McDonald's UK boss: "This is the toughest trading period we've had"

The 'Lord of the Fries' Paul Pomroy on turnarounds, tennis courts and trading conditions.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 20 Sep 2019

Through the Golden Arches

I trained as an accountant and began my career as an insolvency specialist at Smith & Williamson. After four years there, I was looking to get out. In the summer of 1996, I spotted a half-page ad in Accountancy Age magazine for a job at McDonald’s. It showed the bottom of Ronald’s legs with his stripy socks and big red shoes. The strapline read: "Like all other blue-chips, we expect our accountants to wear pinstripes." It made me laugh so I applied. I met Steve Easterbrook, now McDonald’s global chief executive, and secured a job in real estate finance. That was the start of my McDonald’s journey. Now, according to the Daily Mail, I’m "Lord of the Fries".

Moving sideways

I’ve always tried to grab opportunities and take risks. My biggest gamble was when Steve [Easterbrook] asked me to join his new business strategy team. I was working in finance at the time and, instead of being promoted to a more senior role in that department, I agreed to move sideways to join him. That took me out of my black-and-white, backwards-looking role and into a job that covered marketing, supply chains and food. That’s where I really started to learn what matters to customers. It's also where I met my wife. I joined the leadership team in 2008 and took the UK helm in 2015.

Turnarounds

We lost our way in the first half of the noughties. We were focussed on opening new restaurants – around 100 a year – and spent too much capital on new premises while neglecting our existing real estate. Our old restaurants quickly became tired and dated. Meanwhile, the critics had started attacking us [Super Size Me aired in 2004] but we didn’t have the confidence to tell our side of the story. Then, at the end of 2005, there was the Buncefield explosion in Hemel Hempstead, which forced one of our supply centres to close. Things couldn't get much worse for the brand.

There was only one way to go. As a business, we became more open. We started talking about the good stuff we were doing – like using British beef, British potatoes, free-range eggs and organic milk. We reinvested in our old restaurants and we focused on expanding our franchise model: 20 per cent of our restaurants were McDonald’s franchises – we upped that to 60 per cent in three years. Our franchisees understand their local communities, they’re entrepreneurial and they care about growth.

Heritage

We respect the elements of the past that make us strong. Richard ("Dick") and Maurice ("Mac") McDonald famously marked out a tennis court with the layout of their kitchen and had the staff act out their operations to have "orders ready in 30 seconds, not 30 minutes". We’re still obsessed with efficiency. We only have five steps in our supply chain from farm to front counter.

There are certain staples on our menu. A franchisee came up with the idea for the Big Mac more than 50 years ago because, he said, customers wanted a bigger sandwich. Other than reduced salt and sugar, the Big Mac hasn’t changed – and it’s still our most popular burger. But over the past decade, we’ve doubled the options on the McDonald's menu to include salads, wraps, carrot sticks and fruit bags. In fact, we’re now one of the biggest sellers of fruit to kids in the UK.

The current climate

We’ve had more than 50 consecutive quarters of growth but this is, without doubt, the toughest trading period we’ve had. Consumer confidence has slumped – and when people stop shopping on the high street, they stop coming to McDonald’s. It’s also a difficult environment for innovation: customers won’t give us any free passes if we get things wrong.

Brexit has brought uncertainty around everything from minimum wages and advertising regulations to food and fuel prices. Like most British businesses, we’re not great with a lot of change in one go.

Respect

My mum taught me that if you treat people the way you want to be treated, you won’t go far wrong in life. We employ more than 120,000 staff at McDonald’s in the UK and Ireland, and we give everyone the same opportunities for progression and development, regardless of their background. I couldn’t even tell you the educational background of my exec team – I don’t know where they went to school or university (or if they went at all).  

Social media

I’m not on social media. My view is that it’s a distraction to the CEO. If all the stuff that was written about us on Twitter was actually true, I’d be in prison.

Fatherhood

I’ve got two boys, aged five and seven. They keep me more honest than any journalist. My eldest son comes home from school and asks, "What do you do, daddy?" and "How are you helping the environment?" We went for a walk in the woods at the weekend and he got really irritated when he spotted McDonald’s litter on the floor (80 per cent of our packaging is recyclable but we still have 20 per cent to go). Running a business is easy compared to being a dad: you don’t know if you’ve got it right until a long time in the future.

McDonald's was named one of Britain's Most Admired Companies last year. Read the full rankings here.

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