Commentary: Two McDonald's greats-listen and learn

Feb. 6, 2012

By Erle Dardick

I took this photo in October at the FastCasual Executive Summit in Chicago. Since then, I have been looking at it every once in awhile. For some reason, this photo has increased in significance to me, but I have been unable to put my finger on the reasons why.

This morning, it dawned on me.

You see, Tom Feltenstein and Barry Klein are from a different generation. A generation that can be easily forgotten, if we are not careful. From my perspective, our community needs to be very careful not to forget our forefathers. Tom and Barry, (and many others), experienced a time in our industry that is critical to our history. Our entire multi-unit restaurant community, as we know it, is based on the principles that Tom and Barry’s generation worked so hard to figure out.

Of course, they worked under the vision of Ray Kroc and other fantastic leaders such as Ed Rensi. Real people, trying to solve real life business challenges.

To me, this photo is significant. Not because they are the founders of such important icons such as Ronald McDonald along with Willard Scott and Roy Bergold. Not because of the Happy Meal. Not because of the advent of drive-thru or breakfast. And not because of the philanthropy work of the Ronald McDonald house.

It is significant because here they are, together, no less than 40 years later, after their team changed the future of the multi-unit restaurant industry. Clearly, they served great leaders. That is obvious. Great leaders breed great teams and great people.

For me, this photo demonstrates how the key to our industry is the people. Real human beings. Both Barry and Tom have experienced wins, losses, frustration and elation. Their careers span decades of innovation, of passion, of energy and of a belief system that along the way, they were just doing the best they could to make their shareholders happy. They were accountable.

When I look at this photo, I see great human beings. I see big hearts. I see humble and gracious wise men. Generosity, creativity, and a desire to simply do the right thing. Regardless of what today’s consumer opinions are about the brand they worked so hard to build, at the time, they were part of a team of true innovators who explored unknown territory. Franchising, systems, technology, consumer awareness. They helped influence pop culture, and they did it by the skin of their teeth. By chipping away every day. By doing the simple things.

Of course, they applied business logic to their daily decisions, but I can tell you, growing McDonald’s was hard. It was uncertain. It was scary. Just ask them. They will tell you.

As business people, we spend most of our time dodging bullets. Once in awhile we get to shoot a few, and that is important to our long-term ability to survive in our businesses. Let’s face it, business is hard. It’s just hard.

I wonder what our industry will look like in the year 2042? It’s so hard to imagine, to predict. I wonder if in the year 2042, I will still be standing in a photo like this one at the FastCasual Executive Summit. I’ll be 76 years old, and I wonder what I will have to say at that time? Will I have contributed anything great?

As I look at this photo, I see myself and many of you. What is our purpose? How are we shaping our industry? How are we making a difference? When will our ideas become dated and stale, only to be forgotten by the next generation? Certainly we believe that each of us is innovating, that we are gaining traction in our businesses. We believe there are profits to be made, otherwise we would be spending our valuable life energy doing something different.

I woke this morning looking at this photo and imagined a world where my vision was now behind me and was now part of history. I imagined a challenging path to success. I faced a reality of wins and losses in my own business.

What I realized after a lot of consideration, is that Tom and Barry understand that our industry is all about people. People who show up each and every day. People that just never give up. People with passion, skills and a desire to compete fairly. To run honest businesses.

By the year 2042, I will be in that photo, if I am fortunate enough to be accepted as a contributor. As an individual that cared enough to make a difference. As an innovator. More importantly, I would be fortunate to have as many friends and colleagues as both Barry and Tom.

When I look at this photo, I see my future, and the future of so many others that are working hard in our present time to make our industry amazing. We are all becoming a part of history. So I ask you, look into this photo. What do you see?

Listen and Learn. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Fast Casual Executive Summit , Franchising & Growth , Operations Management

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