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Posted 11.2.05

Jim Skinner, Vice Chairman and CEO of McDonald’s Corporation, likes to challenge what he sees as commonly held perceptions and stereotypes about his company. Number one on that list is the stereotype of “McJobs” – listed in Webster’s Dictionary as a low paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement – which Skinner sees as a slap in the face for 12 million men and women working at McDonald’s in the U.S.

It is also a slap in the face to Skinner who is proud of the fact that he, along with half of McDonald’s top corporate management, started his career with the company as a restaurant crew member during his teenage years.

“Our CEO, at the time the McJobs listing came out, sent a letter to the editor of the dictionary,” said Skinner. “With that letter he changed the framework in the issue in the debate over what opportunities are provided in a job at McDonald’s. In many countries this job [at McDonald’s] is a highly coveted position.”

Countries in the developing world value a job at McDonald’s for the training, experience, and new doors it opens.

As the closing keynote speaker at the 2005 Annual BSR Conference, he addressed a packed room in the Regency Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., challenging the assertion by many people that McDonald’s marketing is bad for children and negatively impacts their lives in some way. Concerned that some people want his company to completely stop communicating with children, Skinner says he instead sees childhood obesity as a problem that McDonald’s responsible marketing can be a tool to solve. Using the example of the change in McDonald’s milk cartons to a new, colorful, appealing jug, he says McDonald’s has created communication that is responsive and responsible with children, tripling their consumption of milk. With bold, new marketing leadership that aims to educate consumers to eat right and be more active, and by providing more choice and options, he says they work collaboratively with their customers to focus on children’s well being.

“We believe we should be a leader in changing the lives of children,” said Skinner. “We have power and influence and we must use it to do good.”

Skinner knows the quality and nutritional value of McDonald’s food has become a public issue. Unsure whether this is due to the low pricing of the food or the size and ubiquity of McDonald’s that makes the company an easy target, Skinner is adamant that his company can’t be part of the solution if they are moved out of the debate.

“Challenge assumptions and change the framework of the debate,” he says. “Broader responsibilities are about balance and choice. To that end we promote three initiatives: safe top quality menu items, physical activity and relevant nutrition information. Skinner sees McDonald’s as a company that is always trying to adjust to new, capital demands and new promises. They are working diligently and providing leadership on the right issues, including supply chain management and how to use their purchasing power. From his viewpoint, McDonald’s is leading the pack in animal rights standards, sustainable fisheries practices, and are committed to a code of conduct compliance. They are working with suppliers on labor issues, and demanding accountability from suppliers through an initiative called Project Kaleidoscope. Their Ronald McDonald House charities give back to many communities.

“What makes people question our CSR initiatives today involves how we are trying to tell our side of the story,” said Skinner. “The formula is simple but never easy. We challenge the assumptions others have of us. When you accept assumptions, you limit your ability to develop sustainable solutions. I’m proud of what we are today, and even more proud of what we can be.”

He is very proud of the factual information and nutrition science coupled with the unparalleled delivery of quality and safety in McDonald’s food products around the world. Comparing McDonald’s food with popular foods Americans eat at home every day, he says that, just like at home, people need to make decisions about what balance means to them when they order at McDonald’s. Skinner’s speech to the BSR audience came on the heels of an announcement the week before that McDonald’s would now place nutrition information on all products in an easy to understand bar chart to help customers make right choices for them. The bar charts will appear on tray liners, brochures and food wrappers to create transparency around the food and its content.

“This closes the loop and puts the information right in the customer hands,” said Skinner. “We are the first in the [fast food] industry to do this.”

Skinner is dismissive of the popular documentary “Super Size Me,” stating the person in the documentary overate by taking in 7,000 calories a day and ceasing to exercise. He played a commercial developed in Australia by McDonald’s to counter the “Super Size Me” film and pointed out that McDonald’s has introduced salad, fresh fruit and white meat nuggets into its menu. McDonald’s is now the largest seller of apples in the U.S.

Skinner told the audience he likes to say “if you are not the lead dog, you are not going to like the view” and keeps that in mind as McDonald’s continues to challenge itself to enhance its future goals.

“Leadership is not about how big we are, it is about how big we act,” said Skinner. “We use our marketing expertise to make a difference. Our campaign is energy in and energy out. The importance of what you eat and what you do.”

The important thing to Skinner is lessons McDonald’s has learned. They now know they can’t emphasize the quality of their products and business enough and, although they have been transparent for years, they have not done enough to challenge assumptions and change the frameworks.

“As leaders we are subject to greater scrutiny in everything we do,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take on issues with controversy. If it doesn’t have controversy it won’t be worth changing. But the only way to advance CSR is to act – to gather facts, analyze and understand the real issue – but to recognize when the only response is action.”

Skinner sees danger for businesses that choose to lay low and become bureaucratic. Business, he says, needs to do just the opposite. It needs to listen to its customers then make a bold, decisive response toward change.

By Janet Roberts

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