Bob Sullivan learned how to work at an early age.
When he was 12 he had motel rooms to clean before he could hang out with his buddies.
Born in Milwaukee, Sullivan spent most of his life in the Brainerd area. His parents bought the Downtown Motel in Brainerd in 1962, living there and running the business. Sullivan's father also worked as an engineer at St. Joseph's Medical Center.
In the afternoons, Sullivan cleaned rooms at his family's motel and then went across South Sixth Street to a motel owned by Fred Holmquist and cleaned more rooms.
The afternoon housekeeping duties were his first jobs. His first business was a single pop machine. He operated the machine as a young teen until he realized it was mostly his dad's idea to give him something to do.
Bob Sullivan, owner of Wendy's restaurant, flipped burgers recently at the restaurant in Brainerd. At one time, Sullivan owned seven Wendy's restaurants in Minnesota and North Dakota and Wisconsin. Now he has four stores, Brainerd, Duluth and two in Fargo, N.D. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
After his parents moved out, Sullivan continued to manage the motel through his teens and early 20s. A steady worker with an ability to save money, Sullivan's true passion was ignited when he went to work at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"I really got into the restaurant business there," he said. "I just really loved it. I always loved the fast pace."
Meeting people. Managing challenges. Beating the last day's sales. All were part of the attraction in a demanding fast food environment. By the time Sullivan was about 26, he had saved $40,000.
"My dad always said, 'It's not how much you earn it's what you do with it.' That's always stuck with me."
When Sullivan got a call asking if he wanted to be on his own, he was interested. There was a KFC in Spencer, Iowa, that was an option. But another deal much closer to home was about to reveal itself.
Sullivan had a habit of driving to Wendy's in St. Cloud on Sundays.
Sullivan liked what he heard about Dave Thomas and the restaurant named for Thomas' daughter Wendy. Ed Northway of Nor-son Inc. was the Wendy's franchise owner in Brainerd. And Sullivan learned the Wendy's restaurant here was for sale. He found a couple of investors and bought it.
Sullivan said he was always fascinated with Wendy's business and when the opportunity came he didn't think twice about it. Sullivan was going to work at 7 a.m. and leaving about 11 p.m. For the first two years he didn't take a day off. His wife, Becky, worked with him everyday for several years. She did all the bookkeeping and payroll for the first eight years while raising three children, Jenny, Jackie and John.
When Jenny was nine days old she would sleep on the desk during the lunch hour.
"There wasn't much sleep for the first year but it was what we wanted," he said. With bills and startup costs, Sullivan said it was about four to five years before they were making money.
With an eye toward expansion, Sullivan found a property in Duluth in 1984 and built a Wendy's there next to Miller Hill Mall. They moved to Duluth to get the new restaurant started and their second daughter, Jackie, was born there.
Shortly after Sullivan bought the Brainerd restaurant, his sister, Karen, went to work for him. As operations director, she visits the four stores Sullivan currently has on a weekly basis.
"She's been a tremendous asset and unbelievable worker," he said.
When the company had seven stores, revenues were $9 to $10 million a year. With margins tighter today and fuel costs, Sullivan said there is more pressure to be competitive.
Beyond the restaurants, Sullivan expanded to the rental business, owning several apartment buildings in south Brainerd. He started by buying a four-plex apartment building in 1992. He said it is a good way to build equity. During the years, he's built three six-plex apartment buildings. The units are geared toward retirees. With a 98 percent occupancy there hasn't been much turnover. Sullivan could be found at the multi-plexes vacuuming the floors.
"I always enjoyed building things for some reason," he said. "I really do enjoy looking at blueprints."
Sullivan put a partnership together to build something he always wanted - the Holiday Inn Express on Highway 371. It took years of research and became a huge operation with construction of the hotel and water park.
"It was great," Sullivan said of the project. With shares sold in the company, the investors had a vote and Sullivan handled operations. "It was an unbelievable challenge."
With two general contractors and multiple subcontractors, the work was extremely demanding. He remembers standing in a hallway having conversations with about 90 different people with so many final details in the last two months of construction. "That was just a lot of fun."
With eight investors, four wanted to go one way and four another. So Sullivan said he exited that project in January. While the hotel project remains close to his heart, Sullivan said it was time to get out of that venture.
Sullivan also is involved with a group of five other people in the Northwest Plaza, the new strip mall recently completed near Home Depot.
A new venture with growth potential came in the opening of Caribbean Tanning on Excelsior Road in Baxter. The business client list is now more than 4,000. Sullivan said there are a lot of reasons to look seriously at growth potential not only with an additional salon here but with the development of a brand and salons throughout Minnesota.
Sullivan's other passions include coaching college softball and cars, particularly Corvettes.
These days Sullivan said he doesn't grab the window cleaner as much as he used to but he's still known for his abilities on a fast food grill.
"I have no problems being called the fry man - fries have been very good to me."
Next Sunday, the Dispatch will report its conversation with Glen Cook, whose international career with McDonald's started in Brainerd.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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