Today’s special: A plate full of giving with a side of joy
From fry cook to successful businessman, Tom Cook is sharing his good fortune with Clark College
For Tom Cook, the American dream is alive and well.
To say that this has been a banner year for Cook and his Vancouver-based company, Pacific Bells Inc., and its sister company, World Wide Wings, is an understatement. Cook recently sold nearly 70% of the company, including more than 300 Taco Bell and Buffalo Wild Wing restaurants, to a large private equity firm in Switzerland. In layman’s terms, it’s a pretty big deal.
In some ways, the sale of the company was the culmination of a dream that began 44 years ago when he first went to work at Taco Bell. Eleven years later, he purchased his first restaurant in Tualatin, Ore., with a former business partner. Over the next 33 years that portfolio would grow into hundreds of restaurants.
However, Cook’s passion for working started much earlier with his initial successful business venture.
As a precocious 8-year-old, Cook learned what it took to become an entrepreneur. His first job was selling TV Guide subscriptions in the neighborhood. After building that venture, he sold it and purchased a paper route. By the time he was 17, Tom had purchased and sold numerous small enterprises including a janitorial service.
“There was no slacking at my house,” Cook recalled with a nostalgic grin.
It is exactly that kind of dedication and commitment that has made Tom Cook one of the most successful business leaders in Southwest Washington.
Work, life, giving
While the details of the company purchase were not made public, analysts note that the company was approaching $1 billion in annual revenue just prior to the sale. No matter how you look at it, the accomplishment is impressive. It has also forced Cook to re-evaluate his plans and the role he would like to play in helping to shape the community for the better.
“I’m at the point where the work-life balance is now about work, life and giving,” said Cook. “You know this community has given me so much, and it’s now an opportunity for me to give back to the wonderful people of Clark County.”
Cook is characteristically modest when it comes to his history of philanthropy. He has long been a proponent of nonprofits that support children and young people such as Make-A-Wish Foundation and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, even if his giving has remained under the radar.
One of his favorite organizations is Clark College Foundation, where he made a transformative donation to the cuisine program, naming the comfortable and convenient Tom and Jen Cook Lounge in the heart of the Tod and Maxine McClaskey Culinary Institute—next to the always popular baking kiosk and café bistro.
Cook’s significant gift helped launch a series of large contributions to the foundation’s $30 million Promising Pathways Campaign. For his generosity and leadership, he is being given Clark College Foundation’s Award for Excellence at this year’s Savoring Excellence celebration on May 24, 2022, at the Hilton Vancouver Washington hotel. It is the highest accolade bestowed by the foundation. Cook will be accepting it on behalf of himself and Pacific Bells.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” Cook said.
In many ways, Cook is the kind of donor every nonprofit wants to work with—but not just because he is generous, according to Lisa Gibert, CEO of Clark College Foundation.
“Tom has high expectations when it comes to his philanthropic relationships,” said Gibert. “He gets out of the way and lets people get on with their work, but accountability is especially important to him.”
The foundation has relied on Cook for advice on subjects as varied as property asset development and management to news-grabbing headlines about race relations and COVID-19.
“You don’t have the kind of success Tom has had unless you’ve got a strong intellect and you’ve developed a level-headed approach to difficult things going on all around you,” said Gibert. “I always feel better after spending an hour with Tom.”
Tom is quick to say he only deserves part of the credit. The rest he gives to his strong and supportive mother who told him he could be anything he wanted to be, even when he was a young boy. He also credits his team members, many of whom have stayed with him over the course of his successful career.
“When I first got into this business, my partners and I decided we were going to focus on five things: hire great people; set clear expectations; hold everyone accountable; train, train, train; inspire each other and motivate each other,” said Cook. “We figured out pretty quickly that if you can do these five things—and anyone can—you usually come out on top.”
Simple and sage advice from a college dropout who decided at the beginning of his university senior year that his future was not in medicine but in frying-up hard taco shells at a nearby Taco Bell restaurant. The rest, as they say, is fast food history.
Joel B. Munson is chief advancement officer at Clark College Foundation.