As chief executive of CKE Restaurants Inc., the parent of Carl's Jr., it's part of Andrew Puzder's job to eat fast food a whole lot of it. Puzder, 58, is an outspoken attorney who rose through the ranks of the restaurant company after being appointed general counsel. He is known for his straightforward demeanor and is credited with the strong push by Carl's Jr. to become the brand for young men. His hands-on approach means he does everything from tasting new foods in the company's test kitchen to defending salacious Carl's Jr. advertisements on "The O'Reilly Factor." Before joining the company, which also owns Hardee's and Green Burrito, Puzder had a successful career as an attorney in St. Louis. Then, through a chance business encounter, he ended up saving Carl Karcher, legendary founder of Carl's Jr., from bankruptcy. A Chagrin Falls, Ohio, native, Puzder grew up in the Midwest and played guitar in several bands to help pay his way through college. He still picks up the guitar every now and then, but spends most of his spare time exercising, traveling and reading. Puzder sat down at a table at a Carl's Jr. in West Los Angeles last week to discuss his career, those sexy ads and the competition. By the way, he implored the Business Journal to sample the restaurant's Big Burger. The reporter obliged: It wasn't half bad for $1.29.

Question: Carl's Jr. just rolled out another girl-eating-burger ad this one with reality star Audrina Partridge in a bikini. Is the controversy a bad thing?

Answer: No. 1, it is a good thing, and No. 2, it is an unavoidable thing.

Q: Unavoidable?

A: We spend about $120 million a year on advertising $60 million for Carl's and $60 million for Hardee's, the sister brand in the Midwest and the Southwest. McDonald's, for example, last year spent $820 million. They just spent probably as much on McCafe as I spend the whole year on everything. I've got to do an ad that you see and you remember. If I've got a Audrina Patridge in a gold bathing suit or Paris Hilton or Padma
Lakshmi, the odds are that young hungry guys our target is 18 to 34 males are going to see this ad and aren't going to fast-forward through it if they've DVRed the show.

Q: So you are courting controversy?

A: They can criticize us, they can like us, as long as they show the ad, we are OK. By the way, I run all these ads by my wife. I want to get her perspective on these things. I've got three young boys I show them to them. I get our family opinion on the ones that I think are going to be edgy. There are things I won't do in the ads things I've vetoed.

Q: Such as?

A: It could be too salacious; it could go too over the top. This ad with Audrina, she's in a gold bikini, which you'd see on the beach anywhere in Los Angeles. There are no guys in the ad; there is no sexual contact. So I am OK with a beautiful American girl in a gold bikini on a beach in Santa Monica eating a hamburger. What could be more American than that?

Q: How do you deal with the heat, for example, with the Paris Hilton ad?

A: I went on O'Reilly's show. Bill O'Reilly showed that ad; he did three different segments. The first two I was out of the country and he was critical of me and the ad. So when I got back in the country I happened to be going to New York, I called him and said, "I will be in New York, I'll do the show. I haven't been dodging the show, matter of fact I'm a fan of the show." He said, "Come on." And I went on, and again they showed the ad all day to get people to watch the show and then they showed the ad a bunch of times while I'm on the show, and then they criticize me for using the ad to bring people in to buy hamburgers. So I said, "Aren't you using the ad to get people to watch your show? How is this different?"

Q: His response?

A: There was no response.

Q: You are known for your frankness and casual style. Is that something you've cultivated or does it come naturally?

A: When I was a lawyer I was on TV. When I was a kid I played in rock and roll bands so I was always on stage. When I became a lawyer I was involved in a lot of high-profile cases and causes that got me on TV. I am very comfortable doing media. It doesn't worry me at all. You smile, you give honest answers. I am not here to deceive anybody. You tell people the truth, explain what you are doing. You are going to be fine. People are going to relate to that. Just don't BS, that's they key, don't overstate, don't understate. Tell it like it is.

Q: Tell me about playing rock music.

A: I was in rock and roll bands and I could sing, so I would generally be the singer and rhythm guitar player. Some bands I was the bass player. Occasionally on a song I'd play lead. I was one of those guys that could always play what he heard, and never had any training and never worked hard at it. It was a good way to make money and a good way to get dates.

Q: Where was this?

A: I grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, which is east of Cleveland. I started playing in bands in '65 and stopped about '70, '71. That was the heyday of rock and roll in Cleveland we had the James Gang. There were all kinds of bands that came out of Cleveland. There was always a bar you could play in different from now. My son wants to play and it's kind of a different world. You had a bar, a club, and there was a band. We were always working. It was great. They were always happy to pay you if you brought people. It was a blast.

Q: What was the end goal of being a musician?

A: For me it was always a way to make money to get through school. My oldest son is 37 years old I was married when I was 23 and he predates the marriage so I was supporting my family and getting through school at Kent State. It was a vehicle to get me where I wanted to go.

Q: What was your most memorable gig?

A: On Thursday nights at Kent the James Gang would play and at the end of the night they'd call up a few guys to jam. I got up a couple times and played bass while Joe Walsh and Jimmy Fox were playing. The bass player of James Gang was a buddy of mine at the time named Tom Kriss. He let me come up and take over bass. That was a blast.

Q: Do you still play guitar?

A: I play very little now, my kids are all better than me so it's embarrassing. I do sometimes show them things because I can still play what I can hear. I work out a lot. My wife and I like to travel and we love going to Lakers games.

Q: Tell me about your time at Kent State.

A: I went one semester after the shootings and I ran out of money. My parents had five kids, my dad was a car salesman, and there was no family money. So I took a couple of years off, played in bands, worked in a music store in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and saved up enough money to go back to school.

Q: Were your parents supportive of that?

A: They were very supportive, they always told me that this was what they wanted me to do to go to college but they didn't have any money to help me out. At Kent my first year I majored in art and then I switched to pre-law. Then I took a couple years off, switched to Cleveland State. I finished in 1975. I graduated from law school at Washington University in St. Louis in 1978.

Q: Did you always want to be a lawyer?

A: When I was 10 years old I was arguing with my mother about something and she said, "You'd make a good lawyer." I said, "What's a lawyer?" She told me, and I said, "Actually that sounds pretty good." I talked to my dad and said, "How much money do lawyers make?" I still remember to this day, he said, "Well they make a lot of money; they make $12,000 to $15,000 a year." I said, "Oh cool. $12,000 to 15,000 a year, how would you ever spend that?"

Q: How did you meet Carl Karcher?

A: In 1989 his lawyer from California called me because Carl had been sued in Kansas City in a securities case. The broker that got Carl in trouble was somebody that I had represented in a deposition in Los Angeles. (Karcher's attorney) called and asked if I could represent Carl in this securities lawsuit. I said, "Sure, send me a check for 10 grand and the complaint and I'll do a conflict check." I got it the next day in Fedex, and I said, "This is pretty good." Anyways, I met Carl a couple months later and we just hit it off in all respects.

Q: How did that blossom into a business relationship?

A: Carl became like a second father to me over the years and when his lawyer retired in 1990 Carl called and said, "Hey, do you want some more of my business?" and I said, "I want all of your business. I'll fly to California a week a month and I'll pay for the air fare if you pay for the hotel." He said, "OK." I started flying to California, and realized Carl was in incredible debt.

Q: Tell me about the situation.

A: He thought he was worth $150 million. He was actually bankrupt. Once I convinced him he was actually in trouble, he said, "Well, you better get me out of trouble." So I talked to my wife my second wife she said, "Let's go." She's a real sport. She's always been really good about that stuff. We moved to California. Carl was in huge, huge trouble. It took a couple years to get him out. It was in the newspaper every day. I got Carl out of trouble by putting a loan together with a guy named Bill Foley, who was the CEO of Fidelity National Financial. After I got Carl out of trouble, Bill hired me as his lawyer. So I had two really great clients.

Q: How did you get the CEO job?

A: In 1997, Bill (who was chairman of CKE) asked me to become general counsel of CKE Restaurants as well as Fidelity and then we bought Hardee's. Hardee's almost sank the company; it almost went into bankruptcy. Bill asked me to become the president and CEO of Hardee's and then a couple months later the whole company. That was in 2000.

Q: Carl Karcher died last year at 90. What did you learn from him?

A: A lot of advice on restaurant stuff. On simple things, Carl might have a hard time telling you what he did Tuesday. But if you said, "Carl we have 3,133 restaurants, they did $4,372 in business on average yesterday," he'd tell you faster than the calculator what they did as a total. He had this brilliant mathematical mind. He had this charismatic personality and was a man of great religious faith. He had that big smile. He had these huge hands. We went to an event for the Angels when Chili Davis played for them and he shook hands with Carl and Chili looked up at Carl and said, "Mr. Karcher, if I had your hands I'd hit 80 home runs a year." They were just massive. He was this big teddy bear of a guy.

Q: Where do all these menu ideas come from?

A: We've got 12 or 14 people involved total in new product development. We've got a test kitchen in St. Louis and a test kitchen in Carpinteria. These guys and gals come up with the product and then everybody copies us. We are always looking for the next burger; we are doing meat as a condiment. The pastrami burger, the prime rib burger, the chili burger. In Hardee's land, we have another one coming out, it's the French dip burger, and it's got roast beef on the burger. Nobody is doing that yet. But somebody will. We got the meat as a condiment thing from Jay Leno, who was joking about our food on TV and he said, "You know America is too fat when we are using meat as a condiment." We all went, whoa, meat as a condiment!

Q: The obesity epidemic in America is well documented. Do you feel any personal sense of responsibility for it?

A: There is nothing wrong with burgers and fries. I'm not the food police. I'm not here to tell people what to eat. I'm here to find out what people want to eat and feed it to them. That's my job. I think fast food is getting a bad rap. We post all the health information on large signs at the restaurants. We've been doing that since the 1970s, I believe. We have a bunch of items on the menu that are healthy. You can get anything on a whole wheat bun. We have products you can get as a vegetarian. However, the couple of times that we've gone on air with a BBQ chicken sandwich that has four grams of fat, we don't sell any more (of them). The only reason we keep that item on the menu is because we feel a responsibility. Advertising healthy food is just pouring dollars down the drain.

Q: Are you a big eater?

A: I'm a terrific eater. We won't serve anything I won't eat. We don't serve any of the 99-cent inedible stuff. These Angus beef burgers are something I really brought to the company. They are something I pursued as CEO. The Six Dollar Burger and Thickburger (at Hardee's) are the burgers I promoted and they are the ones I love to eat.

Q: What's your particular favorite?

A: I like the Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger the best.

Q: How often do you eat at your restaurants?

A: Probably four or five times a week. Typical order burger, fries and coke.

Q: Is it advisable to eat fast food that often?

A: I run a lot, my cholesterol is good.

Q: What's the number?

A: I don't know what the number is; I used to know, now they have two numbers and I can never remember which is which. But my cholesterol is low.

Q: You must run a lot to keep it low with that diet.

A: I'm 6 feet tall and weigh 190 pounds. I'm 58 years old; I'm still jogging and lifting weights; I have a trainer three days a week. I eat a lot of fruit. Today I had lunch with our investment bankers and I got a salad and green beans. If I am not eating in our restaurants, I eat differently. If you eat Chinese food three meals a day, seven days a week, it is going to be bad for you.

Andrew F. Puzder

Title: Chief Executive

Company: CKE Restaurants Inc.

Education: B.S., history, Cleveland State University, 1975; J.D., Washington University School of Law, 1978

Career Turning Point: "The day in June of 2000 when I went to a CKE
Restaurants Inc. shareholders meeting and was informed that I was going to be the president and CEO of Hardee's. Prior to that, I hadn't really considered the possibility of being CEO of a NYSE company. I thought I would be a lawyer for the rest of my life."

Most Influential People: Ronald Reagan: "Because he stood up for what he believed when most of the people around him felt he was wrong." Carl Karcher: "Because he came from nothing and built something meaningful solely on the basis of hard work and a strong moral compass."

Personal: Lives in Montecito with second wife Dee, and three younger children, Matt, 16; Andrew, 14; and John, 11. Older children are Aaron, 37; Christian, 34; Vanessa, 30

Hobbies: Exercise, travel and going to Lakers games. "I also love history and spend a lot of time reading academic historical works and
historical fiction. For the last couple of years, I have been focused on Roman history."

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