McDonald's new CEO Thompson a study in contrasts

Sat Mar 24, 2012 4:43pm EDT
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By Lisa Baertlein

(Reuters) - Don Thompson's journey to the top spot at McDonald's Corp (MCD.N: Quote) started in front of a computer, not a deep fryer.

For many executives at McDonald's, including retiring CEO Jim Skinner, the first rung on the corporate ladder began in a restaurant -- logging long hours flipping burgers, bagging fries and manning busy drive-thru windows.

Thompson, an electrical engineer recruited in 1990 from the fighter jet maker that is now Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N: Quote), got his start designing robotic equipment for transporting food and making control circuits for cooking equipment.

People who know the man set to become McDonald's first African-American chief executive on July 1 say he possesses the relatively rare mix of social prowess and sophisticated mathematical skills.

"Don is very intelligent, he's very strategic -- and he's tactful. You don't often find tact in the people who are intelligent and strategic," said John Kendall, a Chicago patent attorney who met Thompson at an event for the historic black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha when they were attending neighboring colleges, and also worked with him at Northrop.

As the new chief of the world's biggest fast-food chain, Thompson, 48, faces the challenge of adding to nearly nine years of sales gains at established restaurants. Wall Street gives him high marks for overseeing the successful U.S. McCafe roll-out of lattes, frappes and other beverages. He also flexed his operational muscle in various U.S. roles along his path, measuring store performance with an engineer's zeal and using the resulting statistics to tweak operations.

But some investors worry that Thompson, who has never had an international posting, is taking the helm at a time when the company's overseas business has never been more important. McDonald's faces a potential slowdown in debt-troubled Europe, the company's biggest market for sales, and is pushing to grow in places like China, where rival Yum Brands Inc YUM.N has a big lead.

"He just doesn't have as diverse of a set of experiences as some of his predecessors," said Janna Sampson, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments, who has met Thompson. However, she said the company's deep management bench likely would compensate: "I'm not troubled to the point where I would get out of the stock."   Continued...

A U.S. flags flutters in the wind in front of a sign for a McDonald's restaurant in Los Angeles April 4, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni