Jimmy Chu gets job done

By Published on .

[Hong Kong] As China rises to the top of McDonald's Corp.'s most important global markets, the burger chain can thank the "Ray Kroc of China," as James Chu, 64, has become known throughout the company.

Now the Hong Kong-based director-franchising and government relations for China, Mr. Chu is McDonald's longest-serving executive in greater China.

In 1974, the former high school principal happily switched careers to become manager of McDonald's first restaurant in Hong Kong, because he "likes working with young people" and had grown weary of handling discipline cases and administration hassles. That city of 7 million today has 208 restaurants with the highest transaction count for McDonald's anywhere in the world.

In 1990, the fast-food giant came to "Jimmy Chu" again, this time to introduce the brand in mainland China. He started with a restaurant in Shenzhen, a special economic zone just over the border from Hong Kong. On opening day, lines snaked around nearby blocks as thousands of Chinese eagerly anticipated their first taste of an authentic American way of life.

Establishing McDonald's in China was a difficult assignment, even for a cheerful, outgoing executive like Mr. Chu. Language was a barrier. Mr. Chu grew up speaking Cantonese, the dialect of Hong Kong. To learn Mandarin, spoken by most mainland Chinese, he insisted staff in Shenzhen speak to him only in their dialect, even though they could rarely understand each other in the early days.

Also, "people in China were totally different than in Hong Kong in those days; they were not used to receiving, or giving, world-class customer service. Also, setting up the business in Hong Kong was much easier because it has very clear laws, and China does not," Mr. Chu ruefully observes.

Today, Mr. Chu remains the face of Chinese McDonald's because he has learned to navigate political and cultural currents, developing pet theories on everything from how to handle politicians to surviving the alcohol-soaked banquet dinners that cement dealmaking in China-all with a natural skill that would make Ray Kroc proud.

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