The starring role Laura Olguín now fills is somewhat different from the one she imagined a couple of decades ago.

She wanted to be an actress. In fact, she wanted an Oscar.

But instead, she ended up leaving California to lead a cast of 600 Tucson fast-food workers.

"Most people really like working for me. It's the key to my success," she said.

Born in Mexico City in 1964, Olguín went to high school in El Paso, the city where her mother was born, and knew that Hollywood was the place to pursue Oscar dreams. Enrolling at Cal State-Long Beach to pursue her dramatic ambitions, she took a job at a Jack in the Box near campus.

It was the usual gig, cooking burgers and fries, taking orders, cleaning up.

She excelled at it and rose through the ranks to become manager at age 19. At the same time, she began to realize that winding up on the silver screen required lots of luck, talent and money. Deciding she was short on all three, she gave up the acting dream, switching her major to psychology.

As her acting dream faded, her career with the fast-food company soared. She eventually landed in the company's corporate office in San Diego and headed its since-abandoned international franchising effort.

Along the way, she earned a degree in psychology at Cal State and an MBA at Pepperdine University.

She thrived at Jack in the Box but was recruited away in 1995, first by Taco Bell, then by a Fortune 500 company that provided inventory services to businesses coast to coast. That job required a lot of travel for three years, which challenged her time with two small children. Around that time, longtime Tucson franchise operator Claire Thomas called her to see if Olguín would be interested in buying into CRT Partners, which operates Jack in the Box in Southern Arizona.

By 2000, Olguín decided to take up the offer from Thomas and a Phoenix investor, Bob Campbell, who also has a stake in CRT. She became vice president of operations with a 10 percent share of profits. With savings and by selling her California home, she invested $410,000 in the partnership in 2004, took over the reins as CEO running 24 stores and took ownership of about a 22 percent interest in the business.

"Great people skills"

Thomas, now 51 and retired from her active role at the chain, is a big fan of her successor.

"She's a great gal. I get a big smile on my face when I see her energy and enthusiasm. I think — 'It's your turn. You go for it, girl.' She's very bright and has great people skills."

Olguín, 42, runs an organization with about 600 employees, two-thirds of whom will likely move into and out of the chain over a 12-month period, which she says is typical for the fast-food business. A "very solid" core of 200 employees stays, she says, some for more than a decade.

While much of the work force is transient, she says, "the tenure of our managers is very high."

"We're the first opportunity for many people. They come in for work experience and they decide to go to college or get another job."

Olguín says her study of psychology in college is helpful in her work. "It's served me well in the people business — the business we're in."

Thomas retains some interest in the partnership and says Olguín has done "a real good job developing an organization and going with the strengths of her subordinates to get things done. I'm very pleased — sales are good."

CRT estimates this year's revenues at $29.5 million and next year's at $36 million, based on more stores and some price increases due to the minimum-wage hike passed in November by Arizona voters.

Payroll for the chain is estimated at $7.1 million this year, up from $6.5 million last year. With new stores and higher wages, payroll next year is estimated at $8.8 million, CRT says.

Olguín was opposed to the ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage, as were many in her industry. "I think it should have gone up, just not so high so fast," from $5.15 an hour to $6.75.

She says "75 percent of our people make minimum wage."

Now, quite a lot of the increased expense will have to passed to consumers, she says, starting right away with about a 3 percent increase. Menu items might go up 20 to 30 cents each, she says.

4 new restaurants coming

Looking ahead, Olguín plans to open four new restaurants by April, three in Tucson and one in Sierra Vista, to make 28 for her chain.

It's no small feat to open a store. Building and equipping one new restaurant costs close to $1 million, she says, not including land.

But buying land and putting up new restaurants is not the tough part, according to Olguín.

"The hardest thing about my job is to make sure we have a great group of people. It makes the business work and makes the business successful.

"I have a talent for that. I'm good at recognizing talent, developing people and recognizing people. That is the key to my success — making sure people enjoy coming to work every day." A great majority of managers in the chain have been there 15 years or more, she says.

She says she's always at the restaurants "one way or the other," sometimes just to drive through with her kids. Olguín's menu favorite is the chicken fajita pita.

"I've never forgotten what it's like to be an employee or a shift leader or assistant manager. I know what a person in those positions goes through every day."

"An awesome boss"

Her linkage to the chain's staff gets noticed down the line.

"I don't know anybody who doesn't just love her to death. She lets people know she cares. She's unique," says Rick Ramsden, area manager for CRT and a 30-year Jack in the Box veteran in Phoenix and now Tucson.

Ramsden calls Olguín "an awesome boss . . . far and away the best boss I've ever had."

"She's just so energetic and always looking forward," he adds, and can handle bad news along with the good from her teams.

She believes in and promotes the idea that in order to take care of the customers, you take care of your employees, he says. "She cares about everybody in the organization and demonstrates it, whether through bonuses or just understanding when things don't go well."

Olguín wraps all this action into about 50 hours a week over five or six days, she says.

Relaxation for her might be martial arts, taking in a movie, or just being home with her stay-at-home partner, Lulu Saavedra, and their three children.

Community involvement includes being president of the board of Wingspan, a local nonprofit advocacy agency for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

She was recently recognized by the corporate office for having the highest "voice of the customer" performance for the larger chains in the Jack in the Box system, a rating of customer satisfaction.

It's sort of Laura Olguín's Oscar, and she's proud of it.

• Name: Laura Olguín

• Age: 42

• Position: CEO and owner, CRT Partners

• Family: Partner Lulu Saavedra and three children, ages 7, 9 and 15.

• Favorite Jack in the Box dish: Chicken fajita pita

● Contact Richard Ducote at 573-4178 or rducote@azstarnet.com.