McDonald's CEO Jill McDonald: 'McJob is insulting, it really hits my button'

Forty years after it came to Britain, the McDonalds UK boss talks nutrition, McJobs and de-Americanising the brand.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 03 May 2017

Two days before I am due to interview McDonald's UK's chief executive, 2,000 workers and activists marched on the fast food chain's US headquarters, demanding the company raise their minimum wage pay by more than double.

More than 100 people were arrested amid chants of 'Hey, McDonald's, you can't hide, we can see your greedy side' and 'No Big Macs, no big fries, make our wages Supersize'.

My editor warns me to be prepared for a pullout, but cold feet are nowhere to be seen. Jill McDonald (the late, great Wally Olins couldn't have come up with a more perfectly branded businessperson) is cool, confident and firmly on-message: McDonald's has its mojo back.

Any McDonald's executive still needs to be thick-skinned and well versed, as controversy is never far away. If it's not Stateside burger flippers being clapped in irons, it's zero hours contracts.

However, they pale in comparison with the 10-year 'McLibel' case against two environmental activists who dished out scaremongering leaflets in the mid-1980s (McDonald's declined to accept the £60,000 in damages a High Court judge finally awarded it in 1997).

Or with Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser's polemical investigation into the US industry published at the turn of the century, and Super Size Me, the 2004 documentary of Morgan Spurlock's 30-day, all-American McDonald's diet.

Fast-forward 10 years and it's not just McDonald who has a spring in her step. The chain, both globally and in the UK, seems to have recovered from years of being dragged down by the scandals.

'At the heart of it, we lost sight of the customer,' McDonald says, sat at a dazzlingly white table in her office overlooking the leafy hills of Finchley in north London.

'The company sort of went: "Ooohh. We know you're wrong. We're not bad, we're good,"' she cringes theatrically, affecting a nervous stage whisper. '(McDonald's) closed in on itself, rather than stepping forward and engaging with detractors and getting our side of the story out.'

McDonald's flip from 'it' to 'we' and 'our' is rather apt, given she joined the company in 2006 to head marketing, following a 16-year stint at British Airways. Soon afterwards, under former UK chief executive Steve Easterbrook, the chain decided its millions were being wasted trying to persuade yummy-mummies to treat their little darlings to a Happy Meal. It was about accepting, as McDonald admits without prompting: 'We are a polarising brand and will remain so to some people.'

Deciding to engage with its fans, rather than attempting to win over the chattering classes was 'a hugely significant moment', says McDonald, who was promoted to UK boss in 2010.

And, she adds, focusing on what Big Mac lovers want has had a rather handy 'byproduct': McDonald's British customer base has grown, even through the recession (helped by having emerged unscathed from last year's horsemeat scandal - not a hoof in site in a Happy Meal).

The numbers, which McDonald reels off with a practised, almost poetic rhythm, are undoubtedly impressive: three million Brits eat under the golden arches every day, while 80% of families and 70% of adults munch on a Maccy D at least once a year. McDonald's is also once again 'creaking at the seams in some restaurants', after opening a few too many in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Around £95m a year is being spent on opening new restaurants and expanding and upgrading current ones, both out front and in the kitchens. Drive-thrus will form the majority of the 25 to 30 restaurants opening annually over the next few years and already make up 65% of McDonald's 1,200 sites across the country.

Mobile ordering, interactive kiosks and the like could also soon be coming to McDonald's, which was the first UK fast-food chain to offer free Wi-Fi. McDonald responds sparingly when asked how much she is planning to invest in new technology: 'Genuine answer - not a weasel answer - don't know yet. I haven't had my budgets approved.'

She isn't running scared of mobile takeaway platform Just Eat and the like, though - or anyone for that matter. 'The opportunities I see for our business remain grounded in being pretty much the only drive-thru in the UK,' McDonald says firmly. 'Businesses can't be everywhere and everything. I want to play to the strengths that we've got.'

Part of that play has been a visible de-Americanising of the brand in Britain. Gone are the brash Yanks and cheap and cheerful decor, in are reassuring northerners and lots of pale green and wood. 'Softening is quite a good word,' McDonald muses, although she points out the new restaurants are actually French-designed and can be found across Europe.

The once ubiquitous Ronald McDonald appears to have been pensioned off too, although McDonald claims the clown is still sent for on occasion. 'The role of Ronald is very different around the world. We do a lot of research with Ronald,' she adds in a conspiratorial half-whisper. 'And for the UK, he works best when he is entertaining kids in restaurants and putting on magic shows.'

One of the messages McDonald is keenest to drill home is that the ultimate all-American multinational still gives her the freedom 'to innovate to be locally relevant', both in the UK and in Scandinavia, Ireland, Luxembourg and Germany, the other markets she is responsible for as president of McDonald's north-west division.

'We went to our global convention about three weeks ago and I presented on stage to 14,000 people to tell the UK story, which was brilliant. And that was one of those moments where you went, whoa, this is a big brand and a big business.

'When you walk around this building it feels like a British company.' McDonald confers with her comms director and they agree there aren't any Americans working in the office at the moment. 'I go into the German business or the Norwegian business and it will feel different, it will feel Norwegian.'

As eager as she is to talk about local relevance and the fun of getting to try out different country menus, McDonald refuses to be drawn on the brand's problems in Germany. McDonald's 2013 annual report blamed 'negative results' in its largest market in Europe for flat like-for-like sales across the continent, while its Europe president, Doug Goare, recently admitted frugal Germans were punishing the chain for ditching its EUR1 cheeseburger at the end of 2012.

'I really don't want to get drawn into a diagnostic on the German situation,' McDonald says tersely, when pressed on it, exchanging a knowing glance with her comms chief. 'Let's focus back on the UK.'

The 40th anniversary of McDonald's opening its first British branch in Woolwich in south-east London is what McDonald and her team want to celebrate and, after 34 consecutive quarters of sales growth in the UK, you can't really blame them.

A report the company commissioned to commemorate the milestone found it had contributed £40bn to the British economy over that time. 'It sounds too convenient, but it is true,' McDonald says. And the company coughed up £42m in corporation tax in 2012. Starbucks infamously paid just £8.6m between 1998 and 2012.

McDonald had been quoted in interviews from a few years ago saying the recession had meant more people coming to McDonald's for a treat, drawn in by value for money. Now that the economy has improved, is that trend reversing?

'One of the legacies of the recession is that people's perception of value has been sharpened and calibrated,' she says. 'You would assume perhaps McDonald's more expensive recipes were the ones that didn't do so well in the recession - but it was the opposite. The fastest-growing sales line for us has been the premium burgers over the past couple of years.'

Ah, burgers. McDonald's has drawn in the commuting classes in recent years with cheap, surprisingly decent lattes and cappuccinos, of which it sells more than 100 million every year, and snack-sized wraps. Nonetheless, the Big Mac remains and reigns supreme.

'Absolutely, burgers will remain front and centre of the menu,' McDonald says emphatically. 'Trying to be a salad company - that's not who we are or what we do.'

The health question still hangs over fast food, though. 'Our role is to provide choice on our menu, to help customers choose what's right for them,' McDonald responds. 'Our role is not to be Nanny, or Mum and Dad, and tell you what you should do. Customers really don't like that.'

Anti-paternalistic McDonald may be, but the chain was the first to introduce nutritional information in its restaurants, back in the 1980s. It is also continuing to make recipes healthier, she says, citing Happy Meals, which have 50% less salt and a third less sugar than in 2000.

That has to be done gradually, though. 'There's absolutely no point in taking all the salt, fat and sugar out of products, and you're left with something that tastes like cardboard that nobody wants.'

And, yes, McDonald does take her 11 and 13-year-old boys to McDonald's, between once a week and once a month. They favour chicken nuggets and the sweet chilli wrap, while McDonald opts for a Big Mac.

It's not just the food that raises middle-class eyebrows. The Oxford English Dictionary still defines 'McJob' as 'an unstimulating low-paid job with few prospects'.

'I try not to accept it - it really hits my button,' McDonald says, leaning forward, pressing her point. 'It's insulting to our people, as well as to the brand ... Job snobbery really shouldn't have a place in today's society.'

The heads of HR and operations in the UK started off part-time at McDonald's, she points out, as did the former global chief executive Jim Skinner. 'It's a genuine meritocracy ... I have worked in other businesses where that's not so. It's not a snobby business.'

Training is a big part of that: over 55,000 qualifications have been earned by McDonald's UK employees since 2006, 36% of those equivalent to GCSE English and maths and 30% to level two apprenticeships. Meanwhile, the training centre in Finchley seems to have shrugged its mid-noughties moniker of 'University of Hamburgerology'.

The first drive-thru opened in Fallowfield, Manchester, in 1986


People stay with the company - a third of those who join after leaving school are still there at least five years later, while 95% of restaurant managers started out at the bottom.

'Of course that's not done completely altruistically,' McDonald says of the training. 'Helping people improve their maths and English improves their confidence. There's a brilliant virtuous circle.'

'The vast majority of our employees are satisfied,' McDonald responds, when asked whether she is worried about a US-style wage protest. Staff are paid above minimum wage (although hourly rates start at just 1p or 2p more) and, yes, the majority are on the much-maligned zero hours contracts.

'(Firstly), it's a permanent contract of employment with holiday entitlement,' McDonald says. 'Secondly, our people know in advance what schedules they're on.' Almost 80% of 16 to 25-year-old staff, who make up almost three-quarters of the company's British workforce, said they liked flexible working, she adds.

Are you also happy at McDonald's? 'Gosh, I'm going to have my career development chat now,' she laughs. 'It's nurturing and caring and accountable. I enjoy that sort of mix - of feeling part of a family - I know that sounds a bit ...' McDonald jokingly mimes being sick. 'But it's true.'

She doesn't mind not having the same recognition as the head of a UK FTSE 100 company either and plans to stay at least 'a few more years'. The relaxed atmosphere in the unassuming north London office does seem genuine, the senior management smiling and joking with one another.

McDonald isn't coasting, though, travelling 70% to 80% of the time across her northern European markets. She says emphatically she's never faced any barriers in her career as a woman, although she is, she recognises, 'very lucky (to) have a stay-at-home husband', after he sold his small business around three years ago to concentrate on raising their boys.

'I've noticed ... women carry a lot more guilt,' McDonald does admit thoughtfully. She recalls 'a stunned silence' among her male colleagues on one work trip, when she said she felt bad about having been away from home for a week.

McDonald is, nonetheless, resolute in her belief that balancing career and family is a completely personal choice for women - and men. 'Genuinely, the most important thing for me is to consciously make choices,' she says. 'I don't want to wake up at 65 and go: "Oh, I just missed life and I actually didn't want to do that."'

The interview wouldn't be complete, of course, without asking about her name. McDonald and her comms director roll their eyes at one another. 'D'you know what? It's something that fascinates people outside the business more than inside it,' she says, laughing. 'It completely goes over people's heads. I think they just think I'm me.'

TIMELINE

1974: The first McDonald's in the UK opens in Woolwich, south-east London.

1984: McDonald's is the first fast food restaurant in the UK to give nutritional information about its meals. Chicken McNuggets join the menu.

1986: Drive-thrus, franchisee-operated restaurants and Happy Meals all make their first appearances.

1986: The Economist invents the Big Mac index, using the price of a burger to show whether currencies are valued properly.

1997: McDonald's is awarded £60,000 in the decade-old McLibel case, the longest-running in English legal history.

1997: Andrew Taylor becomes McDonald's UK's first British chief executive.

1999: Fast Food Nation is serialised in Rolling Stone. It criticises the industry and McDonald's advertising to children in the US.

2003: McDonald's launches the 'I'm lovin' it' global advertising campaign.

2004: Super Size Me premiers at Sundance Film Festival, documenting Morgan Spurlock's 30-day, all-McDonald's diet.

2007: 105,000 people sign a petition to change the Oxford English Dictionary definition of 'McJob': 'an unstimulating low-paid job with few prospects'. It didn't succeed.

2010: McDonald's launches foundation degrees in business management, in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University.

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