Like many successful and charismatic people, Elena Donahue punctuates her speaking with exclamation points. "Dream big! Focus small!" she encourages the staff at OceDon Restaurant Management in Castle Rock, Colo., and to fellow volunteers at the Mile High Chapter of the American Red Cross.
"Trust your instincts! When all the data tells you one thing, and there is a twinge in your gut that tells you something else, nothing is better than getting your high heels on the ground and digging deeper," she tells employees at the 22 Burger Kings she owns with her husband and business partner Ken in Colorado.
The Pasadena, Calif., native is one of those fortunate individuals who has found a way to combine her dual passions. "My Dad was a doctor and my Mom a nurse, so I was raised to understand the importance of service," she says. "And since my family is Mexican and Romanian, I love to cook and feed. So service and food are themes in my life."
An early entrepreneurial spirit led her to study hotel and restaurant management at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. For her senior thesis, she opened a coffeehouse and laughingly recalls the instructor telling her: "This project will never go anywhere, it has no legs."
Donahue operated her café for four and a half years. "It was a great experience that helped me realize that a lot of stuff you don't learn in school--you only get it by doing it. UNLV has a great program, but it's not the same until you're the one responsible for payroll."
Finding that she "wanted more," the young entrepreneur thought she'd try property management, or as she puts it, "see if I could buy out Miami!" That's where she met her future husband, Ken. "Our first date was a mystery shop at one of his restaurants."
The Match Made in Miami was a great fit. "His focus on people, and a culture of treating employees with respect and dignity while demanding a lot, aligned with mine. I'd always been a dreamer, but he taught me to act on my dreams."
They spent some time looking at concepts with the goal of finding an area they could settle in and grow and expand. When they came upon Burger King in Colorado, it met their criteria. "We acquired three restaurants through bankruptcy and poor sales in a brand that was struggling. People were getting out and we were coming in, ready to take it on," she says.
Within four years, they had 22 healthy, profitable Burger Kings. "I love the Burger King brand, it relates to everyone," says Donahue. "We've built three new ones in our market and done a lot of relocations for restaurants that failed because of outdated locations or market shifts. We've found our sweet spot!"
The division of duties between her husband Ken (CEO) and herself (CPO) came naturally, she says. "Ken focuses on day-to-day operations, acquisitions, and mergers. I do a lot of HR, training, community relations, government relations, IT, real estate, design, and managing the business." At the end of the day, the couple meet in their private board room at home--the Jacuzzi--to recap the day. Despite so much time together, they "still like each other," says Donahue. Their family is rounded out by two canine kids who "teach us every day," she says.
Donahue also is high on fellow franchisees and franchising in general. "We learn so much from people in different franchise concepts. There are wonderful people in this industry, who are eager to share and teach and don't mind competition because they all think they're the best. I think I'm the best--that's why we all get along!"
She also is very active within Burger King, sitting on the organization's Peoples Excellence Advisory Committee. And she is a founding chair of the Women's Leadership Forum in Colorado.
Another important aspect of her life is the philanthropic work she does in the community through her business. OceDon has a Circle of Giving Council that addresses the needs of employees and coordinates charitable events. In addition, the Burger King Employee Scholarship fund helps employees and family members attend school. "Education is power! And the more you have, the better off you are with your career and your future," cheers Donahue.
Last May, she received the Fundraiser of the Year Award from the Red Cross Mile High Chapter. She says it's good business to solidify oneself as a community leader, "but that's really not the greatest reward," she says.
Donahue found the greatest reward as a volunteer after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when she deployed to Mississippi and supervised a huge kitchen, serving 18,000 meals a day as well as managing emergency response vehicle crews. She also has deployed to the Washington floods, the Windsor tornado, and relief efforts for Hurricane Ike.
As for new business and personal challenges--and she thrives on them--Donahue says she's "getting a little itchy. We're open to anything that fits with our integrity and way of doing things," she says. "Never say never! If life's not a big adventure, it's time to reevaluate!"
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