The retirement of Jim Skinner two weeks ago as CEO of McDonald’s drops the curtain on one of the greatest shows of leadership the industry has ever known. Skinner took the brand when it was struggling, after the two first picks of the board had died or been disabled by a terminal disease, and led it to a success that would have been hailed in the best of times. His backdrop was an economic meltdown unequaled since the Great Depression.
And, true to McDonald’s form, Skinner leaves the company in the capable hands of Don Thompson, a living example of Big Mac’s deep, deep bench.
But his retirement ends an era for the restaurant industry as well, as I was reminded in putting together a story on standout restaurant executives who served in the military first. Skinner may be the last example the business sees of an individual who climbed to the loftiest perches in the restaurant industry without a college degree.
Yep, Jim didn’t have a copy of his diploma because he didn’t get one. He took some business classes along the way, and was an officer in the Navy, which means he underwent the service’s formal training for high leadership posts. But, despite its obvious smarts, he didn’t have a sheepskin.
There are a few more examples elsewhere in the business, but they lead chains that aren’t near the scale of McDonald’s. Jimmy John Liautaud, the Jimmy John of Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, famously chose the start-up of a sandwich shop over attending college or entering the service, the three career choices his father gave him. As Liautaud explained during a seminar at the National Restaurant Association convention in May, he wanted to drink beer and smoke pot, so he opted for business. And he succeeded because of smarts, hard work, and the willingness to take a risk.
Still, Jimmy John’s is no McDonald’s.
There are plenty of other entrepreneurs who stepped off the traditional high school/college/career track and found an alternative to their liking in the restaurant business. Maybe their ventures will someday grow to the size of a McDonald’s.
Indeed, that was a common story in the business at one time. Knowledge of the business’ nitty-gritty was more important than a degree, even when a peaked-cap uniform was traded for an executive’s suit.
But, as the industry is discovering, the infiltration of private-equity companies and the greater militancy of stock buyers are making years spent at a fry station look far less essential for a restaurant CEO than an MBA.
The entrepreneur may be the one who midwifes an idea, but then professional managers take over. Certainly that takes some color out of the business. But is that the only toll it takes?