A Golden Opportunity

ATU Alumn Kevin Hern greets the camera at his McDonalds franchise headquarters

Arkansas Tech University alumnus Kevin Hern defines himself as a problem solver. That trait, coupled with hard work, has created a golden opportunity for Hern to chart his own narrative.

That narrative started in high school. After graduating early from Dover High School, he began working to save money to attain his dream of a college education. That hard work paid off, as he saved enough money to take part-time classes at ATU in 1981 and eventually began taking a full load in 1983.

“I looked at Tech as a catalyst,” said Hern. “I didn’t see myself going anywhere until I got a college degree.”

As a student, Hern said the personal experiences Tech offered made a life-long impact.

“It’s a place where people care about you. You’re not just another number. People care about you. They want to listen to you and help you,” said Hern. “There is no question that my degree from Arkansas Tech gave me a doorway to do what I’m doing today. I don’t think there’s any better school in Arkansas than Arkansas Tech University.”

A newspaper clipping of ATU Alumnus Kevin Hern
ATU Alumnus Kevin Hern is seen receiving an award
ATU Alumnus Kevin Hern sits confidently at his desk

After graduating with an engineering degree, Hern landed a job as an engineer working on digital controls systems with Rockwell International. His life was forever changed on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger exploded, a spaceship built by his employer.

“By the end of that year, everything had changed. They had actually been sold to Boeing,” said Hern. “They were consolidating like crazy, and I was a junior engineer with no place to go.”

Hern faced another problem: He needed a job. He reconnected with a summer employer who suggested he pursue a different career path that promised a steady career, something he did not find in engineering. That career—McDonald’s.

“It was a difficult decision. I had invested four years of schooling. It was everything I was,” said Hern. “There was a lot of peer pressure, but the fundamental thing I needed was a job. When I saw the writing on the wall, I had to make a bold decision. I thought this is a place I can go where the industry won’t change, and as long as I work hard every day, I can beat other people out and possibly have a career.”

Hern hoped to have his own franchise, but he did not have the money required. He developed a plan to change this reality.  

“I worked three jobs at the same time I was going through the franchising program to save the $100,000,” said Hern. “It literally took me 10 years to save the money.”

Hern said he learned many lessons with his first franchise and many of those centered around how to treat people.

“I learned you can never forget that a small business is hinged upon how well you take care of your people,” said Hern. “There are a lot of small businesses out there with great ideas but because of the way people are taken care of, they never succeed.”

Hern continued to advance in the McDonald’s system and had the opportunity to help others. The individual restaurant owners created a leadership council to address challenges, and he was asked to serve as the ombudsman chair to handle complaints.

“I traveled anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 miles a year and answered thousands of phone calls,” said Hern. “I learned to listen a lot and then learned from listening what are the opportunities to move the company forward.”

Hern’s experience solving problems as an ombudsman helped him prepare to lead the franchises as the Chief Financial Officer —”one of the greatest opportunities.”

“I did it for no pay, but nothing is more rewarding than helping people who are about to lose everything,” said Hern. “To be able to go beyond your area and your bubble to help others you’ve never met is rewarding.”

After working to solve problems for the organization, Hern realized he had the opportunity to help make a difference on a larger scale.

“Unfortunately, politics is just the name of it. I spent so many years traveling the country listening to problems, trying to find solutions, and this is the same thing,” said Hern. “I recently became a grandfather, and I looked at my grandson and wondered what this place will look like when he gets to be my age. I wanted to try to make a difference.”

Awards are displayed on a shelf in Mr. Hern's office
Memorabilia pertaining to Mr. Herns success is seen on display in his office

Before throwing his name into the political ring, Hern reached out to McDonald’s to see what that would mean for his franchises.

“They gave me the opportunity to be the only McDonald’s franchisee in history to keep my restaurants and run to be a United State Congressman,” said Hern. “That’s pretty special to me. There’s nothing more grassroots than the McDonald’s golden arches. I think it’s a model for what we’re trying to do as Americans.”

Empowering others to see their potential is how Hern hopes to make an impression in Washington and in life.

“I was made fun of so much because I didn’t have anything. The reality is one person can make a huge difference. It’s just about making that choice,” said Hern. “Work hard every day, be kind and fair to people, and make today better than you found it. Then good things will happen.”