Fresno native, now living in Russia, joins Olympic torch relay

The Fresno BeeFebruary 3, 2014 

A former Fresno resident helped light up the Sochi Winter Olympics.

John Owen, a valedictorian at Hoover High School who now lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, ran a relay leg in Moscow with the Olympic torch that will be used to light the flame and start the Games on Friday.

Owen, 50, is president/CEO of Subway Russia Service Company, which provides management services for the exclusive franchiser of more than 600 Subway restaurants in Russia. He was invited to run in the relay in October.

"I was a celebrity for 150 meters," says Owen, who returned to Fresno in November to visit with his parents, Al and Mary Lu Owen, for Thanksgiving. "It was amazing. You were like a hero. Everyone wanted to talk with me."

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Owen's path to Russia is interesting.

He dropped out of Fresno State as a freshman so he could stay on fast pace to work at a McDonald's restaurant in Fresno as a salaried employee. He had started working at McDonald's at age 16.

"I really loved the work, so there was opportunity," Owen remembers.

It turned out to be the decision of his life.

He worked for McDonald's for 30 years, climbing the corporate ladder and reaching the rung of corporate vice president of strategy and execution based in Chicago. That included working with the global geographic business unit. McDonald's, at the time, had about 33,000 restaurants in 118 countries. He traveled all over the world in company jets.

"It was amazing," he says. "I had a great time."

After his boss retired and a subordinate stepped into the top job, Owen decided to leave McDonald's and founded Owen & Associates, an executive consulting company that provides services to many suppliers to the restaurant industry.

Two years ago, he joined Subway. He is responsible for establishing and executing the strategic vision for Subway Russia, which has become the largest international restaurant brand in Russia. An average of two stores are opening every three days.

Owen says he has applied his abilities that were successful with McDonald's to his work with Subway.

"It's perseverance -- always wanting to learn, enjoying teaching others and the drive to get ahead.

"Never in a million years did I think I would be in Russia. I've been fortunate that opportunities have come my way."

That includes running with the Olympic torch in Bodby Park in Moscow.

He met one of Russia's most famous figure skaters, Irina Slutskaya, who ran in the relay a couple of people ahead of Owen. She is a two-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist.

In Fresno, Al and Mary Lu Owen are proud of their son.

"We weren't jumping up over a valedictorian quitting" school, says Al Owen, an educator for 51 years. "We said we would support him in what he wanted to do.

"We've lost sight -- not every kid needs to go to college. He opted out, and look where he ended up."

Mary Lu Owen says, "He has a good head on his shoulders and has made us proud. "It's a local boy makes good story."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6304 or rorozco@fresnobee.com.

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