Even though we’re only into its second month, 2016 been rather a good year for Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s chief executive. His football team, Watford, is enjoying its best season in years and much the same can be said for the US fast-food giant.
The company surprised analysts with its latest quarterly results last week, with sales up 5.7pc in the US – nearly twice as much as had been predicted. Global sales are up by 5pc.
It has taken a Briton – albeit one steeped in McDonald’s corporate culture – to revive the most American of institutions, which was in danger of being left behind by rather nimbler competitors in the fast food industry.
From introducing all-day breakfasts throughout the US to testing waiter service at some of its outlets, including in the UK, Easterbrook has overhauled how the company operates at a bewildering pace.
The chain was in something of a mess when Easterbrook took over as chief executive in March 2015. Last August, for the first time in more than 45 years, McDonald’s announced that it was closing more outlets than it was opening.
European sales had dropped by 1.4pc, between 2008-14. In the US, the decline was 3.3pc and in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, once considered a growth region, a rather frightening 9.9pc.
It was not just the dire figures which suggested that McDonald’s was in need of a cultural shift. The company was facing competition from not only its traditional rivals, such as Burger King and Wendy’s, but also from hipper new competitors entering the market, such as Honest, Byron, Five Guys and Shake Shack.
It was pretty clear that the golden arches had lost their sparkle. Within weeks of taking over the reins, Easterbrook appeared on CBS’s This Morning television progamme in the US to signal that the 60-year-old company was in for a radical overhaul.
“We really want to assert McDonald’s as a modern burger company. To do that you have to make meaningful changes in the business,” he said. “The pace of change outside McDonald’s has been a little quicker than the pace of change within. You act your way to success, you can’t talk your way to success.”
For once, this was not empty corporate-speak. All-day breakfasts were tested in San Diego in April, and within months were available at all the company’s 16,000 US restaurants. This has brought back customers who might have gone elsewhere and even tempted in newcomers.
Other changes have seen the introduction of a “McPick menu” where US customers can have two items for only $2, despite the wafer-thin profit margin the deal provides.
The range of burgers has also been increased to include Pico Guacamole and Buffalo Bacon, and diners are now being allowed to customise their burgers. McDonald’s has also launched its first loyalty programme for people who register their details, offering, for example, a free cup of coffee for every five bought at one of its restaurants.
Easterbrook has also done something to improve McDonald’s corporate image, announcing a 10pc pay rise for the 90,000 people who work in outlets directly owned by the company in the US. This has taken their hourly minimum wage to $9.90 an hour – increasing to more than $10 this year – considerably higher than the legal minimum of $7.95.
The one caveat, however, was that the pay rise was limited to those staff who work for the 10pc of restaurants which are owned by the company rather than franchisees. Even the white packaging is being ditched after more than a decade. Instead, food now comes in brown paper bags which, in theory, are seen as more environmentally friendly.
According to a company spokesman, the change is “consistent with our vision to be a modern and progressive burger company” –a phrase now something of a corporate mantra.
“One of the things Easterbrook has done is create a sense of urgency in the the McDonald’s business culture,” said Mark Kalinowski, a restaurant analyst at Nomura in New York. “When the company started trialling the all-day breakfast in San Diego county in April, it only took until October before it went nationwide.
“He doesn’t want to waste time, he operates on speed to market and saw it was clearly something customers wanted.
“For McDonald’s, that is rather quick. Although it can be innovative, the company is traditionally slow- moving. I think it’s a reflection on its sheer size.” Even though Easterbrook has spent much of his career with McDonald’s, having joined in 1993, he also spent time with the rather more upmarket Wagamama and Pizza Express chains. He returned to McDonald’s in 2013 as chief brand officer, having held previous roles including its head of Europe.
“Most of the presidents and chief executives at McDonald’s we have seen have been promoted from within. Having somebody with an outside perspective is exactly what the company needed” said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based company specialising in the food industry.
Tristano believes that Easterbrook’s strategy has been shrewd. “He has aggressively marketed the all-day breakfast, which has put McDonald’s back at the top of the mind of consumers.
“The price point appeals to lower and middle-income consumers who are looking for something which is less expensive than the dinner menu. This has helped McDonald’s get back some of the market share which it had been losing to rivals.”
McDonald’s has also been helped by the rehabilitation of the egg in the mind of the consumer, Tristano added.
“If you go back a few years, eggs were seen as high-cholesterol. Now they are seen as high-protein and eggs are a key part of breakfast.
“The sales growth on a year over year basis is over a few years of weak sales performance, so the numbers are good but we should expect to see sustainable growth and especially year over year, fourth quarter 2016 would signal McDonald’s is officially back.
“McDonald’s appears to be listening to their customers and staying more true to their brand under Easterbrook.”
The consensus appears to that Easterbrook has enabled McDonald’s to regain its mojo. “He has brought a sense of strategic clarity, said John Quelch, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School.
“There is a tendency when a company gets into trouble to sling products at the wall and see what sticks. All that does is adds complexity. If you reach a point when you can’t explain to an employee or a franchisee what the point of a product is, then how can you expect them to explain that to a customer?
“The bench strength of McDonald’s is enormously good. It is no surprise that they were able to find somebody like him to step up,” added Quelch.