One of TV's Most Successful Pitchmen

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Dave Thomas, the founder and spokesman for fast-food chain Wendy's International, died early this morning of liver cancer. The 69-year-old burger titan, who in 1969 opened Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers, had been battling the disease for a decade.

For the past year, Mr. Thomas had been undergoing kidney dialysis and had gall bladder surgery in July 2001. In 1996, he underwent a quadruple heart bypass after suffering a heart attack.

From a single store hawking square hamburgers in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Thomas built the restaurant to more than 6,000 units around the world with U.S. sales topping $5.7 billion in 2000, making it the No. 3 burger chain, behind McDonald's Corp. and Diageo's Burger King Corp.

The company's focus in recent years on

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quality has made Wendy's one of the best performing burger chain and a model for its competitors. Virtually every major quick-service chain has cited Wendy's menu development and value strategy as a winning sales recipe.

Short sleeves, red tie
But Mr. Thomas is perhaps best known as Wendy's plainspoken, bespectacled spokesman. Cordiant Communications' Bates Worldwide, New York, put Mr. Thomas in front of the camera sporting his now-signature short-sleeved white shirt and red tie in 1989 after sales and market share fell.

Five years earlier, with the help of Cliff Freeman/Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, New York, the chain was riding high as cranky pitchwoman Clara Peller made "Where's the beef?" the battle cry of the burger wars in the 1980s. But the chain's star faded and it subsequently tried efforts through Saatchi & Saatchi-owned DFS Dorland Worldwide, which failed to resonate with customers. In 1987, Wendy's hired then-Backer Spielvogel Bates, which cast Wendy's folksy chairman in a new image effort.

Advertising Age critic Bob Garfield didn't think much of Mr. Thomas as a spokesman, saying Mr. Thomas came off as "country -- but witless." Mr. Thomas, however, got the last laugh, starring in some 800 spots over 13 years, making the Dave Thomas campaign the longest to star a company's founder, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Early days
In the 1950s, Mr. Thomas got his fast-food start at Hobby House Restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind., where in 1955 he met Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders. He took over four KFC restaurants in 1962 with the promise of a 45% stake if he turned around the failing stores.

Six years later, Mr. Thomas became a millionaire at 35 when Mr. Sanders sold the stores back to KFC for $1.5 million. In 1969, Mr. Thomas opened Wendy's, named after his second-youngest daughter, Melinda Lou, who was nicknamed Wendy.

He merged the company in 1995 with Canadian coffee and donut chain Tim Horton's. Systemwide sales for the two companies top $8 billion.

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