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Omaha’s Pitch Man: Entrepreneur Extraordinaire Willy Theisen is Back with His Next Big Business Venture

April 25, 2012 7 comments

Willy Theisen’s self-made success story is an American classic.  I have known of him since the breakout success of his Godfather’s Pizza chain in the 1970s but it wasn’t until I was assigned the following profile that I finally met him.  I interviewed him for the piece in early March and the story will appear in an upcoming issue of Omaha Magazine.  It all started for him in his adopted hometown of Omaha, which happens to be my hometown as well.  Omaha has been the launching pad and testing ground for some of his original ideas, most notably Godfather’s but he’s also gone far afield to follow his passion for the restaurant business.  He is an entrepreneur through and through. When he fixes on an opportunity, whether a concept he’s created himself or an existing one he sees he can take to the next level, he appies his high energy,  long vision, laser focus, risk tolerance, and indefatigable hunger to realize his ideas into reality.

Willy Thiesen Willy Theisen

Omaha’s Pitch Man: Entrepreneur Extraordinaire Willy Theisen is Back with His Next Big Business Venture

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of the story appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Omaha Magazine


Willy Theisen has done it all in the restaurant business. He founded a national name brand in Godfather’s Pizza that became the fastest growing pizza chain in America. He’s been a successful innovator, franchisor and franchisee. He’s opened thousands of restaurants across the country. He’s a millionaire many times over.

He’s far from done, too, as he’s about to replicate his latest concept, the popular Pitch Coal-Fire Pizzeria in Dundee. Always hungry for “the next thing,” you can bet Pitch won’t be his last hurrah either.

Part of his wheeler-dealer’s genius is selling others on his ideas.

“You’re only as good as the product you’re selling, and that could be yourself, too. You’ve got to be confident in yourself and then you have to share that confidence and knowledge base with others,” he says. “I take it as a compliment when someone says, ‘You’re a great salesman, you’re a good pitchman.'”

His entrepreneurial bent showed early growing up in Clinton, Iowa. He liked earning his own money delivering papers, stenciling addresses on curbs and flipping burgers. While attending Northern Iowa University in Cedar Falls he became a top door-to-door salesman of cookware. Before starting Godfathers he leased commercial real estate.

Appearing fit, energetic and jaunty in an all-black ensemble and looking several years younger than his age (66), he’s still the driven dynamo who hit the ground running in his late 20s to make himself an overnight Player in the fast-food industry.

Just as he still retains his knack for recognizing opportunities, he still possesses the initiative for seizing the day and staying out front of the competition.

“My idea of an entrepreneur is having the ability to see things possibly other people don’t see. Having an eye for opportunity I think is key to my success. I don’t know that you train for it or study for it. Either you have it or you don’t have it. You can see a location, you can see the potential for a business in there, you can see potential in people and bring the best out in them or make them better than they are.

“That’s what makes someone successful – the ability to perceive and receive what people want.”

Identifying a good idea is one thing. Making it profitable is another.

“Recognizing and then doing something with it,” he says, “is a trait you gotta have.”

Being a successful entrepreneur, he says, means taking calculated risks. “It’s making a commitment and pulling the trigger on an idea or a concept or any opportunity that is there. I can identify it as one word, and that’s timing.” It’s knowing when to get in and when to get out.

“With businesses exit strategies are always important,” says Theisen, who sold Godfather’s in 1983 for hundreds of millions of dollars and saw it enjoy continued success. “Anybody can find the front door but once you go in, what’s your exit strategy? What is the life span of a concept, of an investment? Things come in and go out. How long is this going to be good?

“And when you go onto another business, you have to leave some meat on the bone for the next operator. There has to be some future for it.”

If not Godfather’s, would he have still made a killing in some other business?

“It just happened that way,” he says. “I don’t know if it would have happened if I was in the car business or if I sold life insurance. I was confident but I wasn’t to the point of being blind to the fact things don’t always work.”

This self-described “food maven” would likely have found a niche in some food business segment. He gets too much satisfaction watching people enjoy themselves dining and drinking not to. Then there’s the gratification of conceiving winning venues.

“The toughest job of what I do is to try to figure out what everybody’s going to like. Ultimately I’ve got to figure out what tastes good to people, where they like to go, where they like to park, how long they want to stay, what they want to happen while they’re there. It takes time to do it. You just don’t wake up one morning and go, ‘I’ve got it all figured out.’ There’s a process and there’s a lot that goes into that.”

Before opening Pitch he did his due diligence. 

“I wanted to go into a neighborhood, I wanted trees, I wanted people walking dogs, I wanted slow moving traffic, I wanted soul, nurturing families, a university, light retail. That’s the ingredient for the location. The ingredient for the food is separate. First I had to figure out where I was going to do what I was going to do.

“I spent a lot of time looking around. Of course, I wanted to do it in Omaha. There’s such a thing as a home court advantage when you’re first starting, and my knowledge base was the best here because I’ve been here the longest. So I ended up in the Dundee area. I sat across the street on this bench by myself for several afternoons, with a pad of paper and a cell phone. After several days and discussion with some others I decided that was where I was going to do it.”

Pitch is Theisen’s most refined dining model yet. He says it’s intended to be the kind of “special place” – from decor to food to vibe –  “you discover when you’re out of town and say, ‘I wish we had one of those here.’ That’s what I’ve built. I wanted to give it a pedigree. I think it’s so much different than a lot of things I’ve done but it’s also an accumulation of a lot of things I’ve done. It’s on the progressive side. The foods are more broad-based. It’s current, it’s going after a lot of different demographics..”

If his instincts are right, then Pitch will soon be a household name all over.

“We don’t want it to be one and done. It’s got a future life in other locations out of the city,” says Theisen, who adds he has lined up people “very much interested in taking this brand and developing it. My plan is by year’s end to open company-owned restaurants in six other cities throughout the Midwest and then simultaneously open it up to franchising joint ventures.”

Theisen’s been down this road before.  He conceived Godfather’s while working for Omaha developer Tom Fellman, who had a planned unit development in a southwest suburb. Theisen leased all the available commercial space save a 5,000 square foot bay he saw opportunity in. Apartments with single adults and young families surrounded the heavily trafficked spot.

In 1973, with help from an uncle and a Small Business Association bank loan, he opened the combined Wild Willy’s beer garden and Godfather’s Pizza, brazenly capitalizing on the popular The Godfather. Wild Willy’s faded away but Godfathers took off.

Within a year Theisen began franchising, first in Columbus, Neb., then expanding across the state, the Midwest and nationwide.

“It seems like the success kind of fed itself,” he says. “We hit the ground running with these things. There were many people at our doors wanting franchises. We built by the model, and we managed by the model, and we kept it very simple because we were opening many locations simultaneously.”

At its peak Godfather’s had nearly 1,000 locations in 40-plus states. He revolutionized the industry by using conveyor ovens and introducing free, refillable Coke containers.

After selling Godfather’s he took time off to focus on himself. He worked his magic again buying and selling GB Foods (Green Burrito). Hebecame Famous Dave’s first pure franchisee, winning operator awards and guiding it in new directions. Then he developed Pitch.

Through it all, he’s gained local icon status as one of Omaha’s favorite self-made success stories, yet he’s a Chicagoan by birth and was raised in Iowa. He only ended up here when his Ford Falcon broke down on his way to California in 1969.

Omaha long ago became home. His deep affection for where his success began is expressed in many ways. He’s served on the Omaha Airport Authority and Creighton University boards. Mayor Jim Suttle just appointed him to the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority (MECA) board. Theisen’s helped make the fortunes of Nebraskans who’ve become owner-operators of his ventures. He also encourages emerging entrepreneurs who seek his advice.

“I’m so blessed. I’m really at peace with what I’m doing, giving back, the things I’m involved in, the people that come to me for assistance or questions or what-ifs.

I just think where I am and what I’m doing gives me great pleasure. Of course, I like my cars and certain other items. Those are my hobbies. I like working out. I try to go to the gym regularly to keep my body in pace with my mind because sometimes my mind runs a little quicker than my body can run at my age.

“I don’t deny I’m getting a little bit older but there’s never a bad time for a good idea and that’s what I’m striving to do with Pitch.”

The man who built a 20,000 square foot Regency mansion has moved beyond conspicuous consumption. He doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody.

“I think I’ve evolved, not only as a businessperson but as a person. You change as you grow older, at least I do. Things may have been important to me early in life and now its not about having things, it’s about giving back, it’s about my community and what I can impact in a positive way.

“I’ve just been very fortunate. My dad said the harder you work the luckier you’ll get, and maybe those are hand in hand. I’m not so sure though that if I’d gone to Calif. that would have been a smart move. Maybe I was fortunate my car broke down and I was forced to stay here. Omaha is the key to what I’ve been, what I’ve done.”

The single Theisen also enjoys quality time with his family.

Though he’s hands-on and nothing escapes his scrutiny, he’s more the big picture- strategy guy today with his business pursuits.

“I make sure the day to day stuff is done, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t do it myself. I’ve got to stay a little ahead of that. I cant personally worry about a burned-out light bulb. That gets me off track. Don’t you think I don’t look at those light bulbs, and don’t you think I don’t go in our bathrooms, like I’ve done for years. They’ve got to be right, the kitchens have to be clean, everything’s got to be in order.”

It’s not like he has some Midas touch either. It’s more that he pays attention to details and doggedly stays after it.

“I’ve struggled like everybody else. I tried some things that didn’t work. But I always had a couple things going. I didn’t bank on one thing. I hate losing more than I like winning. I just don’t like to lose, and I don’t give up. I’m not known to throw in the towel too often or too quick.”

He admits he can reach too far too fast. Then again, that’s his nature as a risk-taker. He likes the action. He also has the power of his convictions. “People around me make suggestions and then I have to make decisions. It’s a big responsibility and it all comes down to being able and willing with good information to make that decision, whatever it may be, and so I try to attract the best people possible.”

Never one to rest on his laurels, he’s determined to make Pitch his next legacy.  Beside, he couldn’t slow down if he wanted. He’s tried retiring and it didn’t take.

“I think that’s possibly the true definition of an entrepreneur – they really can’t stop. They continue to try to think ahead. Yeah, you’ve got to have that fire in your belly, and you either have it or you don’t, and I have it. I’ve always got something cooking.”


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