Fred Turner, savvy operations chief who helped build McDonald’s empire, dies at 80


Former McDonald's CEO Fred L. Turner, who helped expand the fast-food chain's global footprint and spearheaded the creation of “Hamburger University,” died Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, after suffering complications from pneumonia. (AP)
January 8, 2013

In February 1956, Fred Turner was a 23-year-old Army veteran who approached McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc with the ambition to invest in the young franchise. “He had a baby face and the most infectious grin I’d seen in years,” Kroc later recalled in his memoir, “Grinding It Out.”

As one of Kroc’s first hires and then his protege, Mr. Turner became a burger fryer to learn the ropes before rapidly ascending in the corporate hierarchy at the Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters. Mr. Turner, who died Jan. 7 — a day after turning 80, became critical to McDonald’s transformation into the largest and most emulated restaurant chain in the world.

If Kroc was the gregarious public face of McDonald’s, the media-averse Mr. Turner was the savvy operations chief who also helped keep the company a pacesetter in the competitive world of brand marketing.

He succeeded Kroc, first as president and chief executive in 1974 and then as chairman and chief executive in 1977. Mr. Turner remained board chairman until 1987 and then spent 17 years as senior chairman before retiring. In later years, he was routinely called back as a troubleshooter.

At one point, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2004, McDonald’s experimented with the “special sauce” that had been spread on beef patties. Customers rebelled, but there was a problem: The original sauce recipe, one of the most closely guarded formulas in fast food, was missing.

It fell to Mr. Turner to remember the California supplier who helped create it many decades earlier. He came through.

For all the folklore surrounding Kroc as the visionary who built McDonald’s into a fast-food empire of global prominence, Mr. Turner was indisputably a critical guiding force.

Kroc, a onetime milkshake-mixer salesman, was the franchising genius whose rigorous system of quality control and uniformity made McDonald’s a company that consumers knew they could rely on, for better or worse. But Kroc was not immune to resounding flops such as the pound cake dessert item and a grilled pineapple-and-cheese contrivance dubbed a Hula Burger.

By most accounts, Mr. Turner provided the consistency that became the hallmark of all things McDonald’s. As a young executive, he wrote the first operations and training manual that continues to guide quality, service and cleanliness at its restaurants.

It was written in response to Mr. Turner’s visit to a franchise in California, where he said he saw hamburgers of all weights and sizes, some with onions, and a menu offering everything from burritos to pizza. “I saw a food­arama,” he once said.

In 1961, he helped spearhead the creation of Hamburger University, where potential licensees and managers can earn a “Bachelor of Hamburgerology” degree. The “university” began in the basement of a McDonald’s franchise in suburban Chicago and is now on the McDonald’s campus in Oak Brook. The training center was named in Mr. Turner’s honor in 2004.

As suburban growth proliferated in the 1960s, Mr. Turner was involved in the decision to focus on the profitable family trade. “That meant going after the kids,” Mr. Turner told Time in 1973. “We decided to use television, so we created our own character Ronald McDonald.”

Mr. Turner greenlighted the creation of a breakfast menu and drive-through service in the mid-1970s. A conversation with the company’s test chef during an elevator ride at headquarters led to the Chicken McNugget, a product that could be eaten on the go. McNuggets appeared in 1983 and were a commercial success.

As competing chains entered the marketplace, Mr. Turner was pivotal in aggressive franchise expansion overseas. The company opened restaurants in Canada and Puerto Rico in the late 1960s and, a few years later, in Japan, Australia, Sweden and England.

Teaming with local partners, he broke ground for McDonald’s franchises behind the Iron Curtain.

“There’s tremendous opportunity in Eastern Europe,” Mr. Turner told Advertising Age in 1990. “And I can honestly say I think we saw some of that coming as a consequence of working on the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which didn’t materialize. I was in Moscow and parts of Eastern Europe, and you could see that the farther you got from Moscow, the more indications of private enterprise you saw.”

During the run-up to the Olympic Games — which the United States ultimately boycotted after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 — Mr. Turner was reportedly unsuccessful in his efforts to persuade Moscow’s mayor to sell its hamburgers near Lenin Stadium. In 1990, the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow.

That year, Advertising Age named Mr. Turner adman of the decade, citing among other achievements his “pioneering move in sports sponsorship marketing” with the construction of the McDonald’s Olympic Swim Stadium for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Frederick Leo Turner was born Jan. 6, 1933, in Des Moines. He attended Drake University in Des Moines, then served two years in the Army before his encounter with Kroc.

Kroc died in 1984, at 81. That year, Mr. Turner co-founded the Ronald McDonald House Charities, which oversees management of Ronald McDonald Houses providing lodging for families of gravely ill children and also brings medical care to children in impoverished communities.

When Mr. Turner retired in 2004, McDonald’s reportedly had about 31,500 stores in more than 100 countries and revenue of $19.1 billion. At his death, Mr. Turner was honorary board chairman. He died in hospice care in Glenview, Ill., of complications from pneumonia, the company announced. He was a resident of Deerfield, Ill.

His wife, the former Patricia Shurtleff, whom he married in 1954, died in 2000. Survivors include three daughters and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Turner was often described as reserved and for keeping a cool head at difficult moments.

A day after Ohio National Guardsmen killed four students during a Vietnam War protest at Kent State University in 1970, students at Southern Illinois University reportedly marched to a local McDonald’s and demanded the franchise lower its flag to half-staff.

As Max Gunther wrote in his 1972 book “The Very, Very Rich and How They Got That Way,” Kroc’s patriotism was offended by the protesters and he ordered the flags back up. The students then threatened to set fire to the restaurant, and Mr. Turner took the call from the worried franchise owner.

“Tell you what you do,” he said. “The next delivery truck that arrives, have him back in to the flag pole and knock it down.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”