Len Roberts best known as boss of RadioShack but, wow, did he like running Arby’s

Len and Laurie Roberts

Len Roberts and his wife Laurie have hosted well over 100 social and charity events at their 4400 Overton Crest estate in the 18 years they have owned their immaculate home.

While the residence they now are selling was more impressive than I could ever imagine – after all, it was inspired by Chicago museums with limestone floors and walls and a breathtaking view of Fort Worth, I had the opportunity to meet and visit with Len himself.

The occasion was a fundraiser for Hugworks, which has since merged with KidLinks Therapy Music Entertainment. The organization’s role was – and still is – to deliver healing, hope, and happiness through music and media for children in hospitals. My girlfriend Rebecca Barksdale was serving on the Hugworks board of directors at that time, and she invited me to join her. The date was Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009.

Since Roberts’ most recent leadership position had been as CEO of RadioShack, Rebecca conducted some research and learned about our host’s previous career in the restaurant industry. There was no need to ask the same old questions about RadioShack. He had heard them all.

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She rightly presumed that everyone in Fort Worth recognized his affiliation with RadioShack, then one of the city’s largest and most prominent employers, so Rebecca committed to changing the conversation.

When we were introduced to Mr. Roberts, he immediately said, “Please call me Len.”

She asked the magic question that elevated the entire evening: “What was it like to be CEO of Arby’s? I love their food.”

The smile across Len’s face was priceless as his eyes lit up with excitement. “I love to talk about Arby’s,” he said. “Please, both of you come up to my office and let me show you something.”

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We swiftly made our way up the grand spiral staircase and turned toward his office. Len opened a drawer and showed us a copy of Restaurants & Institutions magazine that featured him on the front cover. He said, “I’ve got a bunch of these, so please take this one.”

There, in his office, he told stories about his leadership of Arby’s. You should have seen the passion and enthusiasm he had for the popular restaurant chain. His leadership there included many high points of his life. Even one of Len’s highlight moments as CEO of RadioShack referenced his time at Arby’s. He was standing on stage during the massive Consumer Electronics Show – the largest convention in Las Vegas every year.

“I was on the stage with Bill Gates from Microsoft, Steve Jobs from Apple, and Larry Ellison from Oracle,” he recalled. “Each of us was asked to say, in a single sentence, what we had done to benefit the human race.

“Bill Gates said that Microsoft had developed the language for computers, and he received a soft courtesy applause, much like you hear on a golf course during a tournament.

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“Steve Jobs stated that Apple made computing less complicated and easier for individuals to use. Again, there was a polite ‘golf clap’.

“Next came Larry Ellison from Oracle, who said that his company helped the computers communicate with one another. More polite applause.

“So, there I am – the RadioShack CEO. I have nothing to share on the level of innovation as these luminaries, and I was batting last. I don’t know what made me say it, but I smiled and said, ‘I used to be the CEO of Arby’s, and I brought Curly Fries to America!’”

Standing ovation!

The smile on Roberts’ face was electric simply because Rebecca had invited him to share something fun from his past that others rarely asked him about.

Len regaled us with stories about his interactions with Arby’s franchisees and how he grew sales and profits. During his four years as CEO, Arby’s grew by 900 locations.

That represents a lot of Curly Fries!

As we were winding down so he could return to hosting his guests, Rebecca asked about “the bell.” She had read that Arby’s locations had a bell mounted on a wall that customers could ring as they left to recognize a positive dining experience.

Once again, his passion was evident as he told stories of extraordinary service and bell-ringing, and how he constantly inspired his location employees by proudly ringing the bell on his way out.

I asked if we could take him to lunch at an Arby’s location soon and he quickly agreed, giving us his email address.

The next week, I emailed Len and he agreed to meet us at the Arby’s on Alta Mesa Boulevard just west of Woodway in Southwest Fort Worth.

Len, Rebecca, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, our Arby’s Classic Roast Beef and, of course, Curly Fries.

On the way out, Len enthusiastically rang the bell and then told the shift manager that he had been CEO of Arby’s many years earlier.

We learned three lessons from our encounter with Roberts:

  • Everybody has some hidden story they would gladly share if someone knew to ask them.
  • When you show sincere interest in someone, they are quite likely to become equally interested in you.
  • We all need to find a way to celebrate our successes – whether ringing a bell or whatever it may be; it’s part of having fun!

And one more thing: Curly Fries are a national treasure, and we have Len Roberts to thank for that gift to America!

John Fletcher is CEO/Founder of Fletcher Consulting Public Relations in Arlington, where he emphasizes the value of developing strong personal and business relationships. Contact him at john@thefletch.org