COLUMBIA -- When Randy Kibler was 15, the Spring Valley High School student landed a job as a cashier at the pagoda-shaped Hardee's No. 1 restaurant near Jackson Boulevard. A year later, he got a promotion to assistant manager.

Eventually, Kibler rose to be president of a 600-franchise Hardee's chain.

"You stay around long enough, everybody else dies off and there you are," he joked Tuesday.

Today, the 56-year-old Kibler is chief executive of Bojangles' restaurants -- owned by his old boss at Hardee's, Carolina Panther's owner Jerry Richardson and Hugh McColl, former chief executive of Bank of America.

He returned to Columbia last week to celebrate the opening of the 100th Bojangles' in South Carolina franchise and 30 years of operation in the state. As part of the celebration, the new restaurant on Garners Ferry Road offers some specials at 1980 prices.

Kibler's parents, Ranzt and Celia, still live in Northeast Richland County. But the main reason for the visit is to honor teachers and highlight the company's support of education. He joined Columbia Mayor-elect Steve Benjamin and presented a donation to Rolling Readers, a Columbia-based nonprofit that encourages young people to read.

"It's our way of saying thank you to teachers," he said.

Kibler left Richardson's restaurant franchise company in 1996 and became a developer of Firehouse Subs. He and Richardson were reunited in 2007 when he came to run Bojangles'. The chain has 303 restaurants in 10 states.

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Kibler said his journey from Hardee's cashier in Columbia some 40 years ago, up through the ranks to the CEO's desk at Bojangles', has made him a better executive.

"The most important thing is to really understand the business," he said. "Any job, I've done it. So I know how it fits in with the overall operation. Also, I know how to relate to the people doing those jobs. That's important. You gain equity and trust by having been in their shoes."

In the past year, Bojangles' has opened 21 new restaurants in South Carolina. That represents a $40 million investment.

Although Kibler lives in a south Charlotte suburb, his house is just over the state line. "So I'm still a South Carolinian," he said.