The 44-year-old business star died eight weeks after stepping down from the company to return home and focus on his cancer treatment. It was a heartbreaking end to a nearly 30-year career.
"This is a tragic loss. Charlie Bell gave his all to McDonald's. Even during his hospitalization and chemotherapy, Charlie led this company with pride and determination," said Andrew J. McKenna, chairman of McDonald's board of directors, in a statement.
His death marks the second time in less than a year that the company lost a central figure in its turnaround on the eve of a major company meeting. McDonald's executives had been heading to Barcelona for a global conference to discuss plans to advance its sales momentum.
Mr. Bell was rapidly elevated to CEO only eight months ago, on April 19, after Jim Cantalupo, then chairman-CEO, died of a heart attack on the opening morning of the company's worldwide franchisee convention. There, the two were preparing to celebrate the early success of their efforts to reverse the company's decline.
But instead of enjoying a victory dance, Mr. Bell began his brief tenure eulogizing his friend and mentor and consoling a shaken system. Just 15 days later, the company revealed that Mr. Bell had been diagnosed with cancer.
Mr. Bell began his ascension from the bottom, making fries and cleaning toilets as a 15-year-old part-time crew member. By 19 he was Australia's youngest store manager, and by 27 he became a VP. Two years later he was on Australia's board of directors.
He spent much of the 1980s working in restaurant development and operations in various parts of Europe, before becoming a VP-marketing in 1990. He further scaled the ladder before becoming president and chief operating officer of McDonald's Corp. in December 2002 when Mr. Cantalupo came out of retirement to be chairman-CEO.
Mr. Bell quickly won over Wall Street and the press with his ready Aussie wit and competitive spark. He frequently joked that he was destined to lead the company because his red hair matched that of Ronald McDonald. When the marketer hosted a rare media day in 2003 at its suburban Chicago innovation center, Mr. Bell beamed like a teenager showing off his first car when he explained an automatic french fry machine and a touch-screen self-service checkout kiosk.
Upon his Nov. 22 resignation, the company elevated Jim Skinner as CEO and Mike Roberts as president.
"Charlie was an incredible leader," Mr. Skinner said in a statement. "He was also my good friend. More than anything, Charlie was a role model for each of us-and we are better off, as individuals and as a system, because of him."