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The Power List: No. 7 Don Thompson

The Power List: No. 7 Don Thompson

Part of the annual NRN 50 special report, The Power List profiles the 50 most powerful people who are leading and shaping change in the restaurant industry, as chosen by Nation’s Restaurant News.

Don Thompson became one of the most influential executives in foodservice July 1, 2012, simply by rising to chief executive of McDonald’s Corp., a company with nearly 35,000 units worldwide whose every move is scrutinized by competitors, investors, journalists and advocates.

So in October 2012, when the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company reported its first monthly same-store sales decrease in more than nine years, people were watching — closely. Comparable-store sales fell 2.2 percent in the United States and 1.8 percent across the globe. Comparisons to world-beating numbers a year earlier, when the weather was unseasonably warm, contributed greatly to the declines and would suppress McDonald’s numbers for the rest of 2013 — though the rest of the story included promotions and limited-time offers that failed to live up to the success of McCafe beverages. And, to this day, consumer confidence and spending at restaurants in the United States, Europe and other crucial markets, like Japan, remains less than robust.

Thompson has responded to the chain’s struggling sales by shaking up the executive ranks, dialing up the menu development pipeline, and carrying into 2014 tests of new technologies and new back-of-the-house operations.

Industry watchers now are waiting to see what McDonald’s introduces as its mobile-marketing solution, likely some time this year, as several regions are testing different platforms for mobile ordering, payment and loyalty. Likewise, investors and observers are tracking what new investments in “high-density kitchen” equipment in the back-of-the-house might do to McDonald’s throughput and its ability to execute a continually expanding menu.

The focus on efficiency fits Thompson’s background. Though he started at McDonald’s in 1990 as an electrical engineer designing food transporting and cooking equipment, he quickly rose through the ranks after switching to operations, becoming president of McDonald’s USA in 2006.

Under Thompson, McDonald's has battled sales declines with new product introductions, including three new Quarter Pounders
Under Thompson, McDonald's has battled sales declines with new product introductions, including three new Quarter Pounders

Today the company of more than 14,000 locations in the United States looks different than before Thompson became chief executive, particularly in the leadership positions reporting directly to him. After the chain’s first monthly sales miss in years was announced in mid-November 2012, Jan Fields was ousted as president of McDonald’s USA and replaced by Jeff Stratton. Since then, the company has named new presidents for Europe and Asia, a new COO and global chief brand officer, and its first chief digital officer.

No matter who joins Thompson in McDonald’s headquarters, however, he remains the public face of the brand, which takes the brunt of the public’s scrutiny on behalf of all restaurants on contentious issues like the minimum wage, the environment and obesity. Some of the chain’s steps to be proactive in shaping those debates have backfired, such as the now-shuttered McResource website for employees. Still, when Thompson gets McDonald’s involved in other causes — including a partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to improve the brand’s healthful menu choices or its new commitment to source “verified sustainable” beef by 2016 — he wields a level of influence few restaurant executives can match.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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