5 Things You Didn't Know About McDonald's New CEO
Who is Don Thompson? Some little-known facts about the man who will take over the iconic burger chain and global fast-food behemoth.
Not just breaking racial barriers, Thompson has broken the mold of the American CEO. Here are some little-known facts about the man who will take over the leading global foodservice retailer with more than 33,000 restaurants in 119 countries.
A Child of Few Means
Humble beginnings are the special sauce of the McDonald’s success story -- from milkshake machine salesman Ray Kroc to outgoing CEO Jim Skinner, whose career began as a restaurant manager trainee. But growing up a stone’s throw from one of the country’s most notorious public housing projects sets a new bootstrap-pulling record for the company.
Raised in the early 1960s, in the shadow of Chicago’s subsidized Cabrini-Green development, Don Thompson was a bright student and had even skipped a grade. “But by the time I was 10, the inner city was beginning to get tough,” Thompson told the Franchise Times in 2008. “[S]o my grandmother, who raised me, moved us to Indianapolis.”
It was at his new home in Indiana where Thompson’s gifts in math and science would be realized, not only by him but by the Minority Engineering Advancement Program (MEAP) at Purdue University's School of Engineering and Technology. A week-long trip to the campus, where he became “hooked,” would lead to a higher education opportunity that took “everything [his grandmother] had to get [him] into and through...”
Science First, Business Second
It’s doubtful that many students pursuing majors in electrical engineering have dreams of someday running a multi-billion-dollar fast-food franchise. Their skills are in science and technology, not business. And Thompson, armed with a degree in the field from Purdue in 1984, wasn’t an exception. His career trajectory was a perfectly orthodox one, having accepted an engineering specialist job for the defense contractor that is now Northrop Grumman Corporation (NOC).
At the turn of the decade, however, this skilled designer of radar-jamming systems wildly switched industry gears from bombers to burgers when he took a position as a restaurant systems engineer at McDonald’s.
McDonald’s, Not McDonnell Douglas
Contacted via cold call from a corporate recruiter about a position in “robotics, control circuitry and feedback loops,” Thompson misheard the name of the company the headhunter was representing. Never imagining a fast-food franchise would be seeking his talent, he assumed the call was from a competing aerospace manufacturer that’s since merged with Boeing (BA). As Thompson recalled to Black Enterprise magazine, the conversation went like this:
Thompson: “When should I come to St. Louis for the interview?”
Recruiter: “St. Louis?”
Thompson: “Yeah, isn’t that where McDonnell Douglas is?”
Recruiter: “This is McDonald’s hamburgers.”
Thompson, “You got the wrong guy, because I’m not flipping hamburgers for anybody.”
Of course, Thompson was absolutely the right guy. Initially brought on to design robotics for food transport and control circuits in cooking equipment, he was promoted within two years.
Realizing the lack of growth potential in the engineering division at McDonald’s was the impetus Thompson needed to change career paths within the company. He learned operations the hard way and “turned in [his] suit and tie for a crew uniform.” Like his executive predecessors who took the accelerated management track, Thompson had to start over from the bottom up. At a South Side Chicago location, he was trained by teenagers to flip burgers, make French fries, clean, and open and close the restaurant.
He went on to oversee operations for the entire San Diego market. Under his management, the region’s rank shot up from 39th (out of 40) to the number-two spot.
The higher-ups took notice. Thompson moved up the fast-food chain to Executive Vice President and Innovation Orchestration Leader of McDonald’s Restaurant Solutions Group and Executive Vice President and Division President. In 2006, as President of McDonald’s USA, Thompson was responsible for the strategic direction of the country’s 14,000 restaurants. To turn around declining profits, Thompson was part of a team that implemented McDonald’s Plan to Win strategy, which resulted in the company’s most successful financial performance. Four years later, he was promoted to President and COO.
McDonald’s continues to capture majority market share. 2011 saw $34.2 billion in domestic sales. Lagging far behind in second place is Wendy’s Co. (WEN) with $8.5 billion in sales, followed by Burger King Holdings Inc. with $8.4 billion.
Still “Common People”
According to Thompson’s colleagues and friends, his achievements haven’t gone to his head. He carries himself with an “approachable and humble” demeanor and is pleasantly demonstrative with “broad smiles, bear hugs, and hearty handshakes.”
Thompson’s mentor at McDonald’s, Raymond Mines, said of the incoming CEO, “He has the ability to listen, blend in, analyze, and communicate. People feel at ease with him. A lot of corporate executives have little time for those below them. Don makes everyone part of the process. Frankly, if I hadn't seen his leadership abilities, I wouldn't have helped him in the first place.”
While achieving enormous success, Thompon hasn’t succombed to its trappings. “Although he could probably afford to buy into everything, he's common people," said John Kendall, a former Northrop co-worker. “I've had some other friends and associates who also have had a great amount of success in corporate America, and they do things in such a way that you know they've had success. If you didn't know what Don did, you wouldn't know.”
Roland Martin, a CNN reporter and fellow member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, referred to Thompson as “one of the most down-to-earth brothers I've met.”
Those who have known Thompson for years say he hasn’t forgotten his roots. And if he ever does, he has his wife, Liz -- his college sweetheart and former Cabrini-Green resident -- to remind him.
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