Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Remembering Fred Turner

Everyone who’s made a dollar from chain restaurants should bow their heads in respect for the industry founding father who died yesterday without the tributes paid to the likes of Col. Harland Sanders, Dave Thomas or Ray Kroc. Yet Fred Turner could walk with all those giants. As a longtime head of McDonald’s and the godfather of its unflinching devotion to operations, he set a standard for the business. It’s not an overstatement to say he changed the way America eats.

Even those of us greybeards who were in the business during Turner’s tenure as McDonald’s CEO (1977 through ’87) didn’t have as much exposure to him as we did to, say, Jim Turner, Jack Greenburg, Ed Rensi or some of the other McDonald’s chiefs. But we knew the legend: He’d been Ray Kroc’s grill man, according to the lore, the force who’d been hired by Kroc himself in 1956 to standardize the operations that enabled McDonald’s to sell a consistent burger for 15 cents.

Knowing how to run restaurants propelled him to the president’s post at McDonald’s in 1968, which says a lot about the company’s DNA, and its view of operations in particular. Turner would remain in a leadership role until 2004, and executives said they’d still talk to him from time to time, for inspiration if not practical advice.

Trying to isolate his influence on the McDonald’s of today is like trying to tell which water in the Mississippi River came from its eastern side. The watchwords he coined for the chain are still part of the mantra uttered by everyone in the chain, from CEO to crewmember, to keep the brand focused on operations and execution: Quality, Service, and Cleanliness.

His focus on operations led to the opening of Hamburger University, the Olympic Training Center of restaurant operations. Today, every franchised chain has a training facility or program for is field partners. But McDonald’s was ahead of the pack, as it was with international development. Today, Hamburger U. has seven campuses worldwide, including the Fred L. Turner Training Center at headquarters.

I never had the experience of interviewing Turner one-on-one, but I did get the chance to interact with him at the press conferences McDonald’s would sort of hold at headquarters after its annual shareholders meeting. We ink-stained wretches would wait around, not knowing if we’d actually get some time with Turner and his senior team, or how long the session might last.  I once naively asked a member of McDonald’s PR team when the session would begin and end. He looked at me as if to say, Kid, it’ll start when Fred Turner’s ready, and it’ll finish when Fred Turner wants to go.

Turner showed a few minutes later, and, sure enough, after answering a few questions, he abruptly stood up, grabbed his cigarettes, and walked out.

Hey, he was an operations guy, a restaurateur with ketchup in his veins, not some glad-handing schmoozer who loved the limelight.  He may not have been the sort of high-gloss CEO we see today leading companies of McDonald’s size, but he was a restaurant guy, maybe one of the greatest the industry has ever known. Everyone in the business is poorer for his passing.

Turner died yesterday at age 80 of complications from pneumonia. 

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