McDonald's was forced into a sweeping shake-up of top management yesterday following the sudden death of Jim Cantalupo, the chairman and chief executive, who had been the architect of the recent turnaround at the world's largest fast food chain.
Mr Cantalupo, who was 60, collapsed and died of a heart attack in Orlando, Florida, where McDonald's was holding its annual international owner and operator convention. A 28-year veteran of the company, he was recalled from retirement to take charge in January 2003, shortly after McDonald's registered its first ever quarterly loss.
Within hours of his death the company named Charlie Bell, 43, as president and chief executive officer. Mr Bell, an Australian who becomes the first non-American to head the company, had been considered the heir apparent since he was named chief operating officer last year.
The plan, however, had been for the hand-over to take place in four or five years' time. Analysts said Mr Cantalupo's death did not affect the company's long-term fundamentals, but McDonald's was largest blue chip faller on Wall Street yesterday, down 2.6 per cent to $26.75.
In his short period at McDonald's' helm, Mr Cantalupo had achieved a remarkable recovery at a company that seemed to have lost its way, with an ageing brand and a fading image. He made efficiency and appeal McDonald's guiding principles, replacing breakneck expansion. As it closed hundreds of underperforming restaurants, the company overhauled its menu, shifting away from super-size servings and heeding the growing anti-obesity campaign of which it was a prime target.
Among Mr Cantalupo's innovations were an entrée-sized salad and the McGriddle breakfast sandwich. Just this month, McDonald's introduced an adult Happy Meal complete with mineral water, salad and a pedometer, as well as healthier Happy Meals for children.
A new advertising campaign meanwhile sought to win back younger customers, with the slogan "I'm Lovin' It". The ads featured breakdancers and surfers against a brash pop music background.
"We don't want McDonald's to look and feel 50 years old to our customers," Mr Cantalupo told Wall Street analysts in March, noting that the company's 50th anniversary fell in 2005. "We want McDonald's to be forever young."
If that is the criterion, Mr Bell could hardly be better placed to continue the recovery his predecessor began. He too is a lifelong McDonald's man, who started out as a 15-year-old part-time server at a company restaurant in Australia, before rising rapidly through the ranks. He ran the European operations before becoming chief operating officer in 2003.
The chain reported $17bn (£9.4bn) of revenue and net earnings of almost $1.5bn in 2003, up from $893m the previous year. Since Mr Cantalupo took command, its share price rose 49 per cent in 15 months.
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