Wednesday, July 05, 2006

So long, Tom

My job abounds in good aspects, but I’ll be damned if I could think of one this afternoon. Maybe I should be grateful I only had to edit the obit on my friend Tom Crawford, instead of having to write it.

Those of you who’ve attended a Restaurant Leadership Conference, or supported it as a sponsor, will readily understand. The annual conference, a sort of class trip/think tank/celeb fest for restaurant franchisees and franchisors, was Tom’s charge, and it reflected a personality that both admirers and detractors termed “unique." The three-day retreat had started as a perk for the customers and would-be clients of Franchise Financial Corp. of America, a lend-lease giant that has since been absorbed into GE Capital. It was subsequently reorganized into a independent event operated by a freestanding entity called the Leadership Network Corp., which Tom was tapped to head.

He could have had an easy time of it, booking some high-ticket resort and marching a parade of the usual retired sports stars or inspirational presenters to the podium. Throw in a barbecue, luau or pig roast, or bring in some past-prime talent for a grand banquet, and you'd have had a perfectly acceptable boondoggle.

Instead, Tom decided to rethink what an industry meeting should be, using the famous Sun Valley conference as his inspiration. That gathering, in Sun Valley, Idaho, drew the gods of the technology industry by providing a chance for true interaction and mind-melding.

At the time, most foodservice events consisted of talking heads standing at a podium or sitting on a panel, broadcasting their wisdom to a passive (or sometimes napping) audience. Two days of lectures, with maybe a half-day golf outing where the real mental and social connecting took place. If the recreational and social activities are where attendees gain the most, Crawford reasoned, why not make those components the major part of the conference? And if they want to learn from savants, why not get people who really fit the bill, regardless of what’s required to bring them there?

It probably wasn’t the first time a conference producer had been filled with that religion. But, bless him, Crawford made it happen, and it was magical. You could go horseback riding in the Arizona desert, or book a Hummer and tear around off-road. One year, he arranged to have dozens of hot-air balloons take us all up for a ride. Another time, he brought in a rodeo. One of my favorite recollections was watching a spring-training game with Dave Winfield, a New York Yankee before he became a Burger King franchisee and fast-food service provider. The Giants were playing the Cubs, and when Barry Bonds homered, Winfield yelled his praise. Bonds saluted in recognition, and might have even smiled. And I sat there with a cold beer, part of the scene, as were the attendees with whom I had become friends.

And then there were the speakers. Jack Kemp, around the time he ran as Bob Dole’s vice-presidential candidate. And Dan Quayle, the year he ran for president. George Will, the noted political and baseball writer, was a regular. Last year, Tom somehow lured former Disney CEO Michael Eisner to speak. On the same program was John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted,” and one day started with a self-defense expert who taught the Walter Mitty's in attendance how to fend off an attacker.

Another year, he not only secured Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Phoenix Suns and Diamondbacks, but booked him to speak in the Diamondbacks’ spectacular retractable-dome stadium. The conference opened with all of us sitting there in an otherwise empty stadium, and the dome suddenly opening to let the sunlight brighten the infield grass to the color of pool-table felt. Tom, our emcee, stood just in front of the pitcher's mound, beaming.

His conferences were so unusual, so anything-goes, as long as the anything fit his goals of stimulating thought or fostering interaction. You never knew who he’d schedule, or what type of recreation he’d add.

Which is why it was chilling to learn this morning that Crawford died from a mountain-biking accident. I was just beginning to mountain-bike when I started attending the Leadership Conference. I used to joke with Tom that he should add off-road riding as an activity at the meeting. He’d nod, then threaten to leave me behind in the desert if we ever hit the trails on our bikes. And then he’d suggest that I come out to Phoenix early for the next conference, so we really could go out and ride together.

And that was him. He could throw his jabs, but it was always in fun. And he was absolutely graceful when a few barbs caught him. One year, before the conference had officially begun, I saw him hobbling about in a foot cast. “What happened?” I asked. “Get your foot caught on a molar?” He flushed, then retold the joke at his expense a few dozen times. I like that mental image, of how he’d laugh each time, usually more heartily than his audience.

You were a class act, Tom, with a big heart and an inquisitive mind. And among all of us who were lucky enough to make your acquaintance, you will be sorely, sorely missed.

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