Kurt Kane is the chief concept and marketing officer of Wendy’s, a position he considers an "absolute dream job" with one of America's most beloved brands. In this role, Kane oversees all marketing, digital and culinary innovation for the quick-service restaurant powerhouse with more than 6,000 locations selling more than $8 billion in hamburgers, chicken sandwiches and salads. It's a duty he began in May 2015 after holding numerous other leadership positions in the food and beverage industry. However, his fondness for Wendy's dates back to when he was an Army 2nd lieutenant returning from deployment in 1995.
Kane had just landed back at Fort Carson, Colorado, following a deployment to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he led a platoon responsible for helping run an immigration camp and, like most deployed troops, dreamed of home.
"You tend to think about nothing but what you're going to eat when you come home.I knew for months that I was going to come home, go straight to Wendy's and get a Dave's Single cheeseburger, large fry, a Coke and a Frosty," laughed Kane during an exclusive interview with Veterans Advantage.
Finally, sitting down to a meal at a Wendy's in Colorado Springs, Kane was able to satisfy that craving and the memory still sticks with him today, long after a successful transition from platoon leader to corporate executive. His fondness for the veteran-founded fast food giant remains with him today, as he helps lead the company with the same value of selflessness that his military service, which started at West Point, instilled in him.
Kane's father, Joseph Kane, also served in the Army in the mid 1960s in the 18th Airborne Corps before he settled in his home state of Illinois to raise a family. Then, following his sophomore year of high school, Kane's family moved from the Chicago suburb of Flossmoor to Kingwood, Texas, with his father's work.
"I really became an adopted Texan at that point," said Kane, as he recalled his second home, a place where military service was clearly appreciated.
At no point did Kane's father ever pressure him into the service, although Kane did recall his dad speaking fondly of his time in the Army and the opportunities it had provided. Whether that planted a subliminal seed or not, when the time came to apply for colleges, Kane clearly understood the many benefits an education from West Point would provide.
The day he was accepted to the military academy, Kane was called down to the principal's office — "which is never a good thing in high school" — to find his father standing there waiting for him — "which is also not a good thing when you're in high school." But Joseph Kane was there as the bearer of good news.
"He said, ‘I've got good news and bad news. The bad news is you got into West Point; the good news is you don't have to go if you don't want to,'" Kane recalled. "That was his way of making sure that I knew going to the Academy was 100% my choice, without pressure from him in any way. He didn't want me making that decision for any of the wrong reasons. Both of my parents have been amazingly supportive of me finding my own path."
For Kane, it was the best of news.
By that time, Kane was an accomplished athlete and the Army wanted him to play tennis at West Point. With its reputation for academics, a tennis coaching staff he respected and the chance for a fully-funded education, West Point was a natural next step for Kane. Plus, the military academy offered a unique challenge, far different from any other university he might attend.
Kane holds an incredible appreciation for his time at West Point, but now jokes that it was difficult to enjoy at the time, given how challenging the environment was from day one of Beast Barracks.
"Everybody you met was great at something; great men and women, really capable, really smart, really driven. So I realized as soon as I got there that I needed to up my game to keep pace with the people I was surrounded by," Kane said.
Playing tennis for West Point provided Kane the opportunity to travel around the country and gave him great pride in representing Army, especially when he became part of the first tennis team to beat Navy in more than two decades. In the classroom, Kane's professors were highly invested in student success, setting the example of service before self, a lesson that remains with Kane to this day.
Upon graduation, Kane joined the 4th Infantry Division as an air defense artillery officer at Fort Carson, deploying to Cuba in the final year of his service. Shortly after his return, in the period of time following the First Gulf War, the Army began downsizing and approximately 200 soldiers from his graduating class were asked to volunteer to resign their commissions and leave the service. And while Kane had thoroughly enjoyed his military experience, he also had hopes of returning to school and pursuing a business career.
"I felt I had a lot of other classmates who were amazing officers and leaders who wanted to be able to pursue the military as a long-term career," he recalled. After leaving the Army, Kane immediately missed the camaraderie and common purpose that comes with military service and felt somewhat overwhelmed by the "world of new choices" before him. But continuing his education was a great way to manage that transition, and at the University of Texas, Austin, he was exposed to a lot of different career options. He also met his wife Christine who he credits with, "being an incredible partner who has always provided a huge amount of encouragement and support." He also benefited from having an older sister who was a talented sales executive working for the M&M Mars Company at the time and opened his eyes to the world of food and beverage marketing.
Over his civilian career, Kane has worked for Procter & Gamble, Molson Coors Brewing Company, PepsiCo, and Yum! Brands before joining The Wendy's Company last year in Dublin, Ohio. There, he found a value system that reflected the selflessness he experienced in the military.
Remembering The Company's Military Roots
"Wendy's has a really good bedrock of values as a company, and those match up well with my own personal experience from the military and what service members really hold dear: doing the right thing, treating people with respect and giving back," Kane said.
In fact, just outside his office, the company's principles of, "Quality is our Recipe," "Do the Right Thing," and "Give Something Back," are printed on a wall that Kane passes daily. Put in place by founder and fellow Army veteran, Dave Thomas, these principles help guide Wendy's in building stronger connections with its customers and radiate throughout the entire company. Kane continually applies these values to all his tasks in a job he truly enjoys. When asked, Kane is quick to advise others attempting a similar career path to be true to what they really are and to only pursue work they're really interested in, as he did.
"Take a step back and think about what it is that you really love. If you pursue that, you're going to go a heck of a lot further than if you just take a job because it carries a certain amount of status or because it seems like it's just the next logical choice," he said.
And for those who are interested in West Point or military service as a whole, Kane, like his father, only has good things to say about the experience and opportunity it can provide.
"I don't have a single friend or classmate who served that regrets the decision. No matter how long they were in, or what they did while they were in, every single one of those people look back on it fondly and with a great deal of pride — and that's something you can always carry with you if you make the choice to serve," Kane said.