Skip to Content

McDonald’s deserves a break today

With Monday’s quarterly earnings release, McDonald’s has gone from the frying pan into the fire.

It reported that global same store sales were down by 4.8%, versus the expected 1.2% dip. Its once high-growth Asian markets were down 12.6% versus the expected 8.4% drop.

Indeed, it is an ironic time for the $72 billon burger business, where 12 hours after the 65 year-old McDonald’s (MCD) fired its CEO Don Thompson, Danny Meyer, founder of 14 year-old Shake Shack (SHAK), fired up his burger chain on the New York Stock Exchange with a $1.7 billion value, doubling its IPO price of the day.

Yes, McDonald’s is the big cheese in this market, with 68 million people served daily in 130 countries, 38,000 outlets, and 2 million employees. Despite that presence, diners and investors alike have flipped over the higher quality, fun entrants such as Shake Shack, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, In and Out Burger, and Smashburger. But despite the company’s stumbles, McDonald’s may now be posed to start firing back.

Despite strategic and operational missteps shared by the fast food giant’s management and board, there was no sugar coating over the need for change nor was there a vilification of the company’s beloved, albeit unsuccessful, leader. Moreover, the company’s Chicagoland-oriented board did not need outside activist investors to force needed changes.

McDonalds’ missteps are more complex than its distasteful financial results. Recent results showed the first declining same store sales in 12 years and the fifth straight quarter of declining sales revenues and a plunge in profits. These financial records reveal problems in the company’s strategy, execution, and leadership, not an industry-wide problem. In addition to the soaring prospects of its competitors, even McDonald’s spinoffs—Boston Market (2007) and Chipotle Mexican Grill (2006)—were positioned for success when they were liberated.

In short, McDonald’s has been caught in a whirlwind of confusing brand identity paradoxes; a situation in which the company’s inadequate products, confusing messaging, and overly humble messengers have aggravated its sinking public image. Consider these five quandaries:

1. Food quality. The fast-food chain’s tries at healthier menu options did not work. Now people associate McDonald’s with the hamburgers with “pink slime filler” (ammonium hydroxide), which the company only discontinued in 2011 amid an expose by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. How sad that the company’s burgers were once endorsed by leading nutritionists, such as Jean Mayer, as a healthy, rare treat! In June 2014, Consumer Reports cited McDonald’s as the purveyor of the worst-rated burger in the nation. Wendy’s now fares better on account of its low prices. Meanwhile, a double Shackburger, fries, and black & white shake would ring the bell with 2,000 calories, far more calories than what you’d get from similar items at McDonald’s.

2. Food safety. Long revered for its food safety in Asia and China in particular, as well as the Middle East, McDonald’s and Yum Brands have lost credibility as they had to close a meat processing facility in 2014 for continuing food safety problems

3. Pricing policy. In its attempts to woo people away from the cheap dollar menu items and value meal offers toward high quality food, traditional customers were confused if price was the focus or not. Now it is Sonic Burger, not McDonald’s, that leads in simplicity and low prices.

4. Standardization vs. customization. McDonald’s was long criticized for not allowing customers to “have it your way.” So they swung to the opposite end of the pendulum, offering so many varieties that customers were confused by more than 130 items while service speeds—a key ingredient for fast food—slowed dramatically.

5. Supplier sourcing. Once a master of sourcing channels to the point that it appeared like a supply chain hegemon, McDonald’s was ambushed by slowdowns at the Port of Los Angeles, without any effective contingency plan. This left the fast-food chain French fry-less in key markets, like Japan.

McDonald’s attempted to respond to the loss of business over these image, quality, positioning, and operations problems, with band aid solutions. Expanding the number of drive-thru windows, which accounts for 70% of its business, and the current weird campaign about “showing love” do not address the deeper problems in food quality, operations, and image. In fact, McDonalds’ schmaltzy Super Bowl “Pay it with Lovin’” campaign was met with ridicule and continues to backfire all the way to its planned expiration on Valentine’s Day.

Yet an even deeper problem had to do with the company’s succession drama. Indeed, McDonald’s has had five CEOs in a dozen years. The universally respected and experienced operator Don Thompson was not the board’s intended successor. In fact, he was their third choice candidate.

CEO Jim Skinner’s presumed successor, Mike Roberts, quit in 2006, reportedly complaining that Skinner was not clear enough about his intended succession schedule. Another initial favorite was Ralph Alvarez, who had to “retire” due to a sudden concern over his knees, at age 55, with a single day’s notice in 2009. The news shocked the company, as he left the company in the aftermath of a second wave of rumors over personal conduct problems. Published allegations of serial sexual misconduct with subordinates forced Alvarez’s exit when he was previously fired by CEO Jack Greenberg.

Skinner himself was not expected to take the reins as CEO. He came into the job after two McDonald’s CEOs died young. James R. Cantalupo died of a heart attack, and his successor, Charles H. Bell, left with cancer. (Bell died in January 2005.)

Cantalupo’s predecessor, Jack M. Greenberg, stepped down at age 60 after his successful introduction of a “made for you” campaign, with mildly customized products. The initiative was introduced at a time when McDonald’s suffered earnings declines for seven consecutive quarters, a similar situation to what Don Thompson encountered.

Shareholders were initially unimpressed with Cantalupo and Bell’s appointments, as it suggested that the company was suffering from inbreeding. During Bell’s short time as CEO, McDonalds’ was being criticized for the health of its food. This was exacerbated by the release of the documentary film Super Size Me. Bell led efforts to add healthier choices to the McDonald’s menu, allowing parents to substitute juice and apple slices for fries and soft drinks. The “Supersize” option was also eliminated. During his brief tenure, Bell’s initiatives resulted in a successful turnaround, with the firm’s stock price rising 24% during his brief reign. Bell also introduced the McCafe and the strikingly tasty Newman’s Own coffee.

When Bell’s health declined, Jim Skinner stepped up. Skinner’s greatest accomplishment, the “Plan to Win” strategy, managed to reverse McDonalds’ falling profits. Skinner’s strategy focused on improving operations at existing locations instead pursuing the expansion models of the company’s past. The company hoped to achieve “faster, friendlier service; tastier food; a more appealing ambiance; better value; and sharper marketing.” Skinner and his team were able to increase McDonalds’ total sales, increasing from $50.1 billion in 2004 to $70.1 billion in 2008.

In fact, there were terrific stars positioned just below the surface through much of this period, such as CFO Matt Paull and Jeff Kindler, former general counsel and CEO of such McDonald’s units as Boston Market. (Kindler left McDonald’s to serve as general counsel and then CEO of Pfizer.) One of these stars in the McDonald’s pipeline is Steve Easterbrook, now the company’s newly anointed CEO. Easterbrook left the company to run other European food chains, giving him valuable outside perspective. In this sense, Easterbrook’s trajectory marks a similar path to former Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell.

Easterbrook seems to be a superb choice—as a brand steward and past top operating executive in Europe, he led triumphant turnarounds and engineered the very successful introduction of organic, healthy foods in the core menu. He also introduced modern, attractive store designs and championed promising digital strategies.

So, while the company has made some honest mistakes, there is no governance failure at McDonald’s, beyond, perhaps the somewhat overly Chicago-oriented board. They have recognized the need to admit mistakes and change leadership without vilifying hardworking officials who swung at the pitch but missed. In addition, McDonald’s did not need media campaigns or proxy battle drama to make change. The McDonald’s board has invested in deep bench strength, giving the company prepared, credible leaders to take charge with little internal chaos and external confusion.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies and Lester Crown Professor of Management at the Yale School of Management, as well as President of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute