John Y. Brown Jr.'s recognition in 2009 by Harvard Business School as one of America's top business leaders of the 20th century has propelled the energetic former governor into a series of projects that now has him traveling the globe.
"This gives me a whole new career, which I'm happy about," said Brown, 77, who will leave this week for an appearance for Alltech in Bangkok, Thailand. "I'm only happy when I'm productive."
Harvard honored Brown for buying Kentucky Fried Chicken, with a group of investors, from its founder Harland Sanders for $2 million in 1964. Brown grew Kentucky Fried Chicken from 600 franchises to 3,500 restaurants before it was sold in 1971 to Heublein Inc. for $285 million. Brown went on to help found and lead other restaurant chains, including Roadhouse Grill, Kenny Rogers Roasters and Miami Subs.
Along with McDonald's businessman Ray Kroc, Brown was recognized with launching the dynamic growth of the fast-food industry. The pair took their places on Harvard's list of business giants alongside Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates.
What followed the award, Brown said, has been "a sort of reintroduction" as the elder statesman of the fast-food industry, speaking to a younger generation interested in his extensive business experience, entrepreneurial ideas and positive messages. He also has paired up with Alltech, one of the area's fastest-growing businesses, as a consultant to help the Nicholasville biotech firm pitch its products to restaurants.
"I'm still enthusiastic. I'm a student of Norman Vincent Peale: You are what you think," Brown said, referring to the author of the best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking. "I try to always keep positive."
Peale officiated at Brown's marriage to his second wife, former Miss America Phyllis George.
Brown's work with Alltech has its roots in a meeting five years ago with Pearse Lyons, founder and president of the firm.
Lyons, who last week called Brown "a living legend in the food industry," asked Brown to speak at the annual meeting of the company, which develops natural feed supplements. The company later hired Brown, and he's urged the company in his consultant role to expand its sales approach and take its natural food message to executives of the restaurant industry.
"They've always dealt with the production level," Brown said of Alltech. "When you're dealing with production and the farmer, all they're interested in is cost. The place to sell their product is with the restaurant industry, not from the farm level."
Brown sees a growing trend toward eating healthy. "Especially the younger generation is a lot more conscious of what is in that animal" they're eating, he said.
Alltech is developing products "that can eliminate antibiotics and hormones in the production of chicken and animals, which is very exciting," Brown said. A naturally grown animal is more tender and retains juices better, he said.
But one of the obstacles to overcome is educating the restaurant industry, which "doesn't have the remotest idea, for the most part, what goes in that animal they are serving, whether it's antibiotics or hormones or whatever kind of chemicals," Brown said.
Lyons said the former governor's reputation and connections are a key way for Alltech to take its message of natural and sustainable food "to the wider restaurant industry."
Last year, Brown went to Beijing and Shanghai to talk to Alltech's traditional base of feed companies, suppliers and farmers. But he also had an opportunity to introduce Lyons to KFC's chief executive in China, where the famous chicken brand has a large and quickly expanding presence, Brown said. "There's a connection Alltech wants to work with. So it's a win-win."
Besides Alltech, Brown served as keynote speaker for Entrepreneur Magazine's annual conference in Atlanta in January. He has a contract to partner with Nation's Restaurant News to put on entrepreneurial seminars around the country for the restaurant industry. The NRN gave him its Pioneer Award in 2010.
"I've been an entrepreneur all my life. That's what I really enjoy. That's all I've ever done, start up companies," Brown said.
Brown said he thinks of himself as "still a young man. I haven't accepted this growing older bit." Laughing, he added, "I haven't celebrated a birthday for 25 years."
After being governor, a successful restaurant owner and entrepreneur, he looks to the future. "Hopefully, I've got one more good run left in me," he said, chuckling.