition sent shares of CKE plummeting. To turn things around, Puzder realized the corporate office needed to think differently.

“All the [professional] restaurant guys would try to fix things in the back room, but I went at it like a customer,” he said. “As a customer, the first thing I noticed was that the restaurants were dirty, the food was bad, and the menu was complicated. We ought to fix that.”

Through a series of changes including streamlining the menu, improving cleanliness in the restaurants, establishing clear scripts for customer interactions, and launching an advertising campaign targeting their key demographic, Puzder took Hardee’s from the brink of bankruptcy to a brand now earning roughly $2 billion annually.

Puzder was invited to speak by Kennesaw State’s Bagwell Center for Markets and Economic Opportunity in cooperation with Young America’s Foundation. The Center’s executive director Tim Mathews wanted Kennesaw State business students to learn valuable lessons from Puzder about leadership and perseverance.

“Andy’s focus and determination to succeed serve as an inspiration to our students for their future careers,” Mathews said. “His story can remind everyone what is possible in this country with hard work and persistence.”  

Puzder concluded his presentation with a lesson learned as an attorney that served him well in business and will help any leader hoping to implement change in their organization.

“As a trial lawyer for large companies, I had to understand the company and the people running it in order to do my job,” Puzder said. “I treated taking over Hardee’s the same way. You have to understand the business, know the problems, and then address them.”

-Patrick Harbin