DETRIOT — La-Van Hawkins's favorite adjective?
"That's the word I'd most like to see applied to myself and my operations," says this executive with a larger-than-life image and style.
"I want to go into urban markets with a bang. We'll do what's never been done before in the pizza business. Right now there's nothing that's eye-catching," he explains, unrolling sketches of his Vision 2000 Pizza Hut units - "something that's very slick, with bright stainless steel, neon, glass blocks, black-and-white ceramic floor tiles."
Mr. Hawkins also intends to name a pizza after himself. He hasn't worked out the toppings yet, but it'll be spicy, for sure.
Hawkins was raised in Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green housing project. His father, who had a drinking problem, died when he was young, and Hawkins was raised by his mother. As a teenager he joined a gang and used drugs.
But early exposure to the working world eventually helped steady him. At age 11, he began cleaning bathrooms in his uncle's McDonald's franchise. By 17, he was one of the youngest managers in the McDonald's system, running a high-profile unit in downtown Chicago.
Hawkins went to Kentucky Fried Chicken, soon becoming a regional vice president, then to Bojangles Fried Chicken as an operating partner and franchisee.
One year later he joined Checkers, a regional burger chain where he became the largest franchisee - 47 restaurants doing $65 million of business a year. He also sat on the company's board of directors until he left to do business with Burger King.
Today Hawkins is said to be worth $86 million. Not bad for the teenager who once used to dream, "If I could just get me two Kentucky Fried Chicken [franchises] I'd be set for life."
Success, he insists, will not cause him to forget his roots. "African-Americans become successful and move away from our community," he laments. "Last year African-Americans spent $520 billion on consumer goods, and only 5 cents out of every dollar trickled back into our communities."
He says he will change that trend. "I'm making history. My business is about creating autonomy, building economic empowerment, embracing urban kids."
And he says he will never forsake his religious beliefs. "Everything I have comes through the Lord," Hawkins thunders, jumping easily from burgers to theology. "I'm just a soldier. Give God the praise, and He'll give you the success."
Hawkins plans to retire in four years at 42. To do what? "Relax, have kids, become a minister."