From C-Suite at Taco Bell and Panda Express to 5.11: An Interview with Tom Davin
By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner
Renowned for its award-winning military, EMS, firefighting and law enforcement products, 5.11 exists to create professional-grade, purpose-built gear that’s functional in all situations — for the most demanding missions, for travel, for fitness and for everyday life. Each piece is built with intention, ensuring its end user will always be ready. For Tom Davin and everyone at 5.11, “always being ready” is a way of life.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Davin, CEO of 5.11. His life experiences span Ivy League Universities, the Marine Corps, investment banking, drive-thru windows, and tremendous charitable causes. His calm demeanor immediately sets you at ease, while his wit and ability to size people up keeps you on your toes. His genuine concern for others and desire for continued learning, growth, and improvement is impressive at any stage in one’s career, none more so than in
What is your backstory?
My big career breakthrough was moving from investment banking to front-line leadership at Taco Bell — the most interesting part about it was that I was not applying what I learned from Harvard Business School, but what I learned as an Infantry Officer in the Marines. Military experience gave me the confidence to go against the grain and apply skills I learned in the Marine Corps, specifically as it pertained to investing in employees. I didn’t follow the Taco Bell playbook. I often got criticized by my leadership for spending too much money investing in my people, but ultimately it helped yield positive outcomes for Taco Bell—and for every brand I’ve managed since. I eventually became Taco Bell’s COO, Panda Express’ CEO, and 5.11’s CEO. Investing in people became a key component of my leadership formula.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
I let my Harvard Business School colleagues think I was working in a local Taco Bell store because investment banking didn’t work out. I ended up as COO of Taco Bell, CEO of Panda Express (2004 — 2010), and Chairman of the Board (2010 — present) and CEO (2011 — present) of 5.11. Clearly it
worked out for everyone and we are all laughing about my “drive-thru window” days now.
Are you working on any meaningful nonprofit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When I graduated from Duke, I was commissioned as a Marine Officer. I served six years, and fortunately came away from my service healthy. Today with our military service members having been at war since 9–11, a lot of people are struggling with PTS and TBI issues — there is a great need for innovations in treatments for these brain health issues.
I recently celebrated my 60th birthday, and I was constantly being asked what big thing I want for my birthday. Should I take a trip or buy a sports car? But I knew that wouldn’t make me feel as good as helping others would.
Helpings others seems much more gratifying. If others want to give me a gift, I want them to give to a good cause. It feels great to work for a company that gives back. 5.11 produces purpose-built gear and apparel for military special operations. Beyond that, 5.11 donated $20,000 earlier this year to the Navy SEAL Foundation, whose mission is to support SEAL veterans and their families. Additionally, with my personal experience in the Marine Corps, as well as currently sitting on the board of the Infinite Hero Foundation, I knew giving back to those who served our country was a cause I was incredibly passionate about.
Through the Infinite Hero Foundation, I had insight about innovation happening in brain health, especially non-pharmacological health R&D, and I realized this was the area I wanted to support. I decided to celebrate turning 60 by giving to others. My love language is not gifts. I’m an “acts of service” and “words of affirmation” guy. To get a bunch of gifts wouldn’t do it for me. Creating a campaign to serve others — that’s the best gift I could think of. Through my “60 for Brain Health Campaign,” we’ve been able to provide funding for non-pharmacological solutions for Infinite Hero Foundation and The Brain Treatment Center, an affiliate of USC Neurorestoration — I couldn’t think of anything more that I’d want for my 60th birthday than to give to these groups that serve so many.
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
There is a young man named Jon Warren who lives nearby in Southern California. He was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and on a routine drive back to base while serving in Iraq, he and three other officers traveling in a Humvee were blown up by a roadside bomb. After several years of continued service, injury, and trauma, he reached a point where the Veteran Assistance offerings weren’t enough to give him the support and recovery he needed. Jon was helped dramatically by the Brain Treatment Center of USC Neurorestoration.
In addition to Jon, there are also many active duty members of the military (who do not want to be recognized) who have benefited greatly from the Infinite Hero Foundation and the Brain Treatment Center.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started,” and why?
- Own your morning. Get your workout in early in the morning before everyone else invades your day. I wake up at 5:11 a.m. every day—often without an alarm—and have my coffee until 5:45 a.m., workout until 7 a.m., shower, and get after it.
- Always hire lucky people. It’s hard to distinguish a bad luck story. At Panda, the humble people always said they were lucky. Don’t try to be too smart. Luck—good or bad—tends to continue.
- When you hire someone, look at their car. You want organized people working for you. People execute the big things the same way they execute the small things. You can tell a lot about a person based on the organization of their car.
- Surround yourself with people who give you energy rather than take your energy. It’s very easy to tell whether people either give you energy or take your energy. If you can surround yourself with people who give you energy, your day becomes much more productive, and you become more effective.
- Fly cheap, stay cheap, and eat well. Fly Southwest, stay at the Hampton Inn, and eat at a great restaurant. Don’t waste your money on fancy hotels and expensive flights.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Jeff Bezos. Not only do I think Amazon is disruptive, but it is also a very customer-centric company. He’s a guy who started selling books online, yet has reinvented the Amazon brand several times, and continues to be a global business leader today.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
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