McD's soldiers on in wake of tragedy

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McDonald's CEO James Cantalupo's sudden death at a franchisee convention was a personal tragedy, but it won't disrupt the chain's marketing strategy or the partners charged with carrying it out. New CEO Charlie Bell had been the No. 2 executive, but was the primary architect of that strategy along with global Chief Marketing Officer Larry Light.

Although portions of last week's convention in Orlando, Fla., were turned over to hastily assembled tributes to Mr. Cantalupo, it remained a working meeting focused on marketing and operations. Among other initiatives, the 10,000 attendees were shown nearly two dozen commercials, including global ads for the Olympics, and spots for the Big Mac (see related story, P. 99).

When Mr. Bell addressed attendees just hours after Mr. Cantalupo died, he received two standing ovations. The first came when the newly appointed CEO was introduced, the second when he punctuated his remarks by noting the need to finish the job that Mr. Cantalupo started. That stability was soothing to franchisees, Wall Street analysts and others worried that a change in leadership could bring a period of uncertainty.

"The future looks pretty damn good," said Joe Casper, a Tampa, Fla., franchisee. "Bell couldn't screw it up if he wanted to."

A native of Australia, Mr. Bell, 43, started at McDonald's as a burger flipper at the age of 15. He was praised as an innovator during his tenure as president of McDonald's European operations and was widely pegged as Mr. Cantalupo's successor.

`very ceo-like'

Keith Reinhard, chairman of Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, who attended the meetings along with executives from the chain's other agencies, including Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett Worldwide and Omnicom's TBWA Worldwide, praised Mr. Bell: "It seemed to me that Charlie grew substantially overnight. He was very CEO-like."

The death of Mr. Cantalupo, 60, came hours before he was to address the opening general session of the worldwide convention. It was expected to be the high point of a term he began by digging out the company from its first-ever earnings loss. Mr. Cantalupo was rushed from his room at the Peabody Hotel to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 4:53 a.m. on April 19 of an apparent heart attack, according to the Orange County sheriff's department.

By 6:45, board members, including Mr. Bell, convened to discuss the succession. At about 8 a.m., McDonald's issued a press release announcing Mr. Cantalupo's death and by 10:45 it announced that Mr. Bell, 43, was named CEO from president-chief operating officer. Andrew McKenna, 74, became non-executive chairman, from presiding director of the board.

`a passion like jim had'

As word of his death spread, delegates were heading to the convention center, where meetings were postponed. But the expo was opened by noon as a gathering place. At 5 p.m. the company's new leaders, along with former Chairman-CEO Fred Turner, addressed the crowd. After a moment of silence, a tearful Mr. Turner said it was "too early" to talk about Mr. Bell, but said, "Charlie will continue with the momentum, and Charlie will make a difference. He's got a passion like Jim had."

He then turned the podium over to Mr. Bell. "When Jim returned to McDonald's, he brought with him an incredible hope and confidence that we all drew on," Mr. Bell said. "He knew that we could turn things around ... that when we work together, nothing can stop us. Jim reminded us that we are McDonald's." When he finished the crowd erupted in cheers.

"He was really, really magnificent," said Dick Rogers, president of DDB North America. "You could still sense the pain and personal loss and tragedy, but ... this is a strong unit, a very professional unit that has been galvanized by their leader's passing."

By April 21, daily newspapers carried a full-page print ad with a picture of Ronald McDonald with a single tear sliding down his cheek. "We miss you, Jim" read the body copy of the ads created by Burnett.

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