Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Frank Carney, Who Turned $600 Into Pizza Hut, Dies at 82

When he was 19, Mr. Carney and his brother Dan borrowed $600 from their mother to start their business in Wichita, Kan. Before long, it became the world’s largest pizza chain.

Frank Carney, who founded Pizza Hut with his brother Dan and helped build it into the world’s largest pizza chain, died on Wednesday at an assisted living facility in Wichita, Kan. He was 82.

The cause was pneumonia, his brother said. For the last decade, Mr. Carney, who had struggled with Alzheimer’s disease, had recently recovered from Covid-19.

With $600 borrowed from their mother, the two Carney brothers opened the first Pizza Hut on South Bluff Street in downtown Wichita in 1958. Frank was 19, a student at Wichita University (now Wichita State University) looking to pay his way through college. Dan was 26, studying for a master’s degree in business and seeking a promising opportunity.

They rented a 600-square-foot building that inspired Dan’s wife to suggest the name Pizza Hut. They purchased secondhand equipment for the kitchen. On opening night, they offered free pizza to attract customers. The restaurant was an immediate hit.

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The original Pizza Hut, which opened in downtown Wichita in 1958, now sits on the campus of Wichita State University, where Mr. Carney had been a student. Credit: Larry W. Smith/Associated Press

The brothers incorporated the company the next year and began to sell franchises. With aggressive marketing and a focus on quality ingredients and service, Pizza Hut took off.

Frank became president of the company and joined the Young Presidents Association to get an intensive primer in executive management to build a strategic plan. He ultimately created a standardized system for all franchises while allowing room for local customers’ tastes and preferences.

The original Pizza Hut pizza, created by John Bender, a one-time partner with the brothers, was thin and crispy. A few years later, Frank developed the restaurant’s signature “original pan pizza,” a recipe that endured for four decades.

By 1966, there were 145 Pizza Hut franchises in the United States. By 1971, Pizza Hut had emerged as the world’s largest pizza chain, with strong sales and 1,000 global outlets. In 1972, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. By 1977, as sales reached $436 million (equivalent to about $1.9 billion today), more than 3,400 domestic and international outlets were present. That year the brothers sold the company to PepsiCo for $300 million.

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A Pizza Hut in Lantana, Fla. The chain’s name was suggested by Mr. Carney’s sister-in-law, who was inspired by the original building’s pointed roof. Credit: Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Frank Carney left the company in 1980 and embarked on several different business ventures as an investor and mentor, including real estate, oil and gas, and other food enterprises, most of which failed. “Frank was a very driven person,” Dan Carney said. “He would pick up an idea and run with it. You just don’t win every time.”

Frank Lawrence Carney was born on April 26, 1938, in Wichita, one of seven children of Michael and Mary Frances Carney. His father worked in a meatpacking plant and later opened a corner grocery, where all the members of the family eventually worked. When his father died at 46, his mother took over the store.

Mr. Carney attended Wichita University from 1956 to 1961, but his full-time job at Pizza Hut precluded him from finishing his degree. Citing a promise his mother had made to his father before he died, that all seven children would graduate from college, Mr. Carney returned in 1999 and received a bachelor’s degree in general studies in 2000. (The original Pizza Hut building was moved onto the campus in 1986 as a tribute to the company and the Carney brothers.)

Mr. Carney, a runner and an exercise buff, was married three times. In addition to his brother Dan, survivors include his wife, Janie Carney; their daughter, Megan Metcalf; six children from his first marriage, Darri, Brian, Sheila, Pete, and Kier Carney and Mara Bruce; two children from his second marriage, Trevor Carney and Tressa Diebes; two other brothers, Jerry and Peter; three sisters, Mary Ann Skolaut, Sally Jonas and Eileen Never; 18 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

By 1993, the millions Frank Carney had made from Pizza Hut were lost to his failed ventures. “I never thought it would turn out as disastrous as it did,” he said in a 2002 interview with Pizza Marketplace, an industry news website. “It’s very stressful when you find out that you’re not as smart as you thought you were.”

He then sought a position at Pizza Hut but was unhappy with the offer he received. Instead, in 1994, he became a franchise owner of Papa John’s, a major pizza chain competitor. His embrace of a rival displeased his brother — but, as Dan Carney said, he “did what he wanted.”

In 1997, Frank Carney starred in a television commercial for Papa John’s. Speaking to a group of actors portraying Pizza Hut franchisees at a convention, he said, “Sorry, guys; I found a better pizza.” The ad triggered a long-term feud and lawsuits between the chains, the website Mental Floss wrote in 2015.

By 2001, Mr. Carney had grown his Papa John’s franchise operation to 133 locations around the United States, including several in Wichita.

“I’m just a regular guy who worked smart and made some L.U.C.K. — L.U.C.K. means Laboring Under Correct Knowledge,” Frank Carney once said, according to the website Franchisopedia.com. “When you work hard and smart, you get lucky. To build a successful, growing business, you need all the luck you can get.”

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