Fred Turner: Executive who transformed McDonald's into a global empire


Thursday 07 February 2013 19:00

Fred Turner transformed McDonald's from a small chain of fast-food outlets to a billion-dollar, instantly recognisable global brand. He introduced the highly successful Quarter Pounder, Chicken McNugget, McRib, Egg McMuffin and Happy Meal and was also recognised as the architect of the "quality, service and cleanliness" operations model that launched McDonald's international presence and unparalleled leadership in the industry – and helped it to establish a reputation as a welcoming, family-friendly destination.

Originally conceived by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1940 as a drive-in restaurant on the old Route 66, in San Bernardino, California, the chain was eventually bought in 1961 for $2.7m by the Chicago businessman Ray Kroc. He had begun working for the brothers in 1955, with the opening of his first McDonald's outlet, in Des Plaines, Illinois. He died in 1984 safe in the knowledge that his protégé, Turner, had already expanded to 32 countries worldwide.

The son of a bread salesman, Frederick Leo Turner was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1933. He graduated from Drake University in his home town before serving a two-year stint in the US Army. In 1956 he answered a local newspaper ad offering McDonald's franchises. While searching for a site for his own franchise, Turner learning the ropes flipping hamburgers at Kroc's first restaurant, in Des Plaines.

In his 1977 autobiography Grinding It Out Kroc recalled: "He was little more than a kid, 23 years old. He had a baby face and the most infectious grin I'd seen in years." They hit it off immediately; describing Turner as a born leader, Kroc liked his zest and offered him a job opening new franchises while overseeing operations and training. Turner was soon turning the task of running a restaurant from an art into a science. In the early years he was often seen working side by side with the crew, teaching new staff his meticulous standards.

Following an inspection trip to the West Coast Turner was convinced that rigid standardisation was required to assure quality across the growing chain. "McDonald's in California was a zoo," he recalled. "Instead of a uniform 10-to-the-pound hamburger, I saw eight, nine, 10, and 11 to the pound, some with onions ground in the patty as an extender… I saw a foodarama!"

As vice-president of operations by 1958, Turner wrote the first Operations and Training Manual, the blueprint for McDonald's operations today. The manual gave explicit instructions on food preparation; French fries, for example, had to be exactly 0.28in thick, and only six burgers could be grilled at once. To counter French-fry spoilage he pushed for temperature-controlled storage facilities in the potato industry.

Under his leadership, McDonald's was "a quiet pioneer" of marketing; he oversaw the introduction of some of the company's most enduring meals, including the hugely successful Egg McMuffin on the breakfast menu, the Happy Meal with toys, fresh salads and the Chicken McNugget – conceived during a lift conversation with a company test chef. He was also behind the ground-breaking move into sports marketing and sponsorship, with McDonald's funding the Olympic swimming arena built for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

In 1961 Turner established Hamburger University in the basement of a McDonald's restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, where managers, franchisees and company employees underwent training in all aspects of the business and received "Bachelor of Hamburgerology" degrees. So far over 280,000 have graduated and there are training sites in London, Munich, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Tokyo and Beijing. The Hamburger University campus at the company's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois was renamed in Turner's honour in 2004.

During Turner's tenure, McDonald's more than tripled its number of restaurants. According to one source, one in eight Americans have worked for the firm at some stage in their lives. To date, McDonald's operates from over 34,000 locations in 119 countries.

A passionate believer in training, development and mentoring, Turner always looked to improve the customers' experience. Jeff Stratton, president of McDonald's USA, believes his success was attributable to "constantly raising the bar higher, and challenging our franchisees, suppliers and people to work together and continuously improve the customer experience in our restaurants."

Turner served as president, chief administrative officer and chairman; in 2003 he was called out of retirement to help conduct a food-improvement campaign during a sales downturn and restore the classic taste to some of McDonald's foods. He recognised that the Big Mac's "secret sauce" had lost its zing. Learning that the original recipe had been lost, he obtained the recipe from the supplier in California who had helped to develop it and resurrected the sauce's kick.

Turner's philanthropic activities included co-founding Ronald McDonald House Charities, which supports families of sick and provides care to children in underprivileged communities. A music lover, he was also a supporter of Drake University in Des Moines, endowing a professorship in jazz studies and the Patty and Fred Turner Jazz Center, which opened in 2011.

Martin Childs

Fred Turner, businessman and philanthropist: born Des Moines, Iowa 6 January 1933; married 1954 Patricia Shurtleff (died 2000, three daughters); died Deerfield, Illinois 7 January 2013.

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