Fred L. Turner, one of the first employees of McDonald’s Corp. and the founder of its Hamburger University training program, died of complications from pneumonia Monday night. He was 80.
Mr. Turner wrote the company training manual and is credited with tripling the chain’s restaurant base during his time as CEO. Friends say he was known as “the heart and soul” of McDonald’s.
“His influence on McDonald’s cannot be overstated,” said Mike Roberts, a former McDonald’s president. “Ray (Kroc) was the visionary, but Fred was the heart and the soul, the operational thrust of the company.”
Known for working side by side with restaurant employees, Mr. Turner wrote the company’s first operations and training manual in 1958. It still serves as a basis for restaurant operations — no small thing for a company renowned for its consistency.
Mr. Turner founded McDonald’s Hamburger University, a training program for managers, franchisees and company employees, in 1961. McDonald’s now has seven Hamburger University campuses, including one on its Oak Brook campus that was named after Mr. Turner in 2004.
Mr. Turner, a longtime resident of Deerfield, kept an office at McDonald’s and remained involved in the company until his death.
A Des Moines, Iowa, native, Mr. Turner attended Drake University after a stint in the U.S. Army. He approached McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc about becoming a franchisee. But Kroc was so impressed by Mr. Turner that he persuaded him to join the company in 1956, said longtime friend and business associate Al Golin.
“Then he became a one-man operations department,” said Golin, who began media representation of McDonald’s around the same time. “The first couple of years he was with McDonald’s, I never saw him because he was out opening McDonald’s, personally, every one of them.”
Kroc and Mr. Turner worked closely together until Kroc’s death in 1984.
“Ray was the charismatic supersalesman, and Fred really was the man who made things go,” Golin said. “He was a very hands-on person.”
Golin recalled a trip to Russia about 20 years ago, when McDonald’s was opening its first restaurant there. Company executives attended a party at the Kremlin in advance of the opening, he said.
“I saw Fred the following morning and said, ‘Where were you?'” Golin said. Mr. Turner had been at the restaurant. “While we were eating caviar and drinking champagne, he was worrying about the french fries and the buns being toasted right.”
Mr. Turner was named president and chief administrative officer in 1968. He became president and CEO in 1974, stepping up to chairman and CEO in 1977, and remaining in that role for a decade.
The Oak Brook-based burger giant more that tripled its restaurant base and expanded into new markets around the world during his tenure as CEO.
Ted Perlman, chairman of the Havi Group, a Downers Grove-based McDonald’s supplier, called Turner “a guts guy.” He recalled one afternoon in the 1960s when Turner returned from lunch with a wider, thicker napkin than McDonald’s was making available at its restaurants.
Perlman recalls Mr. Turner asking why McDonald’s wasn’t using them. “I said, ‘Fred, it’s going to cost you two-and-a-half times as much,'” Perlman said, to which Turner responded, “Did I ask you what it’s going to cost?” The napkins were changed shortly thereafter.
Mr. Turner’s style was best suited to the company’s entrepreneurial period and the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Perlman said.
“The environment was more conducive back then, when you could cut through things and didn’t have to worry about who got promoted where,” Perlman said.
Putting training systems in place and establishing programs such as Hamburger University for McDonald’s “has been an important pillar for their growth and success over the past 50 years,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food-industry research and consulting firm.
“One of the biggest elements of McDonald’s success has been its consistency, that the customer knows what to expect in terms of food, service and speed,” Tristano said. The chain’s emphasis on training, he added, has been critical to establishing that level of consistency.
Mr. Turner stayed on as chairman of McDonald’s until 1990, when he was named senior chairman. He continued in that role until 2004, when he retired and became honorary chairman.
Outside his career at McDonald’s, Mr. Turner served on the boards of Aon, Baxter, and W.W. Grainger, among others.
He was also a committed philanthropist. He co-founded the Ronald McDonald House Charities, which serves families of children who are seriously ill and provides care for children in underprivileged communities.
Mr. Turner and his late wife, Patty, avid music lovers, endowed a jazz studies professorship at Drake University, which also opened a Fred and Patty Turner Jazz Center in 2011. Turner was involved in the creation of World War II aircraft exhibits at O’Hare International and Midway airports.
The son of a fisherman and biscuit salesman, Mr. Turner was “a larger-than-life character,” his daughter Teri Turner said.
While the executive was in a fishing club whose membership included Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, “he was more interested in going fishing with the guy around the corner,” she said.
Mr. Turner also told everyone to call him by his first name, including his children and grandchildren. “He’d said, ‘I’m Fred, I’m your friend,'” Teri Turner said, adding that when her daughter occasionally called him Grandpa, he’d say, “You know you can call me Fred.”
Teri expressed gratitude that Mr. Turner was able to spend time with his family before he passed away.
“There was a moment when he looked at us and said, ‘Who had a better life than me?'” she recalled him saying. “‘I did something with my life. I made a difference.'”
Mr. Turner is also survived by daughters Paula Turner and Patty Sue (Bob) Rhea and eight grandchildren. Visitation will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Patty Turner Senior Center in Deerfield, with the funeral at 11 a.m. Saturday at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Deerfield. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to Ronald McDonald House Charities or the Patty Turner Senior Center.