Player Profile: Turnaround on the menu for Burger King's Dasburg

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John Dasburg has a Whopper of a job in taking on the top three management posts at Burger King Corp.

The Diageo unit's new chairman, president and CEO not only must repeat his turnaround successes as CEO of Northwest Airlines, he also needs to win over the support of disenfranchised franchisees while building a case that the Home of the Whopper can be king on Wall Street.

The buzz surrounding the 58-year old executive is mixed. He was revered for making the airline once called "Northworst" one of the most improved carriers and for forging the first multicarrier marketing alliance with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines; at the same time, he was faulted for being indifferent to customer service and labor unions.

Although leadership of Burger King's National Franchisee Association spoke with Mr. Dasburg by telephone, the group is holding its collective opinion about the new leader until it can garner face time with the one-time Marriott Corp. finance executive.

"He'll have to prove himself," said Steve Lewis, president of the association representing 1,300 franchisees that own 92% of the chain's U.S. units. He said he wouldn't be able to state an opinion on Mr. Dasburg for at least 30 to 60 days.

Mr. Lewis and Mr. Dasburg have similar goals, but different motivations. While the NFA still plans to pursue a complete separation of Burger King from Diageo, members vow to cooperate with the new CEO. "Of course we want to work with him and be cooperative-it would be foolhardy for us to say anything other than that," said Mr. Lewis.

LOOKING TO IPO

Still, the biggest charge for Mr. Dasburg is to make Burger King profitable enough to enable the chain's planned partial IPO this year, and eventual spinoff.

One of his first orders of business will be to host the company's March 2 groundbreaking ceremony for Burger King's new Miami headquarters. He'll also premiere the chain's advertising campaigns from Interpublic Group of Cos. shops McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York and Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis.

Mr. Dasburg likely will take a hands-off approach to marketing, said agency executives at Northwest Airlines shop Carmichael Lynch, also an Interpublic unit. "He didn't spend much time with the agencies," said one executive. "He was more into operations."

"His position is a corporate position," confirmed Burger King spokesman Rob Doughty, adding that North American President Mikel Durham and Stefan Bomhard, senior VP-marketing, would still manage agency relationships.

Mr. Dasburg, who loves the chain's burgers and fries, also plans to strengthen ties with the community around Burger King headquarters. "I was raised in Miami, and it is great to return home," Mr. Dasburg said in a statement.

A number of executives familiar with the company have noted that Mr. Dasburg is near retirement age and the timing of his move back to Miami suggests this is not a long-term post. "He's not going into this to fix anything, he's going to take this business as far as he can financially and get out with a big windfall from the IPO," said a former Burger King executive.

Mr. Dasburg didn't return phone calls and Burger King declined requests for interviews with its new leader.

While few analysts covering the restaurant sector have had any contact with him so far, they are impressed with his financial record. "Let's give him the benefit of the doubt," said Allan Hickok, restaurant analyst for Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis.

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