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New McDonald’s boss is a fry guy

New McDonald's CEO DThompswith his grandmother. | supplied photo

New McDonald's CEO Don Thompson with his grandmother. | supplied photo

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Updated: April 24, 2012 8:19AM

Don Thompson was a pretty smart guy — at the time a designer of radar jamming systems for Northrop Corp. in Rolling Meadows.

But he didn’t understand the call he got from a corporate recruiter who talked about things a guy with an electrical engineering degree from Purdue would get excited about: robotics, control circuitry and feedback loops.

He assumed the job was with aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas.

“When should I come to St. Louis for the interview?” Thompson asked.

“St. Louis?” the recruiter asked.

“Yeah, isn’t that where McDonnell Douglas is?”

Replied the recruiter: “This is McDonald’s hamburgers.”

Well, said Thompson, “You got the wrong guy, because I’m not flipping hamburgers for anybody.”

In an interview with Black Enterprise magazine in 2007, Thompson explained he was concerned about how his grandmother would feel. Raising Thompson, she moved with him to Indianapolis when he was about 10 because she feared gang influence in his Chicago neighborhood in the 1970s. “She gave everything she had to get me into and through Purdue,” he said.

Thompson’s grandmother can relax. After 22 years at Oak Brook-based McDonald’s, her grandson was tapped this week to become CEO of the world’s largest hamburger chain — the first African American to hold the post.

Rosa Martin, 96, said Thursday she was so happy, she was crying.

“I raised him from two weeks old,” she said. “I must have done something right.”

“It is Thompson’s life mission to do what he can to help others, just as others have been committed to him,” said Katey Assem, executive director of the CSU Foundation, a nonprofit arm of Chicago State University, where Thompson has donated his time.

Assem recalled how Thompson chose a struggling student to mentor when he volunteered for a university leadership program. He helped the young man with his studies, took him to church and paid for his education.

“As a mentor, Don took the kid who was struggling,” Assem said. “He never took the kid with a 4.5 GPA or at the top of the class.”

Thompson’s efforts paid off when the student graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, the same degree that Thompson, 48, had earned at Purdue. CSU recognized Thompson last year for his mentoring work and his contributions to scholarship funds. At the event, he talked to students about the importance of faith, hard work, staying in school and listening to mentors.

Thompson has been mentored by McDonald’s current CEO, Jim Skinner, 67, who announced Wednesday that he is retiring June 30 after a 41-year career at the Golden Arches.

Thompson has moved several times as he worked his way up, got a taste of overseas markets as head of the Restaurant Systems Group and is credited with persuading franchisees to invest in McDonald’s “dollar menu” in 2002 to turn around the company after it had expanded too aggressively. Yet he is known for leveraging his analytical skills to change strategy, such as when he agreed with franchisees to take the double cheeseburger off the dollar menu and sell it for $1.19.

He was promoted to president of McDonald’s USA in 2006 and to president and chief operating officer in January 2010, overseeing 33,000 restaurants in 119 countries.

Thompson, who will become the sixth African-American CEO among today’s Fortune 500 company leaders, worked on the robotics of moving vast amounts of food throughout the McDonald’s chain. He later oversaw a test of self-service kiosks, introduced a shrimp burger in Japan and led the introduction of premium coffee.

First, though, he really did have to flip burgers. As many corporate employees do in an accelerated management program, Thompson worked at a Mickey D’s in Chicago for six months before assuming his real job.

“I turned in my suit and tie for a crew uniform,” Thompson recalled in a 2008 interview with Franchise Times. He said he was “trained by 16- and 17-year-olds on how to make french fries and Big Macs.”

He favors the chain’s salads and chicken sandwiches over the Big Macs he ate as a teen. “But I love our french fries,” he said.

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