From Pot Scrubber to CEO of Firehouse Subs, Don Fox is the Guest of Honor at the November Conversation with a CEO
By Keith Morelli
TAMPA (September 27, 2018) -- Don Fox, the chief executive officer of Firehouse Subs who started his restaurant career in the kitchen scrubbing pots and pans, is not stingy about sharing the wealth. The main recipient: the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, which was formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to support first responders, has spawned many inspiring stories.
"One that is most memorable involved the donation of an extrication tool for a fire department near Pensacola," Fox said. "It was put to work just one week after it was received by the department. A car with two occupants slammed head-on into a tree. The driver was seriously injured and had he not been extricated as quickly as he was, the injuries would likely have been fatal."
What goes around, comes around, he said, and that's why it is so important to give back to the community.
Who were the two rescued victims in the wreck?
"Two employees of the local Firehouse Subs restaurant," Fox said.
Fox, who oversees the Firehouse Subs empire that stretches across nearly nine of 10 states in the nation, is the guest at the Conversation with a CEO event scheduled for November. He will talk about his beginnings, his career and how he rose from being a dishwasher to CEO of one of the largest chain restaurants in the nation. He also will discuss his work with the foundation that has received tens of millions of dollars in funding from the eatery since the nonprofit was founded in 2005. The conversation is planned for 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 14 at the USF Center for Advanced Medical Learning Simulation, 124 S. Franklin St. in downtown Tampa. It is free to the public, but RSVPs are required. To register, click here.
Under Fox's leadership, Firehouse Subs has grown to more than 1,140 restaurants in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. Just two months ago, Fox opened his latest franchise in Fairbanks, Alaska, making the sub-selling eatery open in 45 states. Besides selling subs and making life-saving donations, Fox also has contributed in other, less business-like ways: He has written a non-fiction book on World War II based on interviews with veterans.
He's come a long way from scrubbing pots and pans at an Italian restaurant in New Jersey some 44 years ago.
"From day one at job one, I felt an obligation to do the job to the best of my ability and to learn as much as I could while doing it," he said. "The nature of the work mattered not. Over time, I developed a philosophy that one should always approach their role from the perspective of the next level of management. Having that perspective always led to superior performance."
Fox said his humble beginnings gave him insights that not a lot of CEOs have.
"After all of these years, the most important and basic aspects of being a restaurant employee have changed very little, if at all," he said. "The ability to see the world through their eyes, by virtue of having walked in their shoes, is of great value.
"Our business is dependent upon the unit-level employees who service our guests; we cannot survive – much less thrive – without them."
Fox has been in the restaurant industry for 44 years. He began his food service management career in 1976 with Six Flags amusement parks; after two years, he advanced to the position of district manager. In 1980, he began a 23-year stint with Burger King.
Fox joined Firehouse Subs in 2003 as director of franchise compliance, rose to COO in early 2005 and became CEO in 2009. In 2011, Nation's Restaurant News named him one of the top ten executives to watch, he received the Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators Golden Chain Award for his accomplishments and he also was awarded the prestigious Operator of the Year award. In 2013, he became a member of the National Restaurant Association's Board of Directors and received the association's Advocacy Award. Also in 2013, he received the Silver Plate Award from the International Food Manufacturers Association, and was named the No. 1 executive in the Fast Casual segment by FastCasual.com. A board member of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association since 2013, he served as its chair in 2017.
So many awards and accomplishments.
"I would have to say the Operator of the Year award has always been the most special to me, simply because it was the result of a vote by the readership of the industry's leading trade publication, Nation's Restaurant News," he said. "However, each accolade has its own nuances. I have a trophy sitting prominently on a mantle that was given to me by a Burger King franchisee for going to bat for him in his pursuit of funding from Burger King's headquarters, which helped rebuild three of his restaurants.
"I have as much pride in that trophy," he said, "as I do any other."
On top of all that, he is a published author. "Patton's Vanguard – The United States Fourth Armored Division," was published in 2003.
"During early 2001, I was blessed to develop a relationship with several veterans of the Fourth Armored Division," he said. "What started as 'hobby-farming' became a passion to write their unit's history. Surprisingly, no writer or researcher had ever pursued this before.
"I was driven by an intense desire to capture the history of the accomplishments in a definitive manner. There was no commercial motivation for doing it; more than anything else, I wanted to honor the surviving veterans by telling their story."
Under Fox's leadership, Firehouse Subs has developed a reputation across the nation for giving back to the community. Since 2005, the eatery has donated more than $35 million to the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation.
The nonprofit was founded 13 years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Firehouse Subs co-founders, Chris and Rob Sorensen, headed to Mississippi to feed first responders and survivors of the hurricane. As they traveled back to Florida, they knew more could be done and the foundation was formed.
While the foundation and the restaurant chain are two separate entities, Firehouse Subs is the nonprofit's largest corporate donor. In addition to fundraising for the foundation, individual franchisees often raise money to address smaller needs within their own communities, such as raising money to support the families of fallen first responders, local school initiatives and more. The culture of philanthropy in the restaurant is part of Firehouse Subs' mission to give back to first responders and local communities.
"Roughly 70 percent of the funds are donated by our guests," Fox said. "Our founders, employees and vendor partners account for most of the balance."
To register for the Nov. 14 Conversation with a CEO, click here.