When Nancy asked me if I would talk about Kenny today of course I was honored. At first, I thought that this would be easy, talking about this great guy that I knew so well. Then I realized that this would be very hard. How could I put into words all that he was, all that he did and all that he meant to so many of us?
So, whatever I tell you about Ken Dennis this morning, I can assure you that I won’t do him justice; I will barely scratch the surface. I will only be able to touch the tip of the iceberg of his amazing life.
I can tell you that he was the ultimate role model when it came to generosity towards others and his eternal optimism about life.
Kenny was a great leader, but an even better person, friend, husband and father. He had an unconditional love for everything he did and everyone he met. He was an inspiration, a mentor and a hero for many of us here today.
Let’s get out of the way all of his faults in the beginning. All of the things that Kenny didn’t do well:
That’s about it on the opportunity side. He was so bright, so quick and he absorbed information so fast that most of us couldn’t keep up with him. He talked real fast.
He also had his own language. These were a series of words that he used all of the time in his conversations. But, they weren’t multiple syllable large words like many super bright people use to intimidate others. Yes, Kenny was very bright, but his language did the opposite. It made people feel comfortable, at ease and good about themselves. These words got named by his friends as “Kenny-isms.” All of you that know Kenny heard his “Kenny-isms.” And he used them all of the time. In casual conversations with friends or in very important business meetings. For Kenny the situation didn’t matter. Kenny-isms were part of his amazingly simple communication style. They were part of his ability to create an atmosphere conducive for a casual, fun, and productive workplace and why people loved being around him. Let’s review a few of his Kenny-isms:
And two “R” rated Kenny-isms that I shouldn’t say in church:
And, one of his favorites that always made you laugh and no one else could ever say was his “Woodchuck.” Right in the middle of a serious meeting if there was a pause, Kenny would look at whoever had stopped talking and ask, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” Kenny never told us the answer to the woodchuck question.
Since Kenny created all of his Kenny-isms it was only right that we have a name for him. And, in the early days of Chili’s, Kenny got his nickname. He could fix, build, or repair anything. And, he had an incredible thirst for learning new things and he wasn’t afraid to try anything. He was always like a kid playing with his new toy. So, around the office whenever something needed to be done and no one else knew how, we all said, “Call Kenny because Kenny can do it or fix it.” And, “Kenny Can” became his nickname. Kenny Can always could and he always did.
A couple of examples:
Sam and Ronnie Kormos, good friends of Kenny and Nancy, borrowed a machine for their wedding reception to make margaritas. They found out at the last minute that it only worked for ice cream and wouldn’t freeze ice with alcohol. Uh oh! No margaritas for their reception until Kenny Can came to the rescue. He pulled out his tool chest, opened up the back of the machine, and like magic, there was frozen margaritas that night at their reception.
Phil Crable, Nancy’s brother, like me is not an auto mechanic. Whenever he had car problems, he’d conveniently show up for a visit at Kenny and Nancy’s house. Kenny would just say, no matter what the problem, “That’s easy!” He’d walk outside, open the hood, and fix Phil’s car. That’s easy. This happened a bunch of times. One time Phil’s clutch was messed up and Kenny couldn’t fix it. He said, “That’s easy! Take it to the dealer and write a check! That’s easier!”
I was lucky I got a chance to know Kenny for 35 years. High school, college, and we both worked for the same two companies after we graduated. In fact, he talked me into interviewing with Chili’s in late 1977. I listened to a lot of good advice from Kenny over the years and coming to Chili’s was the best he ever gave me.
Watching and being with him for all of those years, I can tell you that he never changed. Always modest about his own talents and skills with no pretense at all. And, he always treated everyone else the same his whole life – like gold.
Growing up Kenny was competitive, but he was always a good sport and displayed great sportsmanship. He was a high school track and cross country star and a captain of the team his senior year. In the summers, you should’ve seen him water ski – he was amazing. I loved to watch him ski barefoot.
But, don’t ask about his golf game. Typical Kenny, he never got upset. And trust me, if you played golf like Kenny you should’ve got upset. He was awful. He would hit bad shot after bad shot, get back in the cart, and ask, “Are we having fun yet?” You’ve never seen such a bad golfer have so much fun.
He was a classic practical joker. I called him “the little imp.” I watched him in high school in the hallways and locker rooms, in college in the dorms and at Brinker in the boardroom. His jokes were not malicious or mean and he never hurt anyone. He was just being Kenny. He’d walk by you and a wet finger would show up in your ear or you’d see him crawling around on his knees on the floor causing trouble or pestering someone. And he could get away with it because everyone thought he was so cute!
Robert Gibson learned never to lock Kenny out of a room at the Chili’s in Addison when Kenny released a fire extinguisher under a locked door with Robert inside. Kenny had to take the hinges off the door to get Robert out albeit totally covered in white chalk from head to toe.
In addition, if you were smart you didn’t drive a rent car with Kenny in the passenger seat. He loved to pull up the emergency brake. . . while you were driving. He was a little imp, but we loved him.
Kenny started his career by joining Chili’s founder Larry Lavine in 1976 and Larry and Kenny remained great friends forever. The early Chili’s management team of Larry, Kenny, Lynn Clark, John Fooshee, Bob Uhler, Robert Gibson, Creed Ford, Blake Brown, Chuck Haines and Jack Lavine was an incredibly passionate group that had an amazing bond. Kenny loved those early years of the company.
In the beginning he was in operations running restaurants, but Kenny Can ended up doing a lot of things over the years including having the I.T. department and being in charge of all cash registers and computer systems.
His greatest legacy at Chili’s/Brinker was that fun and casual personality that helped establish the culture for employees of the company forever. He let people know that you could mix fun with work, but you had to be accountable for good results. That became the essence of the attitude that 90,000 employees now embrace in almost 1300 restaurants in 49 states and 22 countries.
Don’t think Kenny didn’t work hard. He worked very hard. That was part of his leadership style. He never asked anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. He was always rolling up his sleeves and leading his teams into battle. He inspired people to work for him and he earned the respect of all who worked with him. He had this incredible un-intimidating and approachable way about him that made everyone feel comfortable. You worked extra hard for Kenny because you didn’t want to let him down. When he saw you in the hallway, he made you feel like you were the most important person that he saw that day. And, even if you just met him, he seemed like he had been a friend forever.
Some of his best times were during his years in marketing. He and Ron McDougall made a formidable team when Chili’s first started television advertising by introducing fajitas in 1984. When Ron moved to President to help Norman Brinker run the company, Kenny took over the marketing department. He loved creating ads and really loved his relationship with all of his friends at GSD&M ad agency in Austin. (Thanks Roy, Steve, Tim, Judy, Jill, and Gary for the wonderful memorial to Kenny in today’s paper.) It was under Kenny’s watch that the infamous Baby Back Rib jingle was created by his friend Tom Faulkner and became more than a Chili’s commercial; it became an American icon. Kenny also helped create one of the all time worst ad campaigns: the famous Smell-O-Vision series. They really did stink!! But, Kenny probably shrugged his shoulders and said, “Nothing to it. We’ll create something else.”
Kenny got itchy to get back into the restaurant concept world and ended up as the President of the Mexican Division for Brinker International in charge of two concepts, Cozymel’s and On The Border, doing combined sales of over 350 million dollars per year.
Quite a career. His responsibilities touched all areas of a company that had two restaurants when he started and now does over three billion in sales. Kenny became such a legend in our company that his last name was rarely used by anyone. Everyone simply knew him as Kenny. And, last November this legend became the first employee of Brinker International to celebrate his 25 year anniversary with the company.
Kenny’s work, personal and family life were all morphed into one. His family was included in all parts of his life and he never ever let work become more important than Nancy and the girls.
He truly had life figured out better than any person I’ve ever met. He could balance all of the competitive pieces every husband, father, and executive has to deal with. And, what a father he was. His girls adored him and he smothered them with his love. Anytime you saw Kenny with the girls usually, Katie was lying on top of him and Jaclyn was wrapped around his neck. They were always kissing and hugging each other.
Jaclyn is so sweet and nice and kind to others just like her dad and was so strong helping Nancy these last 10 months. Katie is a little version of Kenny: optimistic, always excited about life and her glass isn’t half full it’s over flowing.
All the kids liked Kenny because he acted like a kid himself most of the time. He said that he might grow old, but he wouldn’t grow up – and he didn’t! And, did he love candy and ice cream and sweets. Watching Kenny eat ice cream was fun.
(Cone and ice cream story – it all ended up in the same place!)
(Baskin Robbins story at University of Houston)
They say you are what you eat and Kenny was the sweetest person I’ve ever known! I was thinking about Kenny and his love for the restaurant business and his love for food and drink. If he was a beverage, he’d be a fine bottle of red wine. A full body, full flavored cabernet. You know what a wine connoisseur would say about a great red wine after taking a drink. You can taste all of the wonderful flavors: blackberry, cherry, pepper, oak, apricot, chocolate – full of flavor and personality! That was Kenny. But, Kenny was better than a great bottle of wine. That bottle of wine would be gone in one sitting. Kenny let all of us take a little drink of him every day. And, just like fine wine, Kenny got better with age.
He was a great friend – an amazing friend. If you ever needed anything you could count on it – done. He was so giving of his time for others.
Robert Gibson moved in to a house across the street from Kenny and Nancy in the 80’s. Robert mentioned to Kenny that he was putting in a sprinkler system. Kenny came over in overalls with a pick ax in his hand and said, “Nothing to it.” He worked all weekend with Robert putting in the system.
How proud you must be of your son, Mary. He was a one of a kind. You did a wonderful job teaching him about respect and love for everyone else.
When my wife Holly and I would go out with Kenny and Nancy it was always a wonderful time. It will be very difficult getting used to life without my friend Kenny. I already miss him and his smiling face. Holly and I loved Ken Dennis.
The last 10 months have been very tough and difficult for everyone. But, I’ve never seen unconditional love like watching Nancy help Kenny fight his brain cancer. Every second of every day since last October, Nancy has totally committed her life to helping Kenny fight this horrible disease. Meeting doctors, reading books, studying the internet, talking to other cancer patients, and waiting on Kenny night and day. She traveled to Houston, to North Carolina and was vigilant with her questions and research to get Kenny the best care and the latest chemotherapy available. She did everything in her power and more and completely gave up anything for herself, totally dedicated to the fight with Kenny. I can’t imagine any person doing more for their partner and showing more of their love.
In his last few days, Kenny’s heart was so strong when the rest of his body was so weak. The doctors were amazed at how strong his heart was. For those of us that knew Kenny, we weren’t surprised. We’ve been watching his big heart in action for his whole life. So, Kenny is on his way to Paradise to see his wonderful father Dan and his old buddy Bob. I guess God wanted Kenny to “come up and play.”
Kenny always said “Life is good” and life was good for Kenny. But, those three words are far more than a Kenny-ism. He truly made our lives better because he shared his.
Good-bye Kenny – we love you.
Doug Brooks, Brinker International Wednesday August 7, 2002