Bringing the Sizzle Back to McDonald’s

Donald Thompson worked his way up the fast-food giants ladder to become one of its highest-ranking executives

 Thompson didn’t give the offer a second thought, particularly concerned about how his grandmother would react. She raised Thompson and, fearing the gang activities in the North Side of Chicago in the 1970s, moved him to Indianapolis. “She gave everything she had to get me into and through Purdue,” he says.

The day after rejecting the offer, Thompson’s phone rang again. This time an engineer who’d recently left Bell Laboratories to work at McDonald’s invited him to visit. Thompson accepted and later took the job, where he helped design robotics for food transport, digital systems, filtration systems, and control circuits in fryers and other cooking equipment. His first of many promotions came in 1991, when he was named project manager.

Things were going well, but Thompson wasn’t sure how far he could go in engineering. “The group that was really seen as the future leaders in the company were the ones that had come up through the restaurants–academia didn’t mean too much,” says Thompson. “And so being in the engineering department and not in restaurant operations, it became apparent to me that maybe I needed to look at something a little different.”

A bit frustrated, Thompson met with his future mentor, Raymond C. Mines, a senior vice president. At the time, McDonald’s U.S. operations were split into 40 regions that made up seven zones. Mines oversaw one of those zones and was therefore responsible for one-seventh of the restaurant’s U.S. business.

Under Mines’ mentorship, Thompson transitioned to the operational side of the business in 1993, accepting a position as director of strategic planning and quality management. Here, he would travel around the U.S. and facilitate sessions on team building and dynamics. “I would facilitate topics that I didn’t have any idea about, but I knew how to get people to talk about an issue and try to move them to some kind of problem _solving,” he says. This skill set would prove invaluable.

Mines felt it was time for Thompson to get his hands dirty–literally. In 1995, Mines guided him into the company’s Accelerated Development Program to get restaurant experience. He traded in his suit and tie for a crew uniform and went to work with a franchisee in South Chicago. For six months, he flipped burgers, cleaned toilets, worked as a cashier, and co-managed the restaurant. He loved it. “When the six months were up, I said to Raymond, ‘If you can leave me in the restaurant and continue to pay me a director’s salary, I’ll be just fine.’”

Not long after completing the program, Thompson was promoted to director of operations for McDonald’s Denver region and in 1998 was named regional manager of San Diego, where he was charged with overseeing more than 300 restaurants in the area as well as creating a plan to turn around their performance. At the time, San Diego was ranked 39 out of McDonald’s 40 regions from a revenue-generating standpoint, so Thompson had work to do. First his team focused on  marketing, and they generated a consistent message that focused on value. Under his leadership, operations was the next focal point, and restaurants were kept clean and efficient.
His plan offered incentives for crew members and managers who met certain objectives. Prices of such items as hamburgers were lowered to as much as 29 cents a day or two a week to drive traffic. The idea was that if more people came in and had good experiences, they’d keep coming. The end result: the region went from an abysmal rank of 39 to No. 2 in the nation within a year. 

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