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Principle passion

Donatos Pizza Chairman Jane Grote Abell leads the Columbus-based company with the same ambition, optimism and ideals that her father built it on

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From the Principle passion issue of Capital Style
  • Abell talks with Donatos employees Ian Carney, left, and Billy Sparks during a store visit
  • Abell in her office
  • Abell with her children: Brianna, Tony, Tony's fiance Hannah Lucas and Tori

The teenage boy was walking door-to-door, hanging Donatos Pizza fliers, when he took a few steps ontoa crosswalk, and a car he couldn't have seen coming hit him. In an instant, his young body lay motionless on the street, paralyzed.

Word traveled quickly through the Donatos headquarters in Gahanna to Jane Grote Abell, who was busy running her family's multi-million-dollar pizza business.

About the same time Jane learned of the accident, she received an important out-of-town call from another executive. Much to the executive's confusion, Jane did everything but hang up on him. She ran out of the office, jumped in her car, and-despite legal advice never to do this-started driving north to visit the boy, his family and his co-workers.

"If one of our people has been hurt or is in trouble, she just drops everything and goes to where she needs to be," said Tom Krouse, Donatos CEO. "That's just what she does."

Jane, who grew up on Columbus' South Side taking pizza orders for her dad's shop, said it's the only way she knows how to operate.

"It's the mission of our company-it's not me," she said matter-of-factly. "It's just about doing the right thing."

That integrity, friends say, is a big reason the smart and striking 44-year-old Donatos chairman is the successful force she is. She's the type of woman who makes friends with her peers' receptionists, the type who gives free pizza for life to an ill child who calls Donatos his favorite. Plus, behind the always-activated movie-star smile is a spirit brimming with optimism.

"She lifts people up," said business associate and friend Tanny Crane, President and CEO of Crane Group. "I've never met anyone who has that aura about her-that joyfulness."

And, they add, what you see is what you get-whether it means sharing unpopular opinions with fellow executives or being confident enough to cry with a 15-year-old employee in the middle of a store.

"She doesn't put up a front of have an air about her," Krouse, the CEO, said. "She doesn't really have time for pretense. It's like, 'I've got too much work to do.' "

And, Jane says, too much work to do right, whether it's assuring every pizza has just enough pepperoni or ditching a day's work to drive to Cleveland and prove she truly does see her employees as family.

The customers would sit at the Grote kitchen table every night, talking and laughing as they waited for their pizza to finish baking in the little shop in front of the house. Jim Grote had started working for a pizza place as a teen. By 18, he opened Donatos, which means "to give a good thing." He eventually built a black brick building with a giant blinking sign on the city's South Side to make his pies, and raised his family in the home behind it.

"It was so much fun," Jane said of their constant stream of guests. "I did not know that was not a normal thing."

Grote had worked for two bosses-one honest, one not. He aimed to offer others the same environment his good boss offered him. "He wanted to create a place," Jane said, "where you can bring your principles to work."

Grote's mother made meatballs and sausage at her house for her son to pick up. His wife made sauce in the home kitchen to walk over to the shop. Customers flocked.

But Grote dreamed of more.

"We're going to have Donatos all over the world," he would tell his four children.

The first time the store expanded, however, he was dismayed. Customers who complained that pizzas at the two new locations just weren't the same. So he shut them down, promising to not grow again until he could make every pizza perfect every time.

Eventually-thanks in part to his homemade invention that sliced pepperoni into equally thick circles-Grote expanded again, this time successfully.

But his daughter hadn't a clue the family had money. She had started taking pizza orders at 11 and graduated to making them, then delivering them. She worked after drill team practices, after football games and full-time in the summer. Once she enrolled at Ohio State, she started managing the campus store.

By the time Jane graduated college, Donatos had spread throughout the state. Soon, they began franchising. And eventually, McDonald's came knocking.

The largest restaurant company in the world put Jane on a private jet for the first time in her life and flew her, her father and one brother to a Chicago boardroom. Executives made their pitch to buy Donatos' roughly 150 locations.

Jane was skeptical. But after talking, the family decided to sell. "It got back to, gosh, there are so many positives to the largest restaurant company in the world buying your company," she said.

Dad, Mom and their four kids-who all worked for the company at the time-each received a good-sized check. Jane's siblings decided to use the money to pursue other passions. But Jane wanted to stay with Donatos as Chief People Officer (her version of a human resources executive). Her father stayed as well, moving from Chief Executive Officer to Chairman.

When Jane walked into the new CEO's office with a Donatos shirt and instructions about going to restaurants and making pizzas-it is, after all, how all employees must start-he glared.

"All of a sudden, my world became very small," Jane said. "Call me nave. I just didn't know there were all these games out there."

Though she learned a lot, she said, she found herself constantly defending her father's ideals.

"That's not what we do here," she would tell people. "That's not how we treat people."

McDonald's was losing millions of dollars on Donatos. Their expansion plans weren't working as hoped. Four years after purchasing the company, they wanted to dump it.

Jane went to her father and told him that, aside from the home she built to raise her family, she would pony up every cent she had made from the initial sale. But she needed some of his money, too.

"Let's buy it back," she said. "I believe in us."

Chuck Kegler, the attorney who has represented Donatos for more than 20 years, sat with Jane and her father as they wrote the check. "I loved her enthusiasm," Kegler said. "It showed she had a passion for the product, and she had a passion for the people that she worked with."

It wasn't a risk, Jane said. She knew what their people were capable of doing.

But the company needed a face, she thought-and a heart.

So as President and Chief Operating Officer, she started visiting stores. "We're pizza with principles," she reminded them. "And we care."

The company made a $10.5 million turnaround that first year.

"Honestly, we didn't do anything different," Jane said. "Our people started caring about who they worked for again."

Truth be told, they improved store economics, too. They created smaller spaces and made better decisions, said Krouse, who has been with the company for years. But yes, people felt like family again. "And that speaks to her leadership and her style and her beliefs," he said. "People got passionate again about the mission of the company."

Today, Donatos boasts 173 stores in six states.

Jane's ultimate plan?

Go global.

Jane's 11-year-old daughter, Tori, woke up in their New Albany home vomiting.

"I'm sorry Mommy," she said. "Don't you have to go to work?"

"Not at all," Jane told her. "You're the most important thing."

Jane-who for much of her life worked 12-hour days and traveled three or four days a week-calls the recent scene one of the most rewarding days she's ever had.

It came thanks to a shift: Just less than a year ago, Jane became Donatos chairman. The switch allows her to think strategically about the company, and gives her more time for family and community. She's still in the office most days, but makes it home for lacrosse matches and soccer games. And she's not just serving on philanthropic boards; she's engaged more intimately.

"It wasn't easy, but there's a sense of peace in my heart," she said. "I'm enjoying life."

She traveled to Paris this year for the first time, and finally feels good about the mom she is to Tony Capuano, 22; Brianna, 13; and Tori. And they like that mom.

"It's not so much that her personality has changed," Tony said. "It's that we get to see more of her personality."

As the family prepped for Tony's recent college graduation, for example, Brianna decided she wanted to make a dress. So Jane drove her to Jo-Ann Fabrics, picked out navy blue floral material, and bought a $30 sewing machine. It gave her girls a glimpse of the gumption that has made their mom so successful in business. "When my daughter says, 'Let's make a dress,' she knows I don't have a clue," Jane said. "But she knows we'll figure it out."

Diane Bennett, CEO of Action for Children, where Jane is a board member, said that positive energy is contagious.

"She just thinks anything is possible, and that comes through," Bennett said. "Whether it's a business situation, a personal situation or a community volunteer position that she's holding, the way she embraces life is positive. She sees the potential and wears it. It's in her energy."

Put simply? The woman's got soul. At least so says Margie Pizzuti, who works with Jane on the Goodwill Columbus board.

"She really has this quintessential convergence of having spirit and soul and smarts and knowledge," said Pizzuti, President and CEO of Goodwill Columbus. "She also has the unique capacity to be both strategic and operational-to roll up her sleeves and really get up close and personal with the work she's doing."

Jane says she's no smarter than anybody else-just passionate.

And, she says, she is grateful.

"I'm blessed. I am so blessed," she said. "We get to provide a place where people get to bring their principles to work."

And that's because the owner is doing the same.