Were it not for James Near, Dave Thomas, founder and senior chairman of Wendy's, might never have become an ad icon. Near, as president of Wendy's in the late 1980s, persuaded Thomas to become one of the restaurant industry's most popular pitchmen.

The legacy, though, of the man who rose from short-order cook at Burger Boy to chairman of Wendy's at his death from a heart attack on July 22, at age 58, will be of a canny strategist who cared deeply for his customers.

After hanging up his apron at Burger Boy, Near became a franchisee in 1974. He later started Sisters Chicken & Biscuits and sold it to Wendy's in 1980. In 1986, he was asked to fix the ailing burger chain. Thomas took a back seat, and even had cards printed saying "Jim's Right Hand Man." Near became CEO in 1989 and chairman in 1991, and he handed over the CEO job to Gordon Teter in 1995.

Wendy's has not yet named a new chairman. The challenge is to find one who answers the question "Where's the beef?" as well as Near.

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