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Culver's CEO comes home to Nappanee to talk with students, community leaders

When someone from the hometown grows up to lead a major national business, it’s an inspiration and point of pride for everyone.

Phil Keiser grew up in Nappanee, participated each summer in the Elkhart County 4-H Fair and graduated from NorthWood High School. Now, after a career moving up through the ranks of restaurant management, he is the president and CEO of Wisconsin-based food chain Culver’s.

Phil Keiser, a native of Nappanee, is the president and CEO of Culver’s. He is visiting his hometown Aug. 27 and 28 to attend a NorthWood High School football game and business class. Photo supplied

Keiser will return home Aug. 28 to attend a football game at his alma mater. 

Local Culver’s restaurants from Warsaw, Goshen and Elkhart will pitch in to make the occasion extra special, serving free custard to fans before and after the game (at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. at the gate). Keiser will participate in an honorary coin toss at the 7 p.m. kickoff.

Culver’s mascot, Scoopie, will be there to entertain the crowd, and during the game, NorthWood cheerleaders will toss out mini footballs and Culver’s T-shirts to fans in the stands.

Keiser will visit with the football team at practice Thursday, Aug. 27, to share his story and talk about how the team leadership and camaraderie they’re learning on the field applies to the business world.

“Whenever I get the opportunity to speak with young people, I try to impress the importance of being leaders and role models,” he said. “How to use today’s life experience to prepare them for tomorrow’s.”

Keiser said he is especially looking forward to meeting the team because in his own high school days, he played football for NorthWood under the current coach’s father.

He will also pay a visit to a business class at NorthWood High School on Friday to talk about what entrepreneurship means and how humble roots can grow into a successful career.

“It’s not just starting your own business,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s more of an approach to business. You can be entrepreneurial while working as part of a huge company.”

Keiser was named CEO of Culver’s on June 15 after serving as president and COO since August 2003 and working for the company for nearly 19 years. The company had 44 restaurants when he started, he said, and opened its 533rd location this week in Arizona.

It’s a far cry from showing rabbits at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair, being elected president of the 4-H Junior Leaders club and baling hay for his grandfather and uncles on their farms. Still, those experiences stuck with him and combined to make him who he is today.

The work ethic of farmers has been particularly useful to him in the food industry, he said, not to mention an understanding of agriculture practices and markets that has become increasingly important as people ask more questions about where their food comes from.

“Some of those early responsibilities helped me understand very early what it is to be a leader,” he said.

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