Lessons learned as his Oklahoma high school desegregated for the first time helped shape J. Clifford Hudson’s worldview and his management approach at Sonic Drive-In, the burger-and-milkshake chain he has led for more than 20 years.
OKLAHOMA CITY — One of the most formative experiences of J. Clifford Hudson’s life happened about 20 minutes away from the glass-walled office he now occupies as chief executive of Sonic Corp., the burger-and-milkshake chain.
It happened in 1969, Hudson’s freshman year of high school and the first year of court-ordered desegregation for his school district.
“You had school-board members really inciting hatred. You had parents showing up at public meetings screaming, ‘You better frisk those kids before they go to school with my daughter,’ ” Hudson, now 63, recounted in a recent interview. But his parents did not protest the desegregation or remove him from the school.
J. Clifford Hudson
Position: Chairman and CEO of Sonic, which has 3,600 mostly franchised Sonic Drive-In locations
Compensation: $3.2 million in fiscal 2017
Education: University of Oklahoma, Georgetown University Law School
Source: NYT, SEC filings
“My parents had become strong believers that our country had a real problem,” he said, “and that we needed to embrace it and confront it, not run from it.”
The experience, he said, “helped me with some sensitivity to the richness and breadth of our society, and that the more you limited yourself, as in the white males only chumming with white males, the more you cut yourself off from that richness.”
That lesson has helped shape Hudson’s worldview and his management approach at Sonic, which he has led for more than 20 years. During that time, he has cultivated something of a rarity in corporate America — a management team that is mostly women and minorities and a board that is close to that.
And in choosing to speak publicly about his personal views in recent months, Hudson has joined other corporate executives, normally as tight-lipped a bunch as can be found, who are commenting on social and political issues like never before. Many have forcefully denounced policy proposals from Washington, D.C., or actions by President Donald Trump that they think threaten to harm society, the environment and their employees.
That Hudson would speak for diversity and inclusion is not surprising. He is a longtime Democratic donor whose office features, in addition to photos of his wife, who is a doctor, and two sons, a picture of him with former President Bill Clinton, who appointed him chairman of the board of the Securities Investor Protection Corp. He has served on boards related to the Oklahoma City public schools and with the Ford Foundation.
But he noted at a recent conference in New York that nearly 95 percent of Sonic’s roughly 3,600 locations, largely concentrated in the south central United States, are run by franchisees who have varying political views. He also referred to a report that came out during the presidential campaign suggesting that people who ate at Sonic supported Trump.
And he is aware that people who are drawn to Sonic because they like the food — or are fans of the company’s popular commercials featuring two male improv comedians in a car — may not want a side of political talk from the chief executive. In today’s fractured political climate, it does not take much to end up on the wrong side of a boycott.
“I do feel one of my chief responsibilities is to work to ensure the success of our brand and our franchisees’ opportunities,” Hudson said in an interview. “Our franchisees make big bets on us doing the right thing with the brand — and by big bets, I mean they bet their futures, homes, mortgages, hopes and aspirations for their kids.”
That means, he said, “you’ve got to be careful where you step.”
“I’m very aware that Cliff is very socially conscious and does a lot of things to demonstrate that,” said one of Sonic’s franchisees, Max Gelwix, who operates restaurants in California. “But we’ve never talked politics.”
“Sonic has not, nor do I think it’s appropriate, for its brand to make political statements,” said Susan Thronson, a board member at Sonic since 2015. Franchisees “have different financial objectives, they have different investor expectations, different growth expectations. But around the brand experience, you have to be in lock step.”
Though Hudson has never criticized Trump in a public forum, he raised his personal experience and the diversity at Sonic’s top ranks while on a panel in New York shortly after the violence around the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Sonic is relatively small compared to other fast-food chains, with about $480 million in annual revenue and 400 employees at its headquarters on Johnny Bench Drive in Oklahoma City. (Its franchisees’ sales top $4 billion.)
At a morning meeting last month, Sonic executives were discussing a new marketing strategy. In a show of how successful its two-men-in-a-car commercials have been — TV ad spending is the company’s biggest marketing expense — they were hoping to replicate that formula with two women. (Company executives frequently mention that 58 percent of Sonic’s customers are women.) Names of female comedians and actresses were being tossed out. Among the hoped-for criteria projected on the room’s wall was a note to avoid political choices.
Hudson started at Sonic’s legal department in the 1980s after attending law school at Georgetown University. He became its chief executive in the mid-1990s after helping take the company public. In that time, the company and society have continually changed.
“There’s a lot of folks that feel like the America they understood in the ’50s, ’60s and maybe the early ’70s is an America they don’t understand today as much, and they’re reacting to that,” Hudson said. “But this is where leaders of all sorts can talk about a big tent instead of talking about a divisiveness, and talk about how we approach this so we have opportunity for everybody instead of a divide-and-conquer approach.
“The strongest thing we can do,” he added, “is attempt to lead by example and be open about it.”