Chief executive officer and president, McDonald's Corporation
Born: November 7, 1960, in Kingsford, Australia.
Family: Son of a travel agent (name unknown) and Margaret (maiden name unknown); married; children: one.
Career: McDonald's Corporation, 1975–1979, crew member; 1979–1983, store manager; 1983–1985, manager, McDonald's Europe development company; 1985–1990, operations director and regional manager, McDonald's Europe development company; 1990–1993, vice president of marketing; 1993–1999, managing director of McDonald's Australia; 1999–2001, president of Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa group; 2001–2002, president of McDonald's Europe; 2003, president and COO; 2004–, CEO and president.
Address: McDonald's Corporation, 1 Kroc Drive, Oak Brook, Illinois 60523-2275; http://www.mcdonalds.com.
■ Charles Bell began working for McDonald's in Australia in 1975 as a teenager. A hard worker who was highly ambitious, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming the youngest McDonald's manager ever in 1979. By 1993 Bell was running the Australian operation, which became a model for the company's global operations. In 2002 he came to the United States to become the corporation's chief operating officer. An affable and shrewd manager, Bell was a major player under the CEO James Cantalupo in reversing McDonald's decline in the early 2000s. In 2004, at 43 years of age, Bell became one of the youngest CEOs in the world when he replaced Cantalupo as president and CEO of McDonald's. He was also the company's first foreign CEO.
Charles Bell was born in Kingsford, Australia, on November 7, 1960. His father was a travel agent; his mother, Margaret Bell, lived in the same Sydney suburb through the early 2000s. In 1975 Bell was a student at Marcellin College of Randwick, a select Catholic boy's school, where he learned religious instruction, teamwork, and discipline as well as some technical training. Not far from Marcellin was one of the first McDonald's outlets opened in Australia, of which Bell learned from a friend while riding home on the bus. He applied for a position serving hamburgers and was hired. Although his first night was so difficult that he told his parents he felt like quitting, he did not. Bell stuck with his job, dressing hamburgers, unloading trucks, and cleaning restrooms.
Having opened its first outlet in Sydney at the end of 1971, McDonald's Australia was a fledgling operation which failed to turn a profit through most of the 1970s. Visiting the Kingsford outlet, the Australian manager Peter Ritchie met the young Bell and quickly sized him up as a future company leader. Bell readily agreed with Ritchie with regard to his own prospects; as Ritchie told the Sydney Morning Herald , "He was ready to tell us how the place should have been run from 15 onwards" (April 21, 2004). Bell was often arrogant and upfront about his ambition, but in a charming, irreverent Australian way. Ritchie saw not a ranting fool but a potential leader.
The aspiring young manager gained a few lessons in cross-cultural operations during the 1970s. Helping to lead an American company in Australia, where businessmen were not seen as the heroes they were in the United States, proved to be a challenge. Unions were much stronger and taxes higher. The Shop Assistants' Union sought to organize Bell's workers; the union took McDonald's to court and struck the company's food suppliers, denouncing McDonald's for maintaining unfair labor practices, serving rotten plastic food, and even for subverting Australian culture. Ritchie sued the union for defamation and won through his presentation of McDonald's Australia as an Australian company run by Australians. Bell learned from Ritchie how to counter the anti-Americanism that had stung McDonald's: by marketing the company as a local one. Enough Australians were convinced for McDonald's Australia to finally begin earning a profit in the early 1980s.
Such experiences would help Bell when he was posted to Europe in 1983 as operations director and regional manager of McDonald's European development in Frankfurt. The first European McDonald's opened in Amsterdam in 1971; Britain and Germany would eventually become the company's leading markets, followed by France. In 1993, at age 32, Bell became managing director of McDonald's Australia, which he turned into a model subsidiary, with productivity higher than any other subsidiary and sales above the company's global average. Cantalupo, who through the 1990s headed McDonald's International, was enormously proud of Bell's accomplishments and told the Business Review Weekly that "Australia is one of our top countries around the world" (June 5, 2003)—and that Bell deserved much of the credit. Cantalupo went on to praise the example Bell and his friend and successor Guy Russo set, making McDonald's Australia the training ground even for American executives: "We've paraded a lot of people to Australia, even from the United States, to recalibrate our standards, to see what McDonald's looks like in the ideal environment" (June 5, 2003).
Even before Cantalupo became CEO, as early as 1996, he knew of Bell's abilities and wanted him to go to Illinois—to McDonald's headquarters. Bell, however, a conservative Australian with strong family ties as well as strong political ties to his friend Prime Minister John Howard, did not want to emigrate. Cantalupo sought to persuade Bell that only by coming to America could he make the impact that he had the potential to make; even the Asian operation would not be moved to Sydney. But Bell, a "dinkum Aussie" through and through, did not want to relocate. "If Bell wanted to be Pope, he would have to live in Rome," said Cantalupo in an article in Business Review Weekly (June 5, 2003). Bell went to Illinois in 1999.
From Oak Brook, Illinois, Bell oversaw McDonald's Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa group and was then put in charge of McDonald's Europe in 2001. Bell's operations in China, where McDonald's outlets marketed spicy chicken burgers and wings, proved particularly profitable. No sooner had Bell taken over the European operation than he had to confront the ramifications of "mad cow disease" in Britain. By 2002 McDonald's was encountering further trouble. In spite of McDonald's International's healthy growth, the parent company's markets in the United States were reaching a saturation point. By 2002 worldwide sales and profits were both dropping, as was the value of McDonald's stock. Customers complained of cold food, slow service, and a lack of cleanliness. The board called James Cantalupo out of retirement and elected him CEO, effective January 2003.
Cantalupo turned to Bell, appointing him chief operating officer that same month. As COO Bell became not only Cantalupo's right-hand man but also his heir apparent. Bell was placed at the heart of Cantalupo's 2003–2004 turnaround marketing strategy. If McDonald's was to save its brand, it was believed, the company would have to change its controversial and tarnished image. In April 2003 Bell launched the company's worldwide "I'm Lovin' It" media campaign. Pop singer Justin Timberlake was enlisted to help persuade millions of disillusioned consumers that McDonald's was a new company. The goal was to win back customers and revitalize the McDonald's brand.
Bell's management style was quite similar to Cantalupo's in that he was affable but very direct. "I can be as subtle as a brick through a window when I need to be," he told the Australian 's Rodney Dalton; "I think Australians can be very blunt and I sort of use that to my advantage where necessary" (May 26, 2003). He and Cantalupo would show up at McDonald's outlets and hand the managers cards evaluating their performances. Bell showed zero tolerance for dirty bathrooms, cold food, and slow, rude service. Having started at the bottom, Bell easily perceived that many managers and public-relations workers had lost touch with their customers. He voiced this perception in a candid comment in Business Review Weekly : "A lot of marketing people can get too theoretical in their meeting rooms so I take them to the real world and say, 'This is what it's all about'" (June 5, 2003). In the same article Bell related how he would take his out-of-touch managers to the growing city of Blacktown, 30 miles from the heart of Sydney. In Blacktown he would tell the managers that the practical, upwardly mobile homeowners of Blacktown were their real customers, and not the monied elites of Sydney, whom Bell called the well-dressed people "who wear black lycra at lunch down at the Crow's Nest Hotel."
Bell waged more than a public-relations campaign. He and Cantalupo cut back on expansion in favor of improved service. They attempted to respond to the charge that McDonald's served unhealthy food by introducing menus featuring salads and other leaner cuisine. Several hundred outlets, mostly overseas, were closed. By the middle of 2003 the price of McDonald's stock was on the rise. Bell shared in the praise given to Cantalupo, and many believed that within three or four years he would become his successor. The coronation proved to be much more sudden.
On April 19, 2004, Jim Cantalupo died from a heart attack at the age of 60. Some feared that his death would be a serious setback for the company. How could McDonald's profess to market healthy food when its own CEO had died possibly as a result of bearing too much fat? The board quickly named Bell chief executive officer of McDonald's Corporation, and the company seen as the very symbol of American globalization was now led by an Australian. Overnight Bell rocketed from relative obscurity to a position as one of the most influential Australians in the world, in a class with Rupert Murdoch and Mel Gibson. There seemed little doubt that he would continue to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Cantalupo.
Concern about the company's future was reinforced when Bell underwent surgery and subsequent chemotherapy for colorectal cancer in May 2004, only two weeks after becoming CEO. Questions also remained, however, as to whether Bell would succeed in maintaining Cantalupo's turnaround strategy. Critics and pessimists felt that the company's revival was a mere illusion resulting from global economics and changes set in place by Cantalupo's predecessor, Jeff Greenberg. They pointed out that the youthful Bell, 43, had virtually no American experience and no career experience outside McDonald's, aside from his having headed a task force on small business for Prime Minister Howard. Optimists, however, believed Bell, who knew every facet of the company and its worldwide operations, to be the perfect man for the job. Who better to reinvent the McDonald's brand, which would depend more than ever on global markets, than an international executive?
See also entry on McDonald's Corporation in International Directory of Company Histories .
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——, "McDonald's CEO Could Be One to Copy—or Console," USA Today , December 23, 2003.
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——, "McChief: Charlie Bell's Rise to the Top," Business Review Weekly (Australia), June 5, 2002.
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"Wannabe Boss Now McDonald's Head Honcho," Sydney Morning Herald , April 20, 2004.
—David Charles Lewis