The CEO of the Year for 2019 in the Large Business category is the chief executive of Donatos.
Tom Krouse is at the apex of his career as his company sees some of its best years yet. But his focus isn’t on his own success. It’s on Donatos’ 5,000 employees, especially the ones working in the restaurants—the 15-year-olds most companies shy away from hiring because of strict break rules, or those who have made legal mistakes that make getting a job more difficult.
“[Someone] who has stayed with the company and gone on to either be in the home office or have their own franchise, or [to] have helped people who are maybe not as confident in themselves realize that they have the ability to do things like be the general manager of a million-dollar restaurant,” Krouse explains, is his favorite thing about his position. He is most proud of helping people within the Donatos family “realize their dreams.”
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When Krouse came to the company from Wendy’s about two decades ago, he didn’t have a clue what he was stepping into—and he wasn’t even really looking to leave Wendy’s at first. It turns out, his boss would become his father-in-law, and his coworker, Jane Grote Abell, his wife. He also couldn’t have foreseen one day being Donatos’ president and CEO. Early in his career, his goals were very specific. As he grew, Krouse’s goals became a bit more visceral. He attributes his success to decisions he made based on life principles instead of concrete goals.
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When Jim Grote, Donatos’ founder and one of Krouse’s greatest mentors, stepped out of his role in 2010, Krouse thought he’d be offered the position of chief operating officer. To become CEO was a pleasant surprise. “I think I got to a certain point in my career where I just tried to focus on doing the right thing and working hard,” Krouse says. “Once I started acting that way, then opportunities kind of unveiled themselves. I had always wanted more and more leadership here at Donatos when I got here, but I was surprised at the time when they asked me to take on this new role.”
Krouse is self-effacing about the growth Donatos has seen in his charge. In truth, during his tenure it has increased revenue by 30 percent, and profitability six-fold. Its 200 locations generate $200 million in annual revenue. Subsidiary Jane’s Dough Foods was created in 2008 and its products now are sold in 7,000 U.S. grocery stores. In the past five years, sales in that division have increased 20 percent. Perhaps one of Krouse’s greatest accomplishments at the helm of Donatos is something he can’t yet share. “We will be growing and expanding pretty significantly on a national level in the next few years,” he says.
Donatos CFO Doug Kourie lauds Krouse as a man who has gracefully navigated working with family members. Meanwhile, he’s managed to be highly involved in the lives of his children and play in his band, Grassinine, all while leading the company.
“Family’s important and that energizes me. Music’s important and that energizes me, and work is important,” says Krouse. “I don’t feel any sort of dread with any of that. It kind of naturally shakes itself out. I always say I used to play mediocre golf on the weekends, and I’d come home frustrated. Now I play mediocre music on the weekends, and I’m never frustrated.”
Kourie also admires Krouse’s balanced view of Donatos—seeing it as a tool to do good and also a thing that needs to keep making money and growing.
“Our mission is all about goodwill,” Kourie says. “But if you give everything away, or you give too much to too many, you can’t continue to fulfill the mission. So, [his mantra] ‘No money, no mission,’ I think is a great thing from a CFO standpoint.”
Donatos practices goodwill in a number of ways. A big one is through a close relationship with the Reeb Avenue Center, which was created and heavily funded by Jane Grote Abell and Crane Group CEO Tanny Crane, both from prominent South Side families.
“The giving part is not just dollars into the community—and there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that are committed—but there’s volunteerism, and then just our philosophy,” says Krouse. “When your purpose is bigger than just pizza—that’s really what excites me.”