Annual Conference Becomes Extraordinary Day of Trauma and Transition

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CHICAGO ( -- In a extraordinary day of trauma and transition, McDonald's Corp. today mourned its dead CEO, appointed a new one and struggled to manage the emotions
Photo: AP
Charlie Bell, former president and COO, took over as president and new CEO of McDonald's.
Companion Story:
Jim Cantalupo Was Preparing to Open Annual Franchisee Convention

and business concerns of nearly 13,000 people gathered for the company's annual franchisee meeting in Orlando, Fla.

Shock and sadness
It was, according to attendees, one of the most shocking and then poignant of all the days they've spent as McDonald's franchisees, employees, marketing partners, suppliers and other vendors.

The annual conference and trade show, focused on the nuts and bolts of fast-food restaurant operation, draws attendees from across the company's global operations. It would normally have been an event mixing business with the pleasure of Orlando's vacation atmosphere of fun and frolic.

Today has been anything but.

Board moves fast
During the first few hours after CEO Jim Cantalupo's death, the meeting's opening was thrown into confusion and delay. But even as delegates were filing into the venue and speculating on who would run the company, McDonald's board of directors gathered quickly, voted and announced that Charlie Bell, president and chief operating officer, had been named president and new CEO. Board member Andrew McKenna was named non-executive chairman. McDonald's didn't specifically spell out 74-year-old Mr. McKenna's duties in that role.

Heir apparent
Mr. Bell, 43, was widely considered the heir apparent to Mr. Cantalupo. He has been president of McDonald's Europe and of the Asia/Pacific, Middle East and Africa group of restaurants. He was also managing director of McDonald's Australia, considered one of the more progressive regions of the company.

In a statement, the board said, "Perhaps the greatest legacy that Jim Cantalupo left to our McDonald's system is the talent and commitment of the senior management team he assembled." The statement went on to say that "Charlie Bell has worked side by side with Jim during these past 16 months to revitalize McDonald's all over the world. He is ideally suited and prepared to continue Jim's remarkable focus and discipline on our business."

Ketchup in his veins
"Like Mr. Cantalupo, Mr. Bell has strong international experience," said Mark Kalinowski, restaurant analyst for Citigroup Smith Barney, in a note to investors predicting Mr. Bell's succession prior to the announcement. "He has worked for McDonald's for nearly 30 years. As they say, ketchup runs in his veins."

"Mr. Cantalupo very clearly was the driving force behind the resuscitation of this brand with consumers," said Allan Hickok, former analyst and now consultant with Hickok McMillan Strategic Advisors. "They'll be very mindful of how to stay on track in the very short term. Mr. Cantalupo spearheaded the plan to make franchisees more money and nobody will be anxious to lose that."

Canceled orchestra
Many of the day's sessions were canceled or postponed, and the surprise news of Mr. Cantalupo's death and Mr. Bell's ascension was punctuated by daylong disruptions as delegates either waited outside hotels for buses that were detained or arrived to find empty meeting rooms. Certain meetings continued as others, including the global opening session, were pushed to the following day, according to attendees. An orchestra originally hired to play upbeat music at the gathering was seen packing up and leaving.

At about 5 p.m., Mr. Bell took to the podium to address the thousands of franchisees, employees and ad agency executives and suppliers, who, as one attendee described, were sad and, at times, bewildered. More than one executive noted the irony of the timing of Mr. Cantalupo's death -- the opening day of the convention. The event was expected to be a sort of victory dance for the stunning business turnaround that Mr. Cantalupo had accomplished over the past 16 months.

'Jim would want us to go on'
"We're all saddened ... but Jim would want us to go on," said Mr. Bell, according to the attendee, describing the speech as part tribute and part pep talk. "Everybody who knows Jim knows he liked a good party. ... So let's go out and celebrate."

Mr. Bell also talked about the speech that Mr. Cantalupo had prepared for the day and said, "I wish you could have heard it from him," according to the attendee. McDonald's is expected to release the remarks tomorrow.

Following his speech, bars were set up on the exhibit floor and attendees gathered to share their observations, memories and, inevitably, tears.

Ronald McDonald
In one of the moments that seemed to capture the jumble of emotions of the day, an uncharacteristically frowning and red-eyed Ronald McDonald walked the exhibit floor in his atomic red wig and floppy shoes. The promotional character's position had been enhanced by Mr. Catalupo, who named Ronald McDonald "Chief Happiness Officer."

"I'd hate to be him today," said one delegate, nodding toward the costumed character with a painted-on smile but a sad frown below.

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