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On Oct. 7, the Givens family stopped by the Hudson Wendy’s just before Linda and Mike caught a flight to Washington, D.C., for the Angel in Adoption awards ceremony. From the left are Michael R. Givens, Linda Givens, Mike (Michael) Givens and Megan Givens. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Margaret A. Ontl)

There is an angel in our midst - and it is Mike Givens

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Hudson resident and businessman Mike Givens was honored last week in Washington, D.C. The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) honored Givens as an Angel in Adoption during an awards ceremony on Oct. 8 and a gala on Oct. 9.

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He was nominated for the award by U.S. Congressman Sean Duffy (WI-07) because of his long-standing and extensive work raising millions of dollars to fund the effort to help find permanent, loving homes for foster care children. Givens and his wife Linda traveled to Washington, D.C., for event and were joined there by their son, Michael, and daughter, Megan.

The Angels in Adoption program was established in 1999 to honor outstanding individuals. The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) is a 501(c)3 nonpartisan organization created in 2001. It is dedicated to raising awareness about the tens of thousands of orphans and foster children in the United States and the millions of orphans around the world in need of permanent, safe, and loving homes through adoption. CCAI’s goal is the elimination of the barriers that hinder these children from realizing their basic right of a family.

It is no exaggeration to count the money Givens has raised in the millions of dollars. But the high school graduate is first to admit, he learned many of life’s lessons on the job, first hand. His life story includes, hard work, risk-taking and some hard knocks along the way, all mixed with a heaping dose of compassion.

At 17, he went to work as a meat cutter in the Country Club Market at the intersection of Larpenteur and Lexington in St. Paul. It was there he would first meet Dan Opitz, who became and remains a business partner to this day. Opitz was the produce manager. Their store was rated 51 out of 53 Country Club Market stores. Both young men had a competitive nature so they set about to change that low rating. When Givens left the store five years later, it was number three in the chain.

“I hated meat cutting,” said Givens. “We looked all over the Twin Cities for a business opportunity. My dad suggested I talk to Bob Johnson, who had a restaurant in Hudson. He said ‘If you move over and get involved with the community it will work.’ No truer words were ever spoken.”

Givens moved to Hudson in 1979, buying Uncle Barney’s Restaurant in Plaza 94.

“I was 22, I kept two cooks and fired the entire wait staff,” said Givens. This was in the day of interest rates as high as 21.5 percent so making ends meet was tough.

“Because I never went to college, Uncle Barney’s was my first lesson in accounting,” recalled Givens. In 1980, Opitz joined him in Hudson, buying the bowling alley next door. Soon they cut a window in their common wall and sold their same food in the Plaza Lounge of the bowling alley.

The first thing they did was offer 99 cent open bowling.

“We just packed the place seven days a week and we had a double shift,” said Givens. “We needed to compete with the golf course and the river for customers.”

They were so successful that AMF called to let them know they were causing problems within the Twin Cities bowling industry.

“If you don’t like it, you can come and buy us out but I have got to make my payments,” was Givens’ response. He went on to a short lived venture of franchising Uncle Barney’s Restaurant. Only one opened in Chippewa Falls. It was sold a short time later.

Next, area businessman Burt Nordstrand approached Givens about buying his Act II (now the location of the Winzer Stube) restaurant in the Opera House building.

Basically, Nordstrand told Givens, “I’m not going to let you out of my office until you buy it.”

“I learned a lot of lessons the hard way,” said Givens, who ended up buying ACT II Catering. “Never own two restaurants in the same town -- you are just competing with yourself.”

In 1984, Wendy’s Restaurants came out with the slogan “Where’s the Beef?” Call it fate, but that jingle intrigued Givens.

“Linda and I drove to Disney World for vacation since we could not afford to fly,” said Givens. “On the trip we stopped everywhere and we searched out the Wendy’s.”

Returning home, he was convinced that there would be a Wendy’s in his future. Givens sent in his application to become a Wendy’s franchisee.

“I sent along a letter saying if you give me a chance I can make a difference,” said Givens. His was the only one out of nearly 4,000 applications to be selected.

“We were invited to Wendy’s headquarters in Ohio,” said Givens. “They said ‘we like everything about you but you don’t have any money.’”

They overcame the finance issue and Opitz headed to Columbus, Ohio, for six months training at Wendy’s Hamburger U. In June of 1986, Givens, Opitz and their business partners, which included Charles Cudd, Dick Fey, Steve Schwalbach and Bob Miller opened their first Wendy’s in Stillwater.

It was a move that changed Givens’ life forever. Only two years later, Wendy’s CEO was back with an offer -- a package of stores -- because Givens was the kind of guy they wanted to do business with.

The package included two good stores and two underperforming stores; Burnsville, Edina, Richfield and Bloomington.

“I met with my partners and they all wanted out except Charles Cudd,” said Givens. “Charlie wanted to control the forecasting. I can’t thank him enough for what he taught me. We had a week to raise enough capital to do the deal.” They did and it was the next step for Givens, who has never stopped learning.

In 1990, they opened a store in Hudson; it was his sixth store. After two kitchen remodels in Hudson, they had the kitchen they wanted with the food up front. In the meantime, Uncle Barney’s became Broadway Station Pizza and was eventually sold in 1993.

The Wendy’s dynasty kept growing one store at a time -- next was Maplewood, Cottage Grove, Apple Valley, Eagan and Woodbury until eventually they owned and operated 22 Wendy’s in the Twin Cities market.

Along the way, they discovered that Hardees stores always had the best locations, so when they started to close, some were natural spots for new Wendy’s. Also, after Norwest bought First Federal, many of the vacant branch bank buildings were easy to convert to Wendy’s restaurants.

In March of 2006, Givens was approached by Wendy’s International, they wanted out of this market. It was not uncommon for Wendy’s international to pick a lead franchisee and offer them a complete market.

For Givens and Opitz it meant leaping from 22 to 58 stores.

“If you agreed to buy the market, all 36 stores, it included six stores they were planning to close and three that were under construction. You could decide which one you needed to close,” said Givens.

As his business grew, so did his connection with Dave Thomas who founded Wendy’s in 1969.

In 1992, Thomas established The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. It is a public charity with one primary goal: to help every child in foster care find a loving, permanent family.

“I went to Dave Thomas one day and said I could raise $40,000 for the foundation,” said Givens. It was the start of annual event which included a golf tournament, dinner and auction. “It was the easiest foursome I ever put together.” That was in 1996 and they had 64 participants.

Givens’ company, Wendy’s FourCrown Inc., has sponsored the event the third week in July ever since. Now it is called the Dave Thomas Memorial Classic and is draws hundreds of participants to the Bearpath golf course in Eden Prairie, Minn., and Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. Dave Thomas himself attended each year until he passed away in 2002.

“The passion that the participants feel for the cause is unbelievable,” said Givens.

All of the funds raised by the event, which total over $9 million are funneled to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. FourCrown is the second largest donor to the DFTA, second only to Wendy’s international.

Always innovating, in 1998 Wendy’s FourCrown marketing director Paul Broten introduced the Hats Off to Dave Thomas concept which was quickly adopted by Wendy’s International. For each hat, which is embroidered with the DTFA logo, a portion of the sale goes for the cause. This program raises $450,000 per year. All Wendy’s employees nationwide wear these hats as part of their uniforms.

“One of my proudest moments was when Dave asked me to sit on the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption board of directors,” said Givens, who is still a board member today, serving since 2001.

Givens is not just about raising funds, he is also raising awareness by working with another DTFA initiative, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, which he helped launch.

“We need to bring a focus on the 28,000 children who age-out of foster care each year,” said Givens who works daily to find kids homes. “It costs $5 billion a year to keep them in the foster care system. Of the people in prison 90 percent grew up without a father figure. The hardest part is keeping a family together according to the North American Council on Adoptable Children.”

Local adoption agencies may apply for grants which pay for recruiters. Wendy’s Wonderful Kids has over 180 recruiters nationwide and in Canada. They work with local adoption agencies on behalf of the most difficult children to place, typically the oldest.

Children under the age of nine are 1.7 times more likely to be adopted while those ages nine to 17 are not and are at risk of aging out of the system never having established a family unit.

“The recruiters work on behalf of these kids,” said Givens. “Right now we are getting traction in all of the states.”

As of September 2013, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids has served 9,783 children, matched 6,499 children, has 631 children in pre-adoptive homes and has 3,757 children who have completed the adoption process.

“Mike believes that every child deserves to live in a safe, loving and permanent home,” said Congressman Sean Duffy in his nomination of Givens. “There are still over 100,000 children in America that still need a path out of foster care, so his work is not complete. Just as adoption issues were important to Mike’s mentor, Dave Thomas, Mike has made this cause a priority personally and professionally.

“Not only does Mike raise money, he also keeps close relationships with local adoption agencies and nonprofits in the surrounding community. Through this involvement, he directly assists families and children in foster care.”

Mike Givens is a soft spoken, quiet person whose drive earned him Wendy’s Founders Award and in 2006 he was inducted into the Wendy’s Hall of Fame.

Today, his son Michael runs the real estate side of his company, Wendy’s Four Crowns Inc., and helps on the marketing side of Wendy’s.

His daughter Megan is guiding another part of the family business, Fannie May candy stores. They started with 17 locations throughout the Midwest. In two and a half years, they have expanded to 27 and the goal is to reach 45 stores in the future.

“I am still hungry to do more; I still want to do more. I don’t think there is anything I can’t figure out and if I can’t figure it out it’s not worth doing,” said Givens.

“There are three things that are important: one, you need somebody to love; two, you need something to do; and three, you need something to look forward to.

“I look forward to each and every day,” said Givens, who sums up his life as one with great partners and great mentors all mixed in with love.

“Give something back. I have embraced that. Treat everyone with respect and live your life with high integrity. Lastly, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are.”

“We still live and go to church in Hudson,” said Givens. “I am so thankful and grateful that we have such a wonderful community.”

Upon hearing the news that Givens was to be recognized as an Angel in Adoption, Rep. Duffy commented, “The work that Mike has done for these families and for our community is nothing short of awesome. He has brought an immeasurable amount of happiness to thousands of children. I know he did not begin this journey seeking recognition, but it is greatly deserved.”

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