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Hungry Howie's founder Jim Hearn dies at 71 in Florida

4:16 PM, Mar 21, 2013   |    comments
Hungry Howie's founder Jim Hearn. Photo courtesy the Detroit Free Press
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(Detroit Free Press) -- Jim Hearn, founder of Hungry Howie's, died Tuesday in Florida after building one of the largest pizza chains in the nation.

He was 71.

"As a person, he was kind of a low-profile, simple man on a simple mission," said Steve Jackson, CEO. "He also was a consummate businessman, a consummate old school businessman."

In 1973, Hearn converted a 1,000 square foot hamburger shop on Telegraph Road in Taylor into a carry-out and delivery pizzeria.

In the early years Jackson worked for Hearn and looked up to him as both a boss and as a mentor.

Hearn earned the nickname "Howie" from his young staff of blue-collar kids because to them, Hearn already looked like a successful entrepreneur who was on his way to becoming the next Howard Hughes.

"Jim looked pretty powerful at 30 or 32...he had a new house out in Canton, a new car," Jackson said. "We thought he was just as successful as you could imagine."

Hearn moved to Florida in the early 1980s and began to develop Hungry Howie's restaurants there while Jackson oversaw the company's growth in Michigan.

Today, there are about 200 Hungry Howie's locations in Florida and a total of about 550 across 20 states, Jackson said.

While Detroit-based Little Caesar's and Ann Arbor-based Domino's are larger than Hungry Howie's, the Madison Heights-based company is typically ranked as about the 10th largest pizza chain in the nation and carries respect in the pizza industry.

Hearn remained an active vice president of the company even as he fought, and overcame cancer. He died from an unrelated illness.

"This is an emotional blow for the company. He is the figurehead. He is highly respected," Jackson said. "But Hungry Howie's is a very sound company. We will continue to grow and be strong based on the foundation that he laid for us over the last 40 years."

The company also noted his passing on its Facebook page, which generated 168 comments by late Wednesday.

"Jim was an acquaintance to some, a friend to most and family to many," the company said in its Facebook post. "A great number of us owe what we are today to his kindness and wisdom."

Hearn is survived by his wife, Ginny, and two daughters, Jennifer and Julie. Funeral arrangements are pending. 

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