The new big mac at McDonald's is British - but can Steve Easterbrook revive US burger chain's fortunes?


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At the age of 11, Steve Easterbrook caught the London Underground from his Watford grammar school to McDonald’s in Harrow to sample a milkshake and fries. Nearly four decades later, he is running the burger chain’s entire global empire.

Yesterday, the 47-year-old father of three became the first Briton to head the fast-food business in its 75-year history, after sales fell for the first time in a decade.

Fans and critics alike can expect the Watford FC fan, who grew up in the Hertfordshire commuter town, to turn the business away from its previous incarnation as a faceless corporation – one that failed to open up to scrutiny – and into a company willing to face up to its accusers.

Mr Easterbrook first entered the public consciousness in 2006 when, as chief executive of McDonald’s in the UK, he appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight programme. He was debating the company’s role with Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, which examined the global influence of the US fast-food industry. Since then, he has masterminded a successful series of behind-the-scenes videos showing how McDonald’s food is created.

He said at the time: “We wanted to send a signal of a step-change in the way that we were going to be seen as a business. We were a faceless business – we were seen as being difficult to get to, and introspective.”

His rise to the top comes at the cost of Don Thompson’s departure after two-and-a-half years, and follows several quarters of falling sales, topped with an annual decline for the first time in 12 years. In the US, McDonald’s has struggled to retain customers, who have started going more upmarket. Its menus became too confusing and restaurants in Japan ran short of chips.

Part of the McFamily since 1993, when he joined as an accountant, Mr Easterbrook enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks. He worked his way up to become head of McDonald’s UK by 2006 and less than a year later was appointed the head of its northern Europe division.

However, he had the opportunity to run a business away from McDonald’s – which is notoriously introverted and tends only to appoint existing staff to senior positions – and took the helm of fellow food chains Wagamama and Pizza Express for a few years.

The  brief sojourn at Wagamama and Pizza Express from 2011 did not mean Mr Easterbrook lost touch and in 2013 he was back at his spiritual home as chief brand and strategy officer.

Now, with the company’s image under closer scrutiny than ever, it will be his willingness to defend the brand publicly, and his knowledge of the business, that will hold the key to his success.