Would-be rocker takes on Arches' 'common' challenges in Europe

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For a score of reasons, Denis Henneqin seems to be the one to fix McDonald's problems in Europe, but only one reason really matters: The Frenchman, newly minted as European president of the American-born burger icon, has mastered the game of playing to both sides of pro- and anti-American sentiments in the effort to expand the Golden Arches.

"It's pretty nice for your people to see a European president," said Jean-Marie Prenaud, worldwide managing director of TBWA, Paris, McDonald's French agency. "It's good evidence of McDonald's evolution. McDonald's is really growing and becoming a universal company."

Observers credit Mr. Hennequin, 47, with a series of moves that contributed to his French success, including setting a consistent team, emphasizing design and food innovation and skillfully handling difficult political and societal issues, including globalization protestors, food critics and the mad-cow outbreak in Europe.

It seems wherever McDonald's zigged, Mr. Hennequin zagged, and the strategy has worked in his native France. While under then-European president Charlie Bell, Mr. Hennequin revamped the restaurants to look like ski chalets, music lounges and citified lofts rather than adopting the mass-produced interiors and menus seen in America. Of the more than 1,200 stores in France, half have already been remodeled to fit their locale, and the restaurants often use downsized versions of the famous arch logo.

"France is not exactly a quick-serve-restaurant market," he admitted. In fact, McDonald's in France uses more in-store displays touting its salads, yogurts, water and version of the French ham-and-cheese sandwich called the Croque McDo than its Big Mac and Fries. Still, the top-selling item is the Big Mac, so it appears that the French may be closet eaters of the American fare. He relies on a monthly consumer panel of about 150 people to help shape product and promotional ideas.

Mr. Hennequin artfully diffused the sting of activist farmer Jose Bove, who in 1999 drove his tractor into a Provencal Mickey D's to protest globalization. Under Mr. Hennequin, marketing positioned the brand as "born in the U.S.A. but made in France" and emphasized the use of locally grown food. The strife forced the chain to "tell the story of the Arches," Mr. Hennequin said. "We should never forget that. We're quite the opposite of globalization."

Mr. Prenaud credits Mr. Bove as a catalyst for Mr. Hennequin's turnabout.

"McDonald's France had to go out of box and act as if nothing was happening," he said. "If you don't speak out ... you let other people speak for you."

AMBIANCE

He's been credited with doubling the restaurants and driving some of the best same-store sales gains in Europe on his strategy to refashion restaurants as a destination. With the help of McDonald's European Food Studio and Design and Arches Studio, he did so by providing a menu and dining ambiance more akin to that of fast casual chains to make McDo-as it's called by the French-more than just a convenient place to get fast fuel. "The French are more sensitive to that," he said.

While optimistic about his record, observers wonder how he'll replicate his success managing a brand across 50 unique countries and different competitive landscapes.

"Even though Europe is a different environment, the challenge is the same around the world," he said. "There are common challenges Europe is facing," Since the new year, however, European same-store sales have slowed, which McDonald's has blamed on economic conditions and some marketing missteps, particularly in Germany and the U.K.

The executive has wasted no time putting in his own team. Just 23 days after taking over as president of McDonald's Europe, Mr. Hennequin shook up marketing and regional leadership and set a new geographical structure. He's known for bringing out his guitar at impromptu jam sessions at work and on weekends with his three teenage children-a 14-year-old son and two daughters, ages 16 and 18-and his wife, who teaches modern art for the Louvre. Mr. Hennequin plays music with his family on Saturday mornings when he's not traveling. In high school, he was the president of the Bruce Springsteen fan club. "If I wasn't with McDonald's, maybe I'd be a rocker," he said.

That's about as American as a Big Mac, Coke and fries.

Just Asking

What was the first record you ever bought? It was by a French singer named Joe Dassin, then later the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

What's on your iPod? 10,000 songs, mostly rock `n' roll. Now he listens to his kids' music, including the Strokes and the White Stripes, which he recommends.

What do you play on guitar? "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Stand By Me" and "Gloria," among others. ...

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