Honorary chair wants the Heritage to put its best plaid forward

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comApril 12, 2014 

Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, left, signed this photo for his top marketing executive, Don Calhoon, now of Hilton Head Island.

Square hamburgers.

Two tomato slices.

"Get Your Plaid On."

"Join the Plaid Nation."

This bundle of ingredients is made to order for Don Calhoon, honorary chairman of the 46th RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, which begins Monday on Hilton Head Island.

Calhoon brought a marketer's eye to the Heritage Classic Foundation board of trustees when he joined in 2006. He had retired to Long Cove Club two years earlier from the Wendy's restaurant chain, where in 27 years he rose to executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the world's third largest hamburger brand.

Today Calhoon is vice chairman of the nonprofit foundation that is the general sponsor of the $5.8 million PGA Tour event, which has produced more than $25 million for charity since 1987.

Calhoon is known for telling the board: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a business."

To him, that means structure, statistics, strategies, long-range planning, measurable goals, and a definition of success.

It means knowing who you are. "And then play it well," he said. "Play it hard. Play it better than anyone else."

Calhoon was there when Wendy's founder Dave Thomas made his first, experimental play in front of a camera. It played well for a record 13 years and more than 800 spots. Thomas was an old Army cook and restaurant operations man. He was an accidental pitchman. But he knew it.

Once you know what works and why, Calhoon says, "Drive the hell out of it. Do not deviate."

The Heritage positions itself as a comfortable breath of relief after the exclusive, high-pressure Masters in nearby Augusta. It is Southern hospitality. It is fun.

A tournament ad agency Dixon Schwabl says on its website: "We drew parallels between the plaid fabric and the fabric of the tournament experience in a series of Tartan Rules. Our campaign made it clear that plaid is loud and more fun and made for the common man."

Calhoon has been trained to know all the ingredients in what this year is being called "the Plaid Nation."

The last time he talked to Dave Thomas was by phone just weeks before the Horatio Alger figure died of cancer in January 2002.

"He said, 'Don't you let them go to one tomato slice. You've got to make them do two.' "


Don and Joanne Calhoon are the poster children of Hilton Head.

They arrived in 1988 from Columbus, Ohio, in a blue conversion van. It was filled with son Brian, 5, and the 3-year-old twins, Christie and Katie.

"We came to an island we'd never been to and a timeshare we'd never seen," Calhoon said.

Steve Carb, now founder and president of The SERG Group restaurants on the island, sold Calhoon a Marriott timeshare at The Monarch in Sea Pines after he responded to a phone number on a sign in the Savannah Hilton Head Island International Airport.

The Calhoons loved it. They began to build family memories -- rare snapshots for a father who spent many years on the road as regional marketing vice president. As soon as they got here, they always raced to Giuseppi's Pizza in Sea Pines Center. The family that owned it then, Mike and Sally Manesiotis, remain closest friends.

"It was an immediate feeling that this could be home," Joanne said.

They bought a second week, then a villa, then a home. They built their dream home on the marshes of Broad Creek after Calhoon retired at age 52, two years behind his goal. Their first grandchild, Ava Marie, just arrived, and she lives in Charleston.

Joanne said, "You really appreciate what God has given you when you come here."

She might have had her doubts when her husband got the marketing job at Wendy's. It was an upstart company run by an orphaned high school dropout. Don Calhoon never took a marketing class at Ohio State University, where they met. He came from what was then a cow town, Hilliard, Ohio. His father was in public relations, never skipping a step in life even though he had a true wooden leg after sacrificing one of his own on Okinawa.

"Our vacation was a county fair sheep project," Calhoon said. "I ended up as a shepherd. I took care of a gentleman's flock of sheep for an entire summer, traveling to fairs. I was paid room and board. My room was a pen next to the sheep."

Early in his marketing career, Calhoon found himself driving a yellow Wendy's car in the Reynoldsburg (Ohio) Tomato Festival Parade.

"I drove the car," he said. "Joanne was Wendy."


Calhoon got to experience the Heritage in 14 years of playing in the Wednesday pro-am.

"It was the first thing marked on my calendar each year," he said.

He thinks that and his marketing experience is why he was "honored" to be asked to join the foundation board. Also, his job included introduction of the Wendy's 3Tour Challenge benefiting adoption, the Wendy's High School Heisman, and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

Calhoon has tried to slice the Heritage like a Dave Thomas tomato.

"We have to define success," he said. "It's more than good weather and a great winner.

"If you sustain and grow, it has to come from an analytic point of view. We look at mathematical measures: ticket sales, charitable contributions, reserves. Were budgets met? We can at least identify where we didn't meet a goal. We now understand what took place and why. This leads to proper conclusions and next steps."

The Heritage brand, he said, is "the adult spring break."

The challenge is how to capture and communicate the right image.

Dave Thomas said all the flavor is in the condiments.

It might be a tomato. It might be a plaid jacket. It might be a week of golf. Or it might be a trip down South in a blue conversion van.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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