Tevlin: Duluth Wendy's owner is the latest example of business owners doing right by workers

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2014 - 5:27 PM

When a fire broke out near the pickup window of a Wendy’s restaurant in Duluth, it threatened not only the 30-year-old business, but also the jobs of nearly 30 full- and part-time workers.

A few days later, however, owner Bob Sullivan committed to rebuild, and while he’s doing so, he’ll pay workers’ salaries.

“Between the insurance money and ourselves, we hope to pay them as long as we can,” said Sullivan. “What if it takes six months? I don’t know, but we’ll do it as long as we can.”

The Duluth News Tribune got wind of Sullivan’s decision, and did a nice story, which in turn has brought the love from customers.

“We didn’t do it for publicity, we did it for selfish reasons,” said ­Sullivan. “Replacing good people is hard to do.”

But we live in a “Wolf of Wall Street” world, an age of avarice where executive compensation has skyrocketed and yet the business lobby fights raising the minimum wage to anywhere close to a livable level.

So the guy who gives a little becomes news.

It seems like Sullivan is a good guy, but he’s continuing to pay his employees because he’s also a good businessman. He owns Wendy’s franchises in Brainerd, Nisswa and Fargo, as well as real estate and apartment buildings.

But Sullivan grew up working hard, and values it. At age 12, he began his “career” cleaning rooms for his family’s Downtown Motel. He’s flipped burgers and swept floors along the way to creating a growing business portfolio.

In my experience, when customers have a choice, they are often going to go to the place where they recall an employer did a good one for his workers.

Just ask Jon Puckett, of Punch Pizza. I wrote a column about him a few weeks ago. He voluntarily raised wages to $10 an hour, plus increased pizza chefs’ hourly rate to $13, with top pizza makers earning around $30,000 per year. New manager salary and bonus packages will rise to $50,000, and an experienced general manager can make $100 grand.

News of Puckett’s decision went national, eventually catching the eye of the White House. Co-owner John Soranno and pizza chef Nick Chute got recognition at the State of the Union address.

Since then, customers have poured in. Punch has been flooded with job applications. The company plans to open additional locations this year.

In 2012, this newspaper did a story on Joe Lueken, a Bemidji grocery store owner who retired, leaving his business to his employees instead of selling it to a chain. The story was so popular it was picked up worldwide.

But such stories don’t always end in a fairy tale. When Malden Mills burned down in Massachusetts in 1995, its owner also covered salaries while rebuilding, getting national attention from the likes of “60 Minutes.” Hit by the recession and competition from companies that have moved overseas, however, Malden Mills eventually went bankrupt, and its pension was abandoned.

Sullivan is optimistic that his Duluth Wendy’s will reopen in a few months, and that his employees will return. He said about 40 percent of them are in high school, but others are adults who have been with him for up to 30 years.

“Our employees are a big part of our business,” Sullivan said. “Without them we really don’t have much. When somebody works for you for 30 years, they become like family. You know their kids, they know your kids.”

I look forward to stopping in for a burger at the Wendy’s on Miller Trunk Hwy. some day. I also look forward to a time when a business owner doing a good thing is not big news.

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