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Sullins Earns His Piece of the Pie


Sullins believes in staying in touch with both customers and employees at his Papa John's locations.

There's more to Keith Sullins, a one-time pig farmer from rural Missouri, than tomatoes and cheese.

The Central Missouri graduate has a distinct outlook on business life that many would find surprising in the ubiquitous world of fast food franchising. For instance, after spending the better part of every day in his office, Sullins heads out to one of his many stores in Houston to work, talk and listen to his employees — a practice left over from his childhood.

"I think that's what you get from being raised in a small town and on a farm," he says. "I'm extremely involved in the day-to-day operations. Besides, we're making pizza, and it's fun. I get to wear tennis shoes and shorts to work if I want."

 

President & Pizza Maker

President of Houston Pizza Venture — the second largest Papa John's Pizza franchise group in the world — Sullins is a man of the people. Along with his business partner, Frank Carney, who cofounded Pizza Hut almost half a century ago, Sullins supervises 50 Papa John's in Houston and co-owns 20 in Sacramento and 18 in Hawaii. He's also involved in franchises for Firehouse Subs, Egg and I, and Genghis Grill and presently has five restaurants under construction in the Houston area.

Ask Sullins about his key strength, and he tells you, "I love people. I never met anyone I couldn't talk to. Sometimes in a business like ours, you have people with egos. Last I checked, we all put our pants on the same way. The more you stay in touch with people and make yourself open to them, the more successful you are."

 

Raised on Missouri Farm

Sullins grew up on a pig farm in Chilhowee, MO, just a few miles south of Warrensburg. His father, Vernon, managed the Warrensburg TG&Y store, a relic of a time gone by in franchise marketing. When he graduated from high school, his father told Sullins he would have to pay his own way through college even though he could afford to foot the bill.

"I love people. I never met anyone I couldn't talk to. Sometimes in a business like ours, you have people with egos. Last I checked, we all put our pants on the same way. The more you stay in touch with people and make yourself open to them, the more successful you are."

— Keith Sullins '83

"It made me so dang mad I couldn't see straight," Sullins says.

To make ends meet, he worked in the kitchen at Ellis Hall and swept floors for a local car dealership. He lived in an old house in the country and rented rooms to other students to pay for his rent and car. "All my friends were having fun, and all I was doing  was working and going to school," Sullins says.

 

Valuable Lesson

When he graduated from UCM with a degree in marketing in 1983, his father paid off his student loans and told Sullins the reason why he made him put himself through college —  to make him stronger. "My dad came to me and said, 'you learned a very valuable lesson. Now you know you can accomplish anything on your own,'" he recalls.

Sullins took the lesson to heart and aggressively pursued a career in the corporate arena. He recalls an occasion when he tracked down an executive with Proctor and Gamble at his hotel room.

Sullins displays a Papa John's pizza at one of his Houston area stores. 

"I wanted to go to work for Procter and Gamble so bad I could taste it," he says. "I kept calling and calling and finally I went to the guy's hotel and knocked on the door. I said, ‘Hey man, why won't you let me work for you?'"

The executive gave Sullins advice that night he would follow for the rest of his career.

"He said, 'You don't need to be working for somebody else; you need to be working on your own.'"

From then on, Sullins only took jobs that helped contribute to his goal of having his own company. He counted coupons and blew up balloons for a restaurant in Wichita. From there, he advanced to marketing development and strategic operations and was transferred to Atlanta. He started building restaurants from the ground up, negotiating real estate, hiring managers and overseeing both operations and construction.

 

Unexpected Opportunity

After working as vice president of people for more than 3,000 Waffle House restaurants, Sullins realized he had all the experience he needed to set out on his own. Then the phone rang. It was Carney, a legend in the franchise restaurant scene.

Sullins had studied Carney's work in his business classes at UCM. When he answered the phone that evening, Sullins thought at first that someone was playing a trick.

"Relax a bit, life will come to you. Look for things you really love to do and watch what happens." 

Frankly Speaking

"I thought it was a gag and I said, ‘Yeah, how you doin' Frank?' He said, ‘Pretty good, would you ever be interested in moving to Texas?' I said, ‘Heck no, Frank, who is this?'"

Carney informed Sullins he had just acquired a pizza franchise called Papa John's. He had already recruited Jack Laughery, former president and CEO of the Hardees' franchise chain, and Hart, a well-known entrepreneur who serves on boards of several private companies. Now, Carney wanted Sullins.

"'I understand you know all about marketing and communications. Want to help me build a company?'" Sullins says Carney asked.

Sullins took up Carney's offer, even though Houston was on his list of top three cities where he would never live. "I always said I'd never live in Houston because of the heat," he says. "But I thought, 'I would be a fool not to go to work for an icon like Frank.' So I moved to Houston and now I'm in love with the city and wouldn't live anywhere else."

Ten years later, they're the second largest Papa John's operation in the world. In the Houston area, their 50 restaurants employ 1,300 people and generate about $45 million annually.

 

Impact of Success

Success hasn't changed Sullins who remains at heart a "good ol' boy." He knows where he comes from and carries with him strong ties to Missouri and his small town sensibilities.

After vowing in his youth that he would never return to the farm, Keith Sullins now owns a ranch where he raises pigs, cows and horses. He also takes pride in the two Missouri mules that he received from the same farm that produced UCM’s live mascot.

He enjoys working with his employees on the ground level. "If you're not out front, people forget who you are," he says. "When I'm there, I work. I can make pizzas, slice, drive deliveries if necessary and spend time with customers. My chief job is to go there and 'leave a small footprint,' a thank you, a coaching tip or word of encouragement on how well they are doing."

 

Leading Others to Success


He challenges himself and his employees. "Anyone can be good; it's hard to be great. Being great means you win and winning feels wonderful, plus it's fun." He's proud that many of his employees have themselves become business owners of Papa John's, Firehouse and Texas Roadhouse restaurants throughout the nation.

Sullins realizes that people who may not have had all the advantages in life sometimes have the biggest hearts, and he gets a thrill out of helping people. One example of this is when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and thousands of destitute individuals were evacuated to Houston.

Sullins and a team of volunteers snapped into action at a moment's notice and generated more than 10,000 pizzas to feed refugees their first day in the city.

Always level-headed and optimistic, Sullins looks back on his odyssey with an unusual level of calm and confidence. 

"Relax a bit, life will come to you," he says. "Look for things you really love to do and watch what happens."

— Michael Bradshaw '06