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Darin Harris ’93 – 60th Anniversary Gala Alumni Spotlight

Darin Harris is a study in perseverance.

Looking for both a job and information on his thesis for his Master’s degree from St. Thomas University, Harris once called a Pizza Hut executive every week for four straight months.

To be precise, Harris called this boss every Friday at 2 p.m. Harris left voice mails, but he never asked for a job.

“My thesis was on co-branding, and my messages to this executive were about what my research was showing,” said Harris, who is from Wichita, Kansas, which is where Pizza Hut was founded.

“(The executive) finally called me back after four months. He said, ‘I want to meet you when you’re home for Christmas.’

“I met with him, and he hired me on the spot.”

That executive wanted Harris’ help launching Pizza Hut in airports, convenience stores and school districts.
Within two years of hiring Harris, Pizza Hut had grown from five such locations to more than 400.

With that, a business star was born.

This was a surprise to Harris. He played baseball at the University of Kansas and finished his career at Creighton.

At Creighton, Harris was coached by Jim Hendry, a Florida native who became general manager of the Chicago Cubs and now works for the New York Yankees.

It was Hendry who recommended STU to Harris.

“Did I ever think I was going to school to become a business executive?” Harris said. “No. I thought I was going to St. Thomas University for sports management or marketing.

“But St. Thomas opened up a different mindset, and I ultimately grew my career and happened to have some success.”

That is a wild understatement.

Harris is now the Chief Executive Officer of Jack in the Box, a California-based fast-food chain with more than $1 billion in annual revenues. There are more than 2,200 Jack in the Box restaurants located in 21 states.

Jack in the Box brought Harris on board in June of 2020. But all totaled, Harris has more than 25 years of leadership experience in the restaurant industry, including serving as a senior vice president at Arby’s from 2005 to 2008.

Harris was also a franchise operator of multiple Papa John’s Pizza and Qdoba Mexican Grill restaurants from November 2002 to June 2005.

“That was a critical step to understanding what franchisees go through, the good and the bad,” Harris said. “I had three restaurants, and when they struggled, I thought: ‘I’m going to lose everything I own. What do I have to do to fix it?’

“I quit my day job. I moved to that market. I rolled up my sleeves, and I worked in the restaurants, figuring out how to get it to break even.”

Harris said he eventually sold those restaurants, but the sweat equity he gained has proven valuable now at Jack in the Box.

“That real-life experience has helped me connect with franchisees,” Harris said. “I’m not just some guy in corporate telling franchisees what to do. I’ve been there. I have that credibility.”

Indeed, Harris has accumulated a wealth of knowledge in his quarter of a century in the industry.

Among the things he has learned is what to look for in a managerial candidate.

“The average employee is a great employee,” Harris said. “They come in every day. They want to do the right thing.

“But the employees who continue to the next level have a growth mindset. They have this willingness and hunger to keep learning. They say, ‘OK, we did a very good job, but how do we get a little bit better next time?’”

When Harris was hired by Jack in the Box, the first thing he did was meet with about 20 franchisees.

Many of those franchisees were angry. They had a long list of grievances, and Harris navigated through that extremely well.

“It’s about relationships and establishing a connection with people,” Harris said. “Until you do that, the chance of influencing people is almost impossible.

“The franchisees wanted to talk about their issues. I said, ‘Timeout. We’re going to have years together to talk about all the problems, and we’ll have plenty of them.’

“I said, ‘Let’s get to know each other. Tell me your story. How did you get into the business?’”

Harris’ approach clearly worked.

First, he repaired the relationships. Then, he built a leadership team. Finally, he put together a strategy that could be executed.

“We’ve had industry-leading results since then,” Harris said. “We’re finally in a stage of growth. In March of 2022, we acquired 600 Del Taco restaurants.”

Because he is a sports guy at heart, Harris made an analogy, saying he would not be the type of person to replace a legend like Nick Saban as Alabama’s football coach.

But Harris is the perfect choice to turn around a team – or a business.

“I like going to a place where we say, ‘OK, how do we step back and re-invent the culture?’” Harris said. “It comes down to people and culture.

“The strategy doesn’t always have to be perfect – as long as it’s clear.”

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