Fred Turner, Prime Mover At McDonald's, Dies at 80

by , Jan 9, 2013, 7:45 AM
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Fred Turner had a flash of insight during an elevator conversation with a test-kitchen chef at McDonald’s in the 1980s. The result was the Chicken McNugget, which has gone on to rival beef in popularity at the fast-food chain, Stephen Miller and Julie Jargon inform us in the Wall Street Journal. Turner, 80, died Monday of complications from pneumonia. 

But that’s just one of the many innovations attributed to Turner, who rose from dollar-an-hour training flipping burgers on the grill to become CEO of the world’s pacesetting fast-food company from 1974 to 1987. He was named Advertising Age's “Adman of the Decade” for the 1980s in 1990. 

The Egg McMuffin, Quarter Pounder, McRib and Happy Meal were all introduced under Turner’s reign. He more than tripled the number of franchises and expanded overseas. He co-founded Ronald McDonald House Charities. And before he rose to the top, he wrote the chain’s first Operations and Training Manual (1958), which “included general operations advice and gave explicit instructions on food preparation, such as how to cut French fries (no thicker than 0.28 inches) or how many patties to place on the grill (no more than six),” Valerie J. Nelson points out in the Los Angeles Times.

He also was the founder of Hamburger University (1961), which has graduated 80,000 managers and operators and whose campus in Oak Brook, Ill., was named the Fred L. Turner Training Center in 2004. 

“Ray Kroc founded [McDonald’s], but Fred Turner built it into what it is today,” Dick Starmann, a longtime company executive, tells Katie Thomas in the New York Times

When the company was introducing a breakfast meal in the mid-1970s, there was much internal debate about how hard to push the new concept, Starmann tells Thomas. “He made a big, bold decision -- we’re going on national TV. He said, ‘The breakfast train is leaving the station -- lead, follow or get out of the way.’”

“He is lauded as the architect of the chain's ‘quality, service, cleanliness’ operations model -- one that led the chain to be seen as an innovator in operations and that helped the Golden Arches grow to be the biggest restaurant chain in the world,” writes Maureen Morrison in Ad Age.

Besides being “The Father of the Chicken McNugget” as the hed in the Wall Street Journal puts it, Turner was an aficionado of the bun and a stickler for quality control. 

“His real contribution was the discipline he established in these restaurants in terms of efficiency, how we make money and the controls involved,” former chief marketing officer Paul Schrage tells the Chicago Sun-Times’ Stefano Esposito and David Roeder.

Miller and Jargon write: “He insisted that buns be delivered to precise specifications, including that they be preseparated. ‘It takes a certain kind of mind to see beauty in a hamburger bun,’ wrote Mr. Kroc, who formed such a close working relationship with Mr. Turner that the chain's founder said he considered Mr. Turner a son.”

After dabbling with the idea of opening a franchise with a partner, Turner joined the company as a franchise manager in 1956. He then was one of Kroc’s first hires in corporate headquarters, according to Mark Brandau in Nation’s Restaurant News, and “quickly” rose through the ranks. He become president and chief administrative officer in 1968 and CEO in 1974. He was elected chairman and CEO in 1977, serving until 1987. He remained on the McDonald’s board until 1990, when he was named senior chairman. He was named honorary chairman in 2004.

“Our more than 34,000 restaurants around the world serve as a testament to Fred’s business genius and his strong commitment to our customers,” current McDonald’s president and CEO Don Thompson said in a statement. “Fred was a dedicated family man, a savvy business leader and a loyal friend. We will miss him tremendously.”

Turner was born in Des Moines, Iowa. His wife Patricia Shurtleff Turner, whom he met while attending Drake University, died in 2000. The Patty Turner Senior Center in their hometown of Deerfield, Ill., and the Fred and Patty Turner Jazz Center at Drake are among the ventures funded by Turner. 

Survivors include three daughters, Paula Turner, Patty Sue Rhea and Teri Turner, and eight grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending, and the family requests that contributions be sent to Ronald McDonald House Charities or the Patty Turner Senior Center in lieu of flowers.

“He was proud of everything about McDonald’s, and rightly so --  he and Ray built it, with many other people,” Paula Turner tells Bloomberg’s Laurence Arnold and Leslie Patton. “They had a partnership early on and a real love for each other and a real shared vision.”

“He said to us, ‘Who's had a better life than me?” Teri tells the Wall Street Journal, which is soliciting remembrances at remembrances@wsj.com. “He said, ‘I did something with my life. I made a difference.’” 

Indeed, acknowledges a page on the McDonald’s website this morning that carries a picture of a smiling Turner peering out from what appears to be a drive-through window with “You Made a Difference” emblazoned in large type across the top.

1 comment on "Fred Turner, Prime Mover At McDonald's, Dies at 80 ".

  1. Wayne Harris from Glowac,Harris,Madison
    commented on: January 9, 2013 at 1:10 p.m.
    I was fortunate to have worked at McDonald's and had the opportunity to interact with Fred on several occasions. My first encounter with Fred was at Hamburger University. I was a student in class and during a break I ran in to Fred in the hallway. I approached him and said, "someday I'm gonna have your job". Fred looked at me and replied, "Wayne, I hope you do". Fred was a man of high integrity and to this day I think about some of the tough decisions he made based on doing the right thing versus the easy way. Wayne Harris

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