Remarkable Careers that Began at McDonald's
Each year McDonald’s teaches hundreds of thousands of young men and women—some of whom will become tomorrow’s leaders—basic business principles and work habits that will stay with them the rest of their lives. In her new book, McDonald's executive Cody Teets, who started out as one of those young people, turns a popular misconception upside down with overwhelming evidence—stories of people who began flipping burgers and went on to excel in a variety of fields and professions. Their journeys remind us that every success story begins with that a first “real” job.
Cody Teets, author
Profiles (chronological by hire date)
"Great leaders know they’re in the spotlight all the time and constantly act as role models."
Lester Stein was one of the first hires a month or so after the April 15, 1955 opening of the first restaurant in the McDonald’s System, Inc. (predecessor of today’s McDonald’s Corporation) in Des Plaines, Illinois. Nearly six decades later, the lessons he learned are the same ones being taught each year to hundreds of thousands of new McDonald’s crew members. Lester’s feeling like part of a team is a sentiment expressed by every one of the people interviewed for this book. It is remarkable how far the company has come from those early years, when only men could work in the restaurants. Lester met his wife, Joanne, because of his job at McDonald’s. In July 2012, McDonald’s agreed to host the Steins’ fiftieth wedding anniversary at the museum that now stands at the site of the original restaurant.
"At fifteen, you’re not really exposed to the world and dealing with people like Ray Kroc—I never had to please anybody like that before—you grow up quick."
Jim McGovern worked in the first McDonald’s System restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois. Lester started at age fifteen and had the unusual experience of learning the business directly from founder Ray Kroc. That’s an impressionable time of life, which may explain the passion with which he talks today about the many interactions he had with Ray and what he learned from them. Two of the lessons that guided him in his later career as a supervisor in the electrical industry are timeless yet challenging to implement: no detail is too small; and being honest with superiors when you find yourself in over your head is better than trying to fake your way through.
"Dignity came from what you did, not where you worked."
Team building is a core concept in business today. Back when Phil Rosner worked at a McDonald’s for a summer, no one had to explain it or put a name on it. He went on to become an industrial psychologist, helping large corporations solve problems like team building, and he often drew upon what he learned on a McDonald’s crew to do it. While working on that crew, he discovered that he enjoyed working with people, which influenced his decision to choose a career helping others. The discipline he learned helped him get through graduate school.
"I was only nineteen years old and already managing a busy restaurant."
Frank Sandoval is the first person in the book (chronologically) who started as crew and ended up being an owner/operator. As of this writing, his company owns fourteen restaurants in Colorado—two of them owned by his older son. He is noteworthy for being one of the first franchisees of Hispanic heritage and one of the youngest when he started. He comes from a modest background and is a great example of a group represented by many others in the book who achieved a remarkable degree of success starting from an entry-level position.
"Promoting from within is a lesson I took with me from McDonald’s to The Tonight Show."
There are many celebrities whose first real job was under the Golden Arches, but Jay Leno may be the most recognizable. Like others of lesser fame who have gone on to successful careers in other fields, Jay connects the dots from the experiences he had as a teenager with his career path and even his management philosophy. And, of course, he tells a few good stories.
"They wouldn’t let him operate the register, so he bought the restaurant."
A college student at Howard University, Hank Thomas volunteered in 1961 to become a Freedom Rider, engaging in civil disobedience protests against segregated public facilities throughout the South and very nearly getting himself killed by vigilantes. Then he earned a Purple Heart as a medic in the Vietnam War. Given a chance to prove himself at a McDonald’s restaurant in Washington, DC, he went on to build a family business that has included multiple McDonald’s franchises. Today he is celebrated as a hero of the civil rights movement.
"McDonald’s was a great equalizer—wealthy and poor, black and white stood in the same lines and sat at the same booths."
Andrew Card was a young husband, father, and college student when he began his three years working at a McDonald’s in Columbia, South Carolina. Being slightly older and more settled than most of the crew, he fell into a leadership role. He enjoyed mentoring and serving as an example for others, along the way teaching a young man a surprising lesson about integrity. He recalls developing instincts that served him well in his career, including five and a half years in the White House as President George W. Bush’s chief of staff. Card would later say that running the White House was like working a fast-food counter during a lunch hour rush that never ends.
"Decent work is never beneath anybody."
To be successful in the restaurant business, it helps to have a flair for dealing with many different kinds of people. That proved to be good training for Marcia Fudge in her later career in public service. After getting her law degree, she served as a prosecutor, county finance official, mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, and went on to represent the Eleventh District of Ohio in Congress.
"Each of the owner/operators I worked for influenced me in a significant way, beyond making hamburgers and dollars and cents."
Don Armstrong’s story is one of unusual focus and persistence. He decided in high school he wanted to own a McDonald’s franchise. It took him a decade and he met his share of obstacles along the way but refused to be dissuaded from his dreams. Today he owns one of the largest restaurant groups in the McDonald’s system.
"We are always developing our people and moving them up the ladder, creating the next generation of leaders."
Steve Plotkin started his journey forty-three years ago with no particular plan in mind, assuming one day he’d get a “real job.” Today he has one—president of the West Division, responsible for nearly 4,300 restaurants and 647 franchisees covering six geographic regions in sixteen states, with about $9 billion in annual sales. That kind of continuity is rare in business but common at McDonald’s. Steve in particular is known for developing and promoting people through the ranks.
"Seeing McDonald’s on the resumes of applicants would be a huge plus."
Most of the people whose stories are collected here initially worked at McDonald’s with no agenda other than to earn an honest dollar for an honest day’s work. Drew Nieporent had a very specific agenda. He was interested in the restaurant business at a young age and wanted to see how a McDonald’s worked. He went on to become a restaurant impresario, founding a group of three dozen high-end restaurants around the world, including New York’s Tribeca Grill, which he co-owns with actor Robert De Niro.
"It may have been Filet-O-Fish and fries at the time, but when it became filet mignon and roasted garlic mashed potatoes, the lesson was the same: it had to be hot, and it had to represent your best effort."
What can you learn flipping burgers that would be useful in an award-winning gourmet restaurant? Andrew Dornenburg says he learned a lot about teamwork and how to manage people under stressful conditions. In addition to being a noted chef, he’s written a number of popular books including his best-selling Becoming a Chef, winner of the James Beard Book Award, and Dining Out.
"Working at McDonald’s was my independence—the freedom of not having to ask anybody for money."
One of the things about McDonald’s that people rarely hear of is that many franchisees have given people down on their luck a chance to get back on their feet. Sometimes it works, and sometimes, as in the case of Andie MacDowell’s mother, it doesn’t. But life has a way of presenting opportunities where there is a crisis, and Andie made the most of her high school experience at McDonald’s. Hers is a story that is both sad and inspiring.
"One of my biggest challenges is keeping alive in my children the family tradition of working as hard as you can to take advantage of the opportunity we have had."
Ana Madan was an infant when her family fled Fidel Castro’s regime after he seized power in Cuba in 1959. They arrived in Miami where her parents encountered their first McDonald’s and saw an opportunity to create a stable future for their displaced family. Ana’s parents scraped by while creating new lives and working toward their entrepreneurial dreams. Her father ended up buying a McDonald’s restaurant and in 1986 she became a franchisee herself. Today, she is an owner/operator of multiple restaurants in New Jersey and, with her father, is a leader in the Hispanic business community.
"The day I came home with a bigger paycheck than my stepfather’s, he changed his tune. 'Wow! You really can make a career out of this.'"
Ed Sanchez was born just before Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959. He arrived in Miami when he was eight with his mother, two sisters, and the clothes they were wearing—nothing more. His remarkable career took him all the way from crew member to corporate officer, overseeing the Canada and Latin America markets. Then he switched hats and became CEO of one of McDonald’s major suppliers.
"My experiences at McDonald’s have translated into almost anything I’ve done."
Long before he became an engineer, a scientist, and an astronaut, Dr. Leroy Chiao had an analytical appreciation for the well-thought-out system for cooking and serving food at his first job at a McDonald’s in California. He went on to apply the skills he learned there and later to master three languages, earn several degrees, join NASA, and spend 229 days in space, thirty-six of which he was outside the space station. The same principles that make a successful restaurant crew apply in most any setting, he says, and certainly when flying a space mission.
"Do good when no one else is watching because you never know where your blessings are going to come from."
James Collins grew up in Cleveland where he was urged as a young man to get a good union job, only to discover the downside of factory work when the factories began to close. He found his calling in the McDonald’s system. Today he is a corporate officer. His journey was aided by mentors in the company who saw more in him than he saw in himself. He also credits networking with other African-American McDonald’s employees to learn how to navigate a corporate world his parents and grandparents had never known.
"The day I came home and told my father I got promoted to manager, he beamed with pride. 'You’ve really made it. You’re a success!.'"
From growing up on the dangerous streets of the South Bronx in the 1970s to being one of the top officers of McDonald’s USA, Rick Colón describes his career as a pinch-me experience. He expresses amazement at the opportunities he’s had and the opportunities that others like him have enjoyed. His story illustrates what companies like McDonald’s represented to inner-city communities at that time, and his career has tracked big changes in Hispanic culture. He even got to meet Ray Kroc, under most unusual circumstances.
"I learned to hire people who are different from me, who have different skills, and yes, who are more intelligent than I am. I make better decisions as a result."
In April 2011, McDonald’s held an event called National Hiring Day, during which some 50,000 people were projected to be recruited at some 14,000 restaurants across the country, all on one day. When it was over, 62,000 had been hired. The event was organized by Danitra Barnett, vice president of human resources for McDonald’s USA. Her journey is remarkable. She started out flipping burgers in Detroit and worked her way up despite many obstacles. She had the courage to insist on following the path she felt was best even though others had charted another course for her.
"Had it not been for the kind words of a stranger, my career might have been quite different."
It would be hard to imagine a career as remarkable as that of Jan Fields. Starting out on crew working at the front counter, she discovered her calling—making people happy—and began her rise through the ranks. Thirty-two years later, in January 2010, she was named president of McDonald’s USA, overseeing about 14,000 restaurants employing more than 800,000 employees. Jan’s journey has inspired many other women in the business world, and she has made it a point to mentor individuals along the way.
"There is no such thing as a dead-end job. It’s what you take away from it that adds value."
Carla Harris credits the sales skills she developed working behind the counter as a young woman with helping her land a job on Wall Street. Today she is a managing director at Morgan Stanley, and in her spare time is a recording artist, motivational author, and speaker. She is a gospel singer who has performed at Carnegie Hall. Among the skills she said she learned on crew, listening to customers has been one of the most valuable.
"My grandfather would often talk to me about America and the opportunity it offered anyone who worked hard."
Leo Lopez, son of Cuban émigrés, worked at a McDonald's in Miami from high school through college. He decided to pursue a career in banking, only to find himself lured back to become an owner/operator. Like many other franchisees, Leo has purchased, grown, and sold multiple locations. He has been involved for many years with the McDonald’s Hispanic Operators Association.
"The culture of the company and the attitude of America is that where you came from doesn’t define who you are."
Imagine being plucked out of the world you know today and dropped into the middle of Mumbai, India, not knowing the language and living on a student’s budget. That’s about what Ajay Patel experienced coming to America from Mumbai at the age of eighteen. He looked and felt out of place, was bewildered by culture shock, and wanted to go home. Two people reached out to him just when he needed it—a neighbor and later the manager of a McDonald’s. Today, he is an owner/operator in Louisiana with an only-in-America story to tell.
"If I were in college admissions, I would have a lot more respect for a person who had punched a clock, gotten a little dirty, and learned how to rotate stock than someone who had a glamorous internship."
One of the threads weaving itself through these stories is nostalgia for a work ethic that seems to have fallen out of favor. This has been a frequent topic for radio talk show host and MSNBC political commentator Michael Smerconish. He has spoken and written about his experiences working on crew at a restaurant in his hometown in suburban Philadelphia. Among his observations is the irony that McDonald’s has to recruit help when so many young people are sitting at home out of work.
"Just like working on crew at a restaurant, at the Ronald McDonald House it’s a team effort. If you’re walking down the hall and you see that somebody needs something, you pitch in."
Many crew members move up into the ranks of management, a few of those become owner/operators, and a small number become vendors. Mindy Bloom’s journey is unique because it began when she was a child meeting Ronald McDonald, continued when she worked on crew, then later for a vendor, and came full circle when she became development director of the Ronald McDonald House in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The powerful story she shares here about a little girl named Serena illustrates why so many are passionate about Ronald McDonald House Charities.
"I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t learning something new."
Not only did working with a diverse group of people help Diana Thomas overcome her teenaged shyness, she also discovered she had a talent for teaching. She worked for many years in recruiting, human resources, and then training. Today, she is vice president of training, learning, and development for McDonald’s USA. Her team runs Hamburger University, the company’s eighty-acre training facility in Oak Brook, Illinois, which has been the model for similar training facilities in England, Germany, China, Japan, Australia, and Brazil.
"Shoot for the moon. Even if you fall short, you will land among the stars."
The author's first real job was at a hot dog stand across the street from a McDonald's, when she was fourteen years old. Like many of the people in her book, she grew up in modest circumstances with a strong work ethic that has guided her from flipping burgers to her present position as vice president and general manager of the company's Rocky Mountain region, responsible for nearly 800 restaurants.
"You learn a lot as a teenager working at McDonald’s. It’s different from what you learn in school. Don’t underestimate the value of that!"
One of his oft-repeated quotes, about learning how to crack eggs when he worked at a McDonald’s in Miami, seems prescient—the single most important component of Jeff Bezos’ business is moving things quickly from seller to customer without damaging them. A little-known fact—his father, Miguel “Mike” Bezos, who emigrated from Cuba when he was fifteen, also worked at a McDonald’s when he was a teenager.
"People have to learn to be successful. You have to help them understand how they can take an average job and turn it into an opportunity."
After working for McDonald’s for twenty-five years and rising to become senior executives, Bridgett Freeman and her husband, Bruce, both had successful careers on the corporate side when they decided to become owner/operators in 2007. Their journey is unusual because they met and married as employees and because they chose to give up the benefits of a stable corporate income to become entrepreneurs.
"I learned from being a restaurant manager to be persistent and consistent. There are no shortcuts and no mysteries to it."
In the spring of 1982, a fifteen-year-old Venezuelan girl stopped in at a McDonald’s in Virginia to see if she could get some part-time work where she could save for college. The remarkable career that followed took her around the world and up the ladder to one of the most complex jobs in the company—in charge of global training and executive development for 2.5 million employees working in 30,000 restaurants located in more than one hundred countries. Today, she is an entrepreneur, running her own consulting firm working with Fortune 500 companies to help them develop their talent into top producers and leaders.
"Parents who bring their kids into our restaurants are often surprised when we don’t automatically hire everybody who walks in."
Susan Singleton found more than most at McDonald's—a career, a business, a husband, and a leadership role in guiding the future of the company and its 2,300 US owner/operator groups. Like many others, she has a story to tell about a stranger who stepped in to help her husband and her at just the right moment, saving the day. Who stepped in and how that gesture has influenced so many other lives is just one of the inspiring aspects of her career. Today, she and her husband own six restaurants in the Chicago area and Susan is an officer of the National Leadership Council, a group that represents the interests of franchisees who are working with McDonald’s corporation.
"For a long time, no one ever knew about my humble beginnings. Now it’s something I like to tell people."
Laurieann Gibson, daughter of Jamaican immigrants to Canada, was a young dance student who saw in the running of a restaurant a kind of choreographed ballet. Many of the lessons she says she learned as a crew member helped her achieve her phenomenal success. She is an internationally acclaimed choreographer for the biggest stars in the music world—most notably Lady Gaga—and a star herself: an award-winning performer, composer of movement, and director. Like actress Andie MacDowell, Laurieann saved her earnings to buy a bus ticket to New York, where her remarkable career took off.
"I learned that success meant being the person who requires the least managing. It’s what I teach my officers, my Marines, and the people I work with."
McDonald’s is often compared to a military organization because it is managed in a structured way with clear chains of command and consistent procedures. On his way to a successful career as a Marine officer, Mike Grice says much of what he learned about working in a high-pressure environment, being a good crew member, and being an inspiring manager was directly applicable in his professional life. Those lessons served him well during his tours of duty in Afghanistan, where he had to coordinate his unit with multiple coalition partners.
"The biggest lesson I learned about being a good leader was that it’s not about me, it’s about the team."
Wendy Clark was curious, driven, and competitive, and what she learned at McDonald’s has served her well. Today, she is a senior marketing executive with The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, overseeing global design, content, media connections, and interactive marketing. She has twice been featured in Fortune magazine’s 40 Under 40 profiles of up-and-coming executives and named one of its four Women to Watch.
"It’s not about the burgers and fries anymore. It’s about changing and enriching people’s lives."
Stephanie Oliver-Green is a second-generation franchisee whose father bought his first restaurant in Chicago in 1979. She shared some unforgettable stories about how she has used her position as a business woman and employer to help individuals who were down on their luck. “Mama,” as she has come to be known, demonstrates in action the family feeling that so many people talk about when they recall their experiences. As disciplined as one has to be to work, manage, or own a McDonald’s restaurant, Stephanie has taken risks and, in doing so, changed lives.
"I’m going to show them what I can do."
One of the success stories I am most proud to have helped facilitate is the career of Kyong Kapalczynski, a South Korean native who came to the US as the wife of an American soldier. She knew very little English. Her first American meal was a McDonald’s cheeseburger and she decided that’s where she wanted to work. When I met her, she was struggling to make the leap from restaurant manager to owner/operator. Her journey is the story of so many new Americans who cope with language, prejudice, and economic challenges, yet manage to flourish in the fertile soil of American capitalism. Today she owns four restaurants in Missoula, Montana.
"No matter what you want to do in life, you’ve got put all your effort into it."
The Hairston family boasts the most members to have played in major and minor league baseball. Jerry Hairston, Jr.’s, grandfather, father, brother, and uncle have all been professionals, giving Jerry Jr. the additional distinction of being the first African-American to be a third generation major-leaguer. His father insisted he get a job and experience what it’s like to work hard. That’s how Jerry ended up at a McDonald’s, where he learned a couple of lessons that helped him in his career.
"Life is full of roadblocks. The challenge is figuring out how to clear those roadblocks, but there is always a way."
Alma Anguiano’s story is one of the most dramatic in this collection—she entered the US as an infant from Mexico; grew up in a neighborhood of Los Angeles that was so rough she was afraid to go to school; became the first in her large family to earn a college degree; and is today a successful human resources executive with McDonald’s in California, working with the owner/operators of more than 550 restaurants. Her incredible journey is an affirmation of the American dream and the portrait of a young girl who learned to become a leader in her family before she was even an adult.
"As big as McDonald’s is, you get a feeling that it’s a very large family."
Almost all the people profiled here first encountered McDonald’s as teens, but there are those who come to work for the company as adults with professional experience elsewhere. For those of us who have been on the inside looking out most of our lives, it’s interesting to hear how their experiences differ from their expectations. Karen Wells thought she knew what McDonald’s was all about when she came calling as a potential vendor. Instead of a sale, she walked away with a job that led to playing a pivotal role in one the company’s most important initiatives and the chance to work with the White House and First Lady Michelle Obama.
"Being a franchisee is like being a small-business owner but at the same time being part of a global brand."
Almost a third of the people who own and operate McDonald’s restaurants today are second-generation franchisees and the number is rising. This trend was the subject of a front page Wall Street Journal article in March, 2012, featuring among others Travis Heriaud and his father, Lee, who own twelve restaurants in the Phoenix area. Although he was the son of an owner, Travis had to go through the same rigorous multi-year process as anyone else does to be approved as a franchisee. One of his most interesting observations is that young people’s perceptions of working in a quick-service restaurant like McDonald’s are much more positive than you’d expect.
"I could go work in any industry in any business and succeed just because of the skills and the foundation that McDonald’s has taught me."
The perception that working at McDonald’s requires little skill and is a dead-end job has been a deeply personal issue for Charles Broughton. As a child and young adult, he often felt he had to defend the fact that his father worked for McDonald’s, even when he was a supervisor and later a director of operations. Charles grew up in the business but still had to establish his own credentials, which he did while still in his twenties. Today, not quite thirty years old, he is a supervisor responsible for six restaurants in Massachusetts and a change agent: he introduced an innovative marketing idea that caught the attention of senior management.
"It isn’t all about the numbers, it’s also about what you bring to the table."
This twenty-five-year-old manages four busy restaurants with over 200 employees and more than $10 million in annual sales. She has been ranked in the top one percent of all McDonald’s USA managers. If you are the parent of a sixteen-year-old who is overwhelmed by her first job, you will want to make sure she reads Majasyn’s story because she was overwhelmed by hers, too.
"You can pursue a dream at whatever stage of life you’re in."
There are many McDonald's stories about managers and owners who extended a helping hand to someone who needed it. Eddie Davenport was the beneficiary of such an act by a manager in Michigan who was able to look past his blindness and find a productive role for him. By itself, it’s a heartwarming story. But what happened to Eddie in the Voice of McDonald’s competition really put the icing on the cake.
"All the people at McDonald’s treated me like family and told me if I ever needed anything, they would be there."
How is it possible for someone to have a remarkable career one year after they first started working at McDonald’s? Fatima Poggi was a young Peruvian-born girl who loved to sing but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to buy her first car and that’s what brought her to McDonald’s. When her owner/operator found out why she was taking so much time off—for singing engagements—he encouraged her to enter the company’s international Voice of McDonald’s competition. She did, and ended up one of twelve semi-finalists out of more than 10,000 entries. Now she has a recording contract and a very bright future as a Latina pop star.