When she got her first job at McDonald’s in 1979 as part of the crew in a restaurant on Denbigh Boulevard in Newport News, it wasn’t anything close to what Freda Thornton wanted to do.

“I wanted to be a nurse,” she said. “I lost my mom at a young age, and I wanted to help people that way.”

She was the young wife of a serviceman, and “I had just come to Newport News, and I needed a job. I figured I’d stick it out for eight weeks.

“You see what that eight weeks turned into.”

What it turned into is this: Thornton is president and CEO of FWL & Sons Inc., a family operation that owns and operates five Richmond-area McDonald’s restaurants with about 200 employees.

She represents the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond area as a board member of the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association and holds leadership positions with the Richmond Ronald McDonald House and other industry organizations.

She has won numerous awards from McDonald’s. A year ago, she won the Ronald Award, an honor the company gives to only 1 percent of its franchise owners. The award recognized Thornton’s leadership and the support she offers fellow franchise operators in McDonald’s Richmond area and in its Baltimore-Washington region.

She has been a panelist at a Women Who Mean Business Summit and gave a keynote address for a conference of the National Association of Women Business Owners. She is a 2012 graduate of Leadership Metro Richmond, a nonprofit leadership development program for the Richmond region.

Oliver Singleton, president of the Metropolitan Business League, which serves minority, small and women-owned businesses in the Richmond region, said Thornton is an inspiration and mentor for women and minority business owners — and for anyone who is willing to work hard to succeed.

“She has one of the most incredible stories of any business person I know,” Singleton said.

Thornton lifted herself by the proverbial bootstraps, he said. “She started out as a fry-cook. She was a single mother. She is the American success story.”

Now, he said, when he asks her to share her story with members of his organization as a speaker or on a panel, “she never says no. Her story resonates. When word gets out that she’s one of the speakers, the turnout is always higher.”

***

She wasn’t always eager to share her story, Thornton said. She didn’t like having to explain why she didn’t go to college.

She was still a teenager when she had her first child, and her mother died when that child was still an infant. She said she heard the smug predictions that “I would be on welfare with a houseful of babies.”

Well, here’s some news for those who made the smug predictions. In fact, Thornton had three sons. All of them are college graduates. All three are gainfully employed — two as part of their mother’s company.

Devon Henry, the oldest son, graduated from Norfolk State with a degree in biology and earned a master’s degree from the University of Maryland.

He is president and CEO of his own business, Team Henry Enterprises LLC. The company — with headquarters in Newport News and offices in Richmond, Miami and Raleigh, N.C. — is a contracting firm specializing in construction management and environmental, marine and emergency-response services.

He said he considered being part of the family business.

“McDonald’s is a great opportunity,” he said, “but I always wanted to show Mom I can do things on my own. ... I always had an entrepreneurial itch. I just had to decide how I was going to scratch it.”

As the oldest of the three, Devon had to step in as his brothers’ keeper when Thornton’s husband died. He was a Norfolk State senior then.

“It was a role I kind of embraced,” he said. “I saw the sacrifices Mom was making. It taught me to understand doing what you had to do.”

Rodney Henry, the middle son, was in high school when Devon took over as father figure.

“Devon looked out for us,” Rodney said. “He was already doing that when he was a teenager. And Mom was super-mom. Cooking meals, going to work, ... on us about being respectful.”

He recalled her routine of telling her sons to leave their completed homework on the counter so she could check it out when she got home after a late shift.

Rodney, a Virginia State University graduate, now has an ownership stake and is operator of one of the five FWL & Sons restaurants at 8975 Staples Mill Road.

Her youngest son is André Lipscomb. He was in middle school when Devon became the father figure. Also a VSU graduate, he was an all-conference football player there. He had hopes for a pro career and trained for a shot at the NFL. He played one year for the Richmond Revolution of the Indoor Football League.

Meanwhile, however, he also was learning the ropes in his mother’s company. Now he is a McDonald’s area supervisor and manages his mother’s restaurant at 2700 W. Broad St. near the Children’s Museum of Richmond’s main location.

“Mom taught me to have respect for people — respect for authority,” André said. “And she stressed education. I would say it paid off. I can have a dialogue with any diverse group any time.”

Rodney recalled telling his mother he didn’t want to go to college. “I said I could keep working and making money. Mom said, ‘You are going to college.’”

Thornton laughed at her son’s recollection. “I always told my kids they had to go to college,” she said. “It was not if. It was a matter of what college you were going to.”

Thornton, 55, hasn’t given up on taking her own prescription. “I still say one day I will get my degree and walk across the stage,” she said. “Something to take off my bucket list.”

***

Last month, McDonald’s — one of the world’s largest restaurant chains with more than 36,000 restaurants worldwide — posted third-quarter results that showed a rise in sales for the first time in two years. Sales were up 0.9 percent in the U.S.

Doug Jubic, McDonald’s regional vice president of operations, said the company has a U.S. turnaround plan. “The equation is simple,” he said. “Provide an extraordinary restaurant experience that combines new menu enhancements — like all-day breakfast — paired with our core offerings.”

Offering a menu of breakfast items all day is something the chain began last month. Thornton said customers have long asked for the change, and it has been a hit at her stores.

“It took preparation and planning,” she said. “And sometimes we have to react quickly to what one restaurant needs.” She said customer demand sometimes means one of her restaurants has to send a couple of cases of biscuits to another of her locations.

The area’s franchise owners also will share with one another, she said.

“We’re one big family,” she said.

She pointed out that local McDonald’s stores get their supplies from Garner, N.C. “That’s about five hours away,” she said. “Sometimes you need help while you’re waiting for a shipment. We want everybody to be able to serve their customers — it affects the brand.”

Jubic echoed Thornton’s observation. “Our people are incredible at making great things happen in our restaurants. And it’s a win for our people, our customers and our brand.”

***

It took years, Thornton said, to let go of her girlhood dream of becoming a nurse.

“I think my work lets me be a different kind of nurse,” she said. “It gives me the opportunity to help people.

“I have 200 employees I can help every day. If today is a bad day, let’s see what we can do to make tomorrow better.”

She is aware, of course, that her company is often the target of protests about the minimum-wage level — $7.25, according to both federal and Virginia law. The target figure for demonstrators is frequently $15.

“I’ve had protests at my restaurants,” she said. “I’ve talked to my employees about it. They tell me, ‘It’s not you, it’s the big McDonald’s.’ But I tell them, it is me. I’m the little McDonald’s.

“I think there’s a window for wages to be revised. It’s something that needs to be evaluated.”

Thornton didn’t offer a figure. Some positions, she said, aren’t designed to be full-time and to support a family. “Some jobs are just ways for a kid to earn a little extra money in an after-school job, or a senior citizen to supplement an income and get out of the house.”

Thornton said an employer’s full compensation package should be taken into account. She said she hasn’t cut her employees’ hours to get around changes in health insurance laws. Her employees get free meals when they work. She provides their uniforms without cost.

“I try to see what we can do to help employees,” she said.

“Maybe it’s just helping to find a babysitter for a single mom — like I was for a great deal of my career with McDonald’s,” she said. “Maybe it’s helping somebody find a place to live. Maybe it’s helping somebody get an education.”

FWL & Sons Inc. restaurants offer an annual $1,000 college scholarship for a high school senior employee and a $500 book scholarship.

***

Early on, Thornton found her job commanded little respect.

Even after her hard work at McDonald’s caught the company’s attention and she was promoted to manager-trainee, she recalled, “my friends were saying, ‘That’s not a job. You’re just flipping burgers.’ I was crushed.”

Crushed, but not ready to surrender.

Soon she was managing a restaurant at the Hampton Coliseum, one of the highest-volume McDonald’s restaurants in Hampton Roads. Eventually, she became part of the McDonald’s corporate team. She trained potential managers, supervisors and franchise owners, and she worked in other corporate positions.

She moved to Richmond in 1998 as manager of a corporate-owned restaurant. Two years later, her husband — a member of the McDonald’s corporate team — died.

Thornton didn’t know what her next step would be. “I took family medical leave to figure out what I was going to do,” she said.

A McDonald’s officer suggested she was ready to own her own franchise, and Thornton considered taking that step.

“I had trained owner-operators-to-be,” she said. “I knew McDonald’s. I’d been in it for over 20 years. I knew it was a great brand. I knew how the company supported operators. I knew I had great experience.”

She went into the company’s owner-operator preparation program. By February 2001, she had earned company approval. That April, she opened her first McDonald’s.

She and her sons named the company FWL using her first initial and the initials of her recently deceased husband, Wayne Lipscomb.

Through the years, FWL & Sons Inc. acquired the four other restaurants. The company total of five is about average for the region’s franchise owners. Three owners in the region have 10 franchises apiece.

Entrepreneur magazine puts the minimum cost of opening a franchise at nearly $1 million.

The McDonald’s website says that to own a U.S. franchise generally requires “a minimum of $500,000 of non-borrowed personal resources.” The site says owners are expected to pay a 40 percent down payment for a new restaurant, 25 percent for an existing restaurant.

Asked if she would be interested in expanding her company’s portfolio of restaurants, Thornton said, “The sky’s the limit. If the deal is right, we’ll look at it.”

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