He took charge of McDonald’s amid an executive scandal and soon found himself facing the most serious global pandemic in a century. He spoke with Brunswick’s Jayne Rosefield.
Chris Kempczinski was enjoying a quiet moment at his home in Chicago last autumn when he received a call from Chair of the Board of McDonald’s Corporation, Rick Hernandez. Mr. Hernandez was calling to ask if Mr. Kempczinski would take over the helm of McDonald’s. The circumstances were unusual. Evidence had emerged that McDonald’s then-CEO, Steve Easterbrook, had violated company policy and undermined company values. After a thorough investigation, the Board took decisive action, terminating Mr. Easterbrook and naming a new leader.
Mr. Kempczinski wasn’t new to the company but unlike previous chief executives, he hadn’t joined the restaurant giant decades earlier, either. He’d come to McDonald’s in 2015 after holding top management positions at Kraft Foods and PepsiCo. Joining as VP, Global Strategy, Business Development and Innovation, it took him only a year and a half to earn promotion to President of McDonald’s USA, where he was responsible for the operations of about 14,000 restaurants. In November 2019, Mr. Kempczinski became President and Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant company. In just four years, he had clearly made a mark.
Nothing about Mr. Kempczinski’s ascent surprised Greg Kelly, a Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company and a friend of Mr. Kempczinski’s dating back to university. During their undergraduate days at Duke, Mr. Kempczinski made no secret of admiring “Coach K,” aka Mike Krzyzewski, whose teams have won five national titles. Of Mr. Kempczinski, Mr. Kelly says, “At college, we nicknamed him ‘The Colonel’ given the similarity between his leadership qualities and those of Duke’s legendary basketball coach.” In the younger Mr. Kempczinski, Mr. Kelly also saw the “tremendous energy and resilience” that might have predicted his traveling the globe not only as a rising leader in business but as a serial runner of marathons far and wide.
Michael Hsu, Mr. Kempczinski’s former boss at Kraft Foods, now Chairman and CEO of Kimberly-Clark, saw the way in which these character traits, coupled with his deep understanding of consumer behavior, drove strong business performance. He describes Mr. Kempczinski as a “business savant,” someone who is able to “translate insight into action into results.” He also was struck by Mr. Kempczinski’s genuine commitment to personal growth and development, as well as his focus on building meaningful connections. Put simply, he is a leader who at his core “cares a lot.”
Inside McDonald’s, Mr. Kempczinski wasted no time reminding employees, franchisees and suppliers that their pride in McDonald’s was rooted in the values on which the company was founded-—and reiterating his personal commitment to those values. “In his first town hall as CEO, Chris was clear with his expectation that everyone personify the values of the company,” recalls Kevin Ozan, CFO at McDonald’s. “In those 60 minutes, he reminded us all of the responsibility we have to deliver on McDonald’s greater purpose.”
It was a belief in Mr. Kempczinski that led Heidi Capozzi, Chief People Officer, to join the company in April this year. “My very first impression of Chris, and a belief I continue to hold today, is that he is a true values-based leader. Integrity, and doing what’s right, is at the core of who he is and how he thinks.”