Former CEO Fred Turner worked to build McDonald’s from earliest days
By Stefano Esposito and David Roeder Staff Reporters January 8, 2013 7:13AM
This photo provided by McDonald's shows the former McDonald's CEO Fred L. Turner. Turner, who helped expand the fast-food chain's global footprint and spearheaded the creation of "Hamburger University" died Thursday, Jan. 8, 2013, after suffering complications from pneumonia, the company said. He was 80 years old. (AP Photo/McDonald's)
Updated: February 10, 2013 5:50PM
One of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc’s original employees in 1956, Fred L. Turner went on to become CEO of the world’s best-known fast-food restaurant chain, overseeing much of company’s global expansion and spearheading the creation of McDonald’s Hamburger University.
Mr. Turner died Monday from complications from pneumonia. He was 80.
“Fred’s contributions to McDonald’s are immeasurable,” said Don Thompson, McDonald’s president and CEO. “For more than 50 years, he was dedicated to operations excellence, training and developing a great-tasting menu. He worked side-by-side with Ray to open clean, welcoming restaurants where families could enjoy a high-quality meal and special time together.”
In 1956, Mr. Turner was fresh from a two-year Army stint when he called on Kroc, thinking he might set him up with a franchise. Instead, Mr. Turner took a job behind the counter at Kroc’s original Des Plaines restaurant and worked his way up from there.
In the early days of the company, Mr. Turner could often be found working alongside employees in the restaurants, teaching new hires the McDonald’s approach to preparing and serving fast food. Only two years after his arrival, Mr. Turner wrote the first “operations and training manual,” which is still the blueprint for McDonald’s restaurant operations.
In 1961, Mr. Turner led the effort to create McDonald’s Hamburger University, where employees, managers and franchisees are trained. There are now seven universities globally, including one in Oak Brook, which was renamed the Fred L. Turner Training Center in 2004.
Mr. Turner became president and chief administrative officer in 1968, and then CEO in 1974, holding that post until 1987. He was chairman from 1977 until 1990, but remained a strong force in the company as senior chairman.
In 1997, McDonald’s, then struggling with a slump in U.S. sales, turned to Mr. Turner to invigorate operations and improve relations with franchisees.
“His real contribution was the discipline he established in these restaurants in terms of efficiency, how we make money and the controls involved,” said Paul Schrage, longtime chief marketing officer at McDonald’s who worked with Mr. Turner for 30 years.
“It meant that you scraped the ketchup can, you counted the pieces of cheese. Back when we were selling hamburgers for 15 cents, there wasn’t much margin for error,” Schrage said.
Mr. Turner also was an architect for McDonald’s international expansion, said Michael Quinlan, former chairman and CEO at the company who succeeded him in those roles.
“I considered him an inspirational leader who demonstrated a willingness to take chances. I was able to take many lessons from Fred’s playbook to help me in my tenure as CEO,” Quinlan said.
Mr. Turner more than tripled the number of restaurants while he was CEO. He also co-founded and served as a life trustee of the Ronald McDonald House Charities, dedicated to serving families of critically ill children.
He retired in 2004, when he became honorary chairman, but he kept an office at the company’s Oak Brook headquarters, and employees often saw him visiting the test kitchen.
An early advocate of corporate diversity, Mr. Turner launched in the 1970s the McDonald’s Women’s Leadership Network, which has increased the percentage of company executives who are female.
Mr. Turner had a wide range of interests beyond his work life. He and his late wife, Patty, were avid music lovers, and he was a significant supporter of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
He also was active in efforts to honor veterans, leading campaigns to create aircraft exhibits at O’Hare and Midway airports as lasting tributes to those who fought in World War II.
Mr. Turner’s survivors include three daughters: Paula Turner, Patty Sue (Bob) Rhea, Teri Turner; and eight grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Friday at Patty Turner Senior Center, 375 Elm St., Deerfield. A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 724 Elder Lane, Deerfield.