Don Thompson Biography
Assumed Call Was from McDonnell-Douglas, Became First African-American Division Head
One of the highest-ranking African Americans in the restaurant industry, Don Thompson was named executive vice president and chief operations officer of the McDonald's USA fast-food restaurant chain early in the year 2005. That post marked a new stage of 15 years of steady advancement through the McDonald's hierarchy for Thompson, whose McDonald's career began not behind the counter of a restaurant, but on the technical side of the business. Supervising a wide variety of employees and delivering consistent results, Thompson took on a succession of regional president posts within the chain. His new post "as the first African-American chief operations officer demonstrates that McDonald's truly values diversity and understands it as an essential business driver," Reggie Webb, chair of the National Leadership Council (a McDonald's franchisee group), told Black Enterprise.
Even as he continued to spearhead technical innovations that aimed to keep McDonald's on its perch atop the fast-food sector, he kept a focus on the hands-on philosophy of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc. "Rather than have an individual who may live in one state and own restaurants in another state," Thompson told Nation's Restaurant News, "Ray's perspective always was … we don't have passive ownership. Our franchisees are all expected to work their business. We don't expect them to work over the fryer every day, but we do expect them to pitch in."
Assumed Call Was from McDonnell-Douglas
A native of Chicago, Thompson was born in 1963. He attended Purdue University in Indiana and graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. Never thinking of a career in the restaurant industry, he took a defense systems job as an engineer specialist with the Northrop Corporation in the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows. His McDonald's career began with a corporate recruiter's call—which Thompson at first assumed was from aircraft-manufacturing giant McDonnell Douglas. In 1990, Thompson went to work at McDonald's as a robotics engineer, working on the seemingly simple but actually highly sophisticated machines that move enormous volumes of food from cooler to counter every day at a typical McDonald's. His title was Restaurant Systems Engineer.
Thompson's rise within McDonald's corporate structure was quick, with promotions coming every year or two for the most part; he held 10 different positions over his first 15 years with the company. Named Project Manager in 1991, he gradually moved from dealing with robots to managing people. In 1993 he became staff director of McDonald's quality development department, and soon after that he advanced to Director of Operations for McDonald's Denver region.
From there, Thompson moved on to southern California. As Regional Vice President for chain's San Diego region, he had more than 350 McDonald's restaurants under his supervision. He served on the board of directors of the San Diego Ronald McDonald House Charities and cited Joan Kroc, wife of founder Ray Kroc, as a personal inspiration for "a giving heart and a giving spirit" that she embodied, he told Nation's Restaurant News.
Became First African-American Division Head
Returning to the Chicago area, he became Senior Vice President and Restaurant Support Officer for the company's Midwest division, and, late in the year 2000, president of that division, with more than 2,280 restaurants and 595 independent franchisees under his direction. He was the first African American to hold that post. The pick, Thompson told Sandra Guy of the Chicago Sun-Times, "shows to consumers and validates to McDonald's staff and franchisees that we support and value diversity."
When he took the post of president of McDonald's Western region in the early 2000s, the number of McDonald's for which he was responsible rose to more than 4,000, with those restaurants generating about one-third of the company's total 2003 revenues. During this period he oversaw a test of a McDonald's self-service kiosk program, with six computer screens replacing half the front counter at a Denver McDonald's. He became a very visible face within the McDonald's organization, touring the chain's outlets around the country with McDonald's USA president Mike Roberts as part of a "Spirit of America" customer service improvement tour.
McDonald's, long the unquestioned king of American fast-food retailing and also the largest restaurant chain in Japan, faced challenges during this time. Sales chainwide fell for five consecutive quarters in 2000 and 2001, with earnings 2001 registering a 15 percent drop compared with the previous year. Overseas sales fell due to fears about beef safety in the wake of England's mad cow disease scare, and a host of competitors on the fast-food and "fast casual" fronts cut into the company's American market share. Order fulfillment speed and order accuracy were both on the decline. In his next posts, Thompson had the chance to contribute to solutions for these problems.
Developed Innovations in Overseas Markets
As Innovation Orchestration Leader of McDonald's Restaurant Solutions Group, Thompson headed groups that identified new markets and trends that the chain might exploit, both in the United States and overseas. One of the most visible outcomes of Thompson's work was a new proliferation of menu items tailor-made to local tastes in McDonald's markets such as Japan, where a McDonald's shrimp burger was introduced in 2005. Thompson oversaw menu management, concept development, and research for McDonald's in the 120 countries in which the chain operated. His work showed results as McDonald's worldwide sales rose 7.9 percent in 2004, with same-store sales rising an impressive 7.1 percent.
Thompson then briefly oversaw McDonald's U.S. field operations before getting another promotion in a quick shake-up of the chain's top management necessitated by the sudden deaths of executives Charlie Bell and Jim Cantalupo. McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner pointed to Thompson's international experience when Thompson was named chief operating officer of McDonald's USA in 2005. In that position, heads of all three of McDonald's American divisions, plus those of the Restaurant Systems and U.S. Support Functions groups, reported to him. In 2005, Thompson made Black Enterprise magazine's list of the 75 most powerful blacks in corporate America—appropriate recognition for an executive with direct responsibility for what was perhaps the most recognizable line of restaurant products on the planet. A resident of Burr Ridge, Illinois, Thompson is married; he and his wife Elizabeth have two children.
Black Enterprise, February 2005; April 2005, p. 30.
Chicago Sun-Times, November 7, 2000, p. 48.
Ebony, February 2001.
Nation's Restaurant News, April 11, 2005, p. S20.
Restaurant Business, December 1, 2000, p. 15.
Rocky Mountain News, February 1, 2002, p. B6.
"Don Thompson," McDonald's, www.mcdonalds.com/corp/about/bios/don_thompson.html (October 20, 2005).
"McDonald's Names President of Midwest Division," QSR Magazine, http://www.qsrmagazine.com/shells/full.phtml?id+2622 (October 20, 2005).
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