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The Sitdown: Ed Rensi on restaurants, race cars and rebelling

As told to Mike Thomas, Staff Reporter

From his humble beginnings in Mansfield, Ohio, to the heights of business success, the straight-talking son of a police officer father and a paralegal mother is an embodiment of the so-called American dream. One version of it, anyway. A college dropout who eventually earned an undergrad degree in the prime of his career, he climbed the proverbial ladder from low-wage grill man to president and CEO of McDonald’s USA, developing Chicken McNuggets and founding Ronald McDonald House along the way. Removed from the top post in 1996 amid sluggish sales, he left the fold in 1998 and ran the NASCAR squad Team Rensi Motorsports. Roughly a dozen years later he returned to the restaurant scene as one of three investors in what’s presently a three-store chain of suburban gourmet burger joints called Tom & Eddie’s. Now 70, he recently was named CEO of the roughly 200-location barbecue chain Famous Dave’s of America, where he’s striving to streamline operations and reinvigorate the brand using its outpost in Bolingbrook as a prototype.

This CEO job’s tough. I get out of bed at three o’clock in the morning and I work till 10 o’clock at night. I’ve done that all my life.

When you’re running a company that’s in stress, you’ve got to do a lot of things differently than you might otherwise do.

My mom and dad owned a restaurant when I was growing up. It was just a greasy spoon. I hated every minute of [working there]. They never made a dime of money in that thing, but they lived in it.

This business of take care of the farmers, source locally, take care of the animals, free-range and cageless and all the rest of that stuff — a lot of that stuff has no real meaning in the world. [People] just think it does.

I don’t fight perceptions. Perceptions are reality and that’s what you have to pay attention to. Tomorrow’s perceptions will be different than today’s perceptions.

When I was 13 years old, I was drag racing. I had a 1932 Hudson Essex with a small-block Chevy in it. And then when I got older I did sports car racing.

My dad had a plainclothes police car. It was a 1959 Chevrolet. And I took the thing to a drag race. I wanted to see how fast that thing could go.

I did things I shouldn’t have done just because I thought it was OK. I guess if anything, I never thought about the consequences of some of the things I did. I just did ‘em in the moment.

Going around a racetrack at 178 miles per hour is safer than going down the interstate here at 70.

I don’t do any more racing. I quit that six years ago. Let me tell you what: At 70 years old, your reflexes aren’t the same. Your eyes aren’t the same. I’m probably 10 seconds off. That’s 100 years.

Somebody said to me, “Why the hell don’t you retire? You’ve got money.” I think retirement is an investment in death. How many people do you know who retired and three years later they die?

Life should be lived. And I don’t want to get too philosophical about this, but I’ve got a very curious mind. I really enjoy discovering new things. I really enjoy seeing new things.

It’s 14 hours from [Chicago] to Abu Dhabi. I didn’t sleep one minute on that plane, man. I was watching movies and reading and talking to the cabin attendants. They’re like, “Can we shut the lights out? Everybody else is trying to sleep.”

I went to school at Ohio State and all I wanted to do was get the hell outta there. All I wanted to do is join the Air Force and fly airplanes, and my dad said, “No, you become a school teacher, because you’ll have steady work and you can take three months off in the summer and get a part-time job and make more money.”

I love to learn, but I like to learn what I want to learn, not what they want me to learn. So I never took any fine arts classes because I hate that stuff. I like to look at it, but I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to sculpt. I don’t want to paint. I don’t want to do any of that crap.

I left college in my senior year. That was 1966, ’67. I went back to school in 1990 and took enough credit hours through the University of Minnesota that I could graduate.

My dad was sick and I wanted to graduate from college before he died, because he was always angry at me for not finishing school. And then he passed away before he knew I graduated, so once I graduated I never said s— to anybody about it.

We’ve got serious problems in this country and we suffer from a lack of leadership in a lot of areas.

Politicians, all they think about is taking your money to [get re-elected].

You gotta know how to lie really good [in politics]. And when you get caught in the lie, you gotta pretend like you never said it. And I don’t know how to lie. I tell people exactly what I think when I think it, and I get criticized for that a lot. But I’d rather live that way than other ways.

I have zero patience. If you can’t get it done yesterday, don’t talk to me about it tomorrow.

I had a house on the ocean in Florida. Had a lake house out here in Somonauk, Illinois. I’ve got a house over in Downers Grove [that’s on the market]. Now I live in a two-bedroom condominium.

I used to have a lot of cars. I had a bunch of Corvettes and some Grand Nationals, race cars. I bought a warehouse over in Woodridge and I had ’em all lined up in there. I called Mecum Auctions up and said, “You’ve got exactly 48 hours to come over here and give me a price on all these cars and get ’em outta here.” I sold ’em all in one day. Every one of ’em.

I wish I had started simplifying when I was 40.

When I was growing up, winning was everything. Succeeding was everything. Today, these kids go off to school and they’re told repeatedly, “You don’t have to win. It’s important to participate, but not to win.” So the kids participate with no goals.

You can win at any cost to yourself, not at any cost to the others.

At the end of the day it’s how you live your life. What you do with what you learn.

Don’t make no small plans.

Related: The Sitdown, Part 2: Famous Dave’s CEO Ed Rensi gets down to business