When I got the call last week that Fred Turner, former CEO and honorary chairman of McDonald's, passed away, the first thing that ran through my mind was, "Everybody called him 'Fred.'"
Rather than "Mr. Turner" or "Dad," everyone, from the entry-level crew person to his daughters (even when they were kids) called him "Fred." This spoke volumes about his management style. It flew in the face of so many CEOs today who run their organizations in an imperialistic way -- who care more about their egos than their companies. His priority was operations, training and consistency.
I came to know him after a fateful conversation. I made a cold call one day to Ray Kroc, back in 1957, leading to the 55-year relationship of our firm handling McDonald's public relations. As most people in the business know, Ray was a charismatic super-salesman whose biggest asset was his intuition. He had a real sixth sense of what customers want and how to market to them successfully.
Fred was always in the background, helping to oversee quality and service at the restaurants. In fact, I never met Fred for a couple of years, as he was a one-man operation department, who literally opened every new restaurant in the early days. He was a "nitpicker" in the best sense of the term -- but he balanced it with a long-term vision of what McDonald's would become.
He established a training program that became the envy of not only the restaurant industry -- but a model for any retail chain. He knew instinctively that this almost stereotypical American-style menu could succeed in more than 110 countries. He would love to travel to new countries, helping open new McDonald's and witnessing the immediate acceptance of his "baby."
I'll never forget when McDonald's opened in Moscow some 20 years ago, it became the symbol of the new market-economy in Russia. It was the biggest media frenzy at an event I ever witnessed in my long, checkered career. The Russian government threw a lavish party at the Kremlin for all of us who were involved. I remember looking around, surprised that I didn't see Fred there. I later learned why.
While the rest of us were gobbling up caviar and sipping champagne, Fred was at the newly opened McDonald's location, double-checking everything to make sure things were humming. He wanted to ensure that the Russian crew knew the correct way to make the fries and hamburgers.
And, yes, they called him "Fred" when he got behind the counter.
Some years back, BusinessWeek Editor John Love wrote a book on the company called, "Behind the Arches." Love was rightly impressed with all of Fred's contributions in making McDonald's such a worldwide icon. Meanwhile, the self-effacing Fred was only concerned that Love was too complimentary of him, and that it might detract from Ray Kroc's role.
When Fred retired from the company in 2004, I couldn't help but think of the Irish folk song, and the tribute to JFK, when I said: "Fred, we hardly knew ye." Everybody within the McDonald's family appreciated him, but I truly believe that the media and the public really never gave him enough credit for his legacy. He's the one who was responsible for making McDonald's a household name.