McDonald’s corporate headquarters, in the suburb of Oak Brook, is an island of serenity, with Prairie-style buildings reposed amid 80 acres of streams and fields. It is the home of Hamburger University, the company’s management school, as well as a state-of-the-art test kitchen, 4,000 works of contemporary American art, and many thousands more pieces of brand memorabilia. Giant banners hanging in the main building’s four-story atrium show the company engaged in what it proclaims to be a “World of Good.” On a banner draped across the second-floor landing, two restaurant workers, aglow with possibility, grin beside the question “What Kind of Future Can I Have at McDonald’s?”
On a Wednesday afternoon in late January, however, the mood here was decidedly glum. In an earnings call the previous Friday, McDonald’s executives had struggled to find the upside to one of the worst years in the company’s six-decade history. Earnings had fallen from $1.4 billion in 2013 to $1.1 billion in 2014. U.S. same-store sales had not grown in any month since November 2013, and 2014 represented the first annual decline in 30 years. And as part of a $100 million cost-cutting measure announced earlier in the month, McDonald’s was in the process of laying off 63 of its 1,700 corporate employees.
During a series of interviews with current and former McDonald’s workers and executives over the past few months, I found that these corporate folk mostly loved their jobs. Talking to them, I sometimes felt like I was among adults who had all attended the same transformative summer camp. They boasted about the “ketchup in their veins” and referred to their membership in the “McFamily,” using the word without irony or apology. The ongoing layoffs meant that many of them were saying difficult farewells to McDonald’s brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. Others tensed nervously each time a supervisor asked for a minute of their time.
But the mood was about to get worse. They would learn shortly that their CEO was out.
To investors and analysts, the departure of Don Thompson was not exactly unexpected. After all, McDonald’s stock had barely budged during Thompson’s two-and-a-half-year tenure, a period during which the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index had soared 47 percent. What’s more, on Thompson’s watch, the iconic company had drawn fire from all sides: health advocates, animal rights activists, low-income workers. Parents who had happily inhaled Big Macs as kids now consider eating at McDonald’s a sort of vice, like smoking. And anyhow, their children prefer a range of newer, more upscale fast-casual establishments, such as Panera Bread, Five Guys, and Shake Shack. To sought-after millennial consumers, in particular, unprocessed food, eco-friendly policies, and fair labor practices tend to trump price, speed, and consistency.
That afternoon, Thompson met with the board of directors in the main building’s executive wing. The 13-person body, which included Thompson himself, was heavy with influential Chicagoans who knew one another well, including Abbott Laboratories CEO Miles White, Ariel Investments chief John Rogers Jr., School of the Art Institute president Walter Massey, and longtime nonexecutive chairman Andy McKenna, who had been a friend of the company’s founder, the legendary Ray Kroc. The group ostensibly reached a mutual decision that Thompson, a robust 51, would retire.
Around 3:30, minutes after the meeting wrapped up, the news was relayed to McDonald’s investor relations and communications teams, the people responsible for disseminating it internally and externally. Thompson’s last day would be March 1. The new CEO: Steve Easterbrook, 48, an ambitious Brit who had not only worked at the company for years, most recently as its chief brand officer, but had successfully run two fast-food chains in the United Kingdom for a time.
“Surreal,” Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, a senior vice president of communications, called the news. She knew it would be just as wrenching to her colleagues. For Papa Bear, as Thompson called himself, was loved by all. He had worked at McDonald’s for 24 years, nearly half his life. He was the burger giant’s first black CEO—among America’s black corporate chiefs, only American Express’s Ken Chenault runs a larger enterprise—“the icing on the cake” of McDonald’s four-decade embrace of diversity, says Patricia Harris, the chief diversity officer there. Thompson’s ascension to the top job had carried special meaning for the company’s sizable black work force. “Seeing him in a leadership role filled us with unparalleled pride,” Sa Shekhem says.
The communications team was still coping with the shock of the news when in sauntered Thompson, whistling amiably. “Hello there, Miss Heidi,” he sang out. “Hey, Miss Bridget.”
Thompson is lineman big, with a large bald pate and a loping gait. His rounded features look always on the verge of spreading into an open-mouthed smile, and he smiled now as he greeted Sa Shekhem and the others, pulling them in for massive hugs. He was doing great, he told them. He was there to comfort them. “Whatever you need,” he announced, “I’m here to help.”
The rise of Don Thompson is among the most extraordinary in American business. He grew up in a two-flat in the shadow of Cabrini-Green, the now mostly demolished public housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side. Born in 1963 to unwed parents who could not care for him, he was taken in by his grandmother when he was two weeks old (she later legally adopted him). As he began to describe his grandmother to me, he simply uttered, “Wow,” then remained silent for a good 10 seconds. “I believe God sends you angels.”
Rosa J. Martin came to Chicago from Mississippi, and she so firmly believes that education is the means for black advancement that even to this day, at the age of 99, she squirrels away money for her two great-grandchildren’s college funds. Thompson is not sure how she managed to get him into a nearby Catholic school that they couldn’t afford. (“I was Catholic all week and Baptist on the weekends,” he joked.) The food budget was so tight, Thompson recently told CBS News Sunday Morning, that when he pleaded with his grandmother for a McDonald’s hamburger, she’d say, “We’re going home. I’ll make you a McDonald’s.”
Around the time Thompson entered fifth grade, in the early 1970s, some of his cousins joined street gangs that operated in and around Cabrini-Green. “It was just part of the deal of living there,” Thompson told me. But Martin wouldn’t accept that deal. She took her grandson with her to the outskirts of Indianapolis, where one of her daughters lived. “It was too quiet to sleep,” Thompson recalled.
The boy filled his time with an endless assortment of odd jobs. He had a paper route. He cleaned a movie theater and his church. He printed up business cards to pass out to the elderly residents of a nearby building; he did their shopping, washed their clothes, cooked, pulled weeds. “I didn’t know what minimum wage was—just pay me fair,” he said of the work. In seventh grade, he began carrying a briefcase to school. “I got teased, but I just didn’t care. It served a purpose and a function. Plus, I thought it was pretty cool: the executive look.”
At Purdue University, which he attended on an engineering scholarship, Thompson worked in the dining hall to help pay his way. During his freshman year, in 1981, he met another 17-year-old engineering major named Liz Watson. They struck up a conversation before a calculus lecture. Where are you from? Where in Chicago? What street? Thompson’s grandmother’s old walkup was on the 1300 block of North Cleveland Avenue. Liz had spent her life just four blocks away, on the 900 block of Cleveland, in a low-rise apartment in Cabrini-Green.
In 1988, four years after graduating from Purdue, Don married Liz; they settled not far from their old neighborhood. This was the Cabrini-Green of the late ’80s, with stories of snipers and drugs there appearing regularly in the news. Yet, Liz emphasizes, the environment was also nurturing and complex: “I can’t imagine another neighborhood being so full of a sense of community and love. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
At the time, Liz was working as an engineer at Ameritech, and Don at the defense contractor Northrop Grumman. Two years later, he got a call from a McDonald’s recruiter that would change his life.
Like Motorola, another Chicago corporate success story, McDonald’s was legendary for having upended an industry, drawing on the “science” of food standardization and the development of sophisticated supplier networks to dominate the fast-food business in America and, increasingly, the world. It was renowned for its culture of training and promoting from within. And it was committed to developing minority leaders.
Thompson accepted a job designing food delivery systems. Almost from the start, he was schooled in the doctrines of Ray Kroc. Among them, the importance of the “three-legged stool,” which represents McDonald’s employees, franchisees, and suppliers. Only when they were in proper balance, Kroc preached, would the company thrive.
As a new employee, Thompson was also enrolled in the company’s Black Career Development program, classes that McDonald’s has held since the 1970s both to educate all employees about cultural differences and to help minorities navigate its corporate culture. Role-playing in one workshop, he was instructed to respond to a request to carry the CEO’s bag as the two of them left the office. “I’m a young African American man. I’m like, ‘I don’t tote anyone’s bag,’ ” Thompson recalls.
Wrong answer. That hang-up about bag toting, Thompson was told, could cost him a couple of minutes with the boss, time in which the CEO could get to know him.
After just a year at the company, the ambitious 28-year-old felt so slighted at not receiving an outstanding employee award (none was given that year) that he almost quit. “I felt McDonald’s must not be ready for an African American engineer who contributed all these great things,” he said. “I was in my own pity party.”
Before resigning, he sat down with Raymond Mines, a gruff man in the crucial operations department, who was then one of the company’s highest-ranking black executives. Mines found a different job for the disgruntled Thompson: as a meetings facilitator. Thompson traveled the country toting flip charts, acting as an emcee for company meetings. It wasn’t even close to what the future CEO envisioned for himself. But Thompson decided he’d be the best meeting facilitator possible.
Turned out Mines had been testing him. A year later, he made Thompson an operations manager.
Like all those new to operations, Thompson was first embedded at a McDonald’s restaurant, in his case in the South Chicago neighborhood. There he worked every job from fry guy to assistant manager. With the support of Fred Turner, a former company CEO who was senior chairman at the time, Thompson rose quickly through the ranks, running corporate offices in Denver, and the San Diego area, and the Midwest. Each time he uprooted his wife and, later, his two young children, Xavier (now 21, a junior at Purdue) and Maya (18, a Stanford freshman). “We started to feel the power of the McFamily when we moved,” says Liz. “McDonald’s folks welcomed us to each new community.”
Thompson was proud of his company’s emphasis on rewarding hard work and results regardless of pedigree (his predecessor as CEO, Jim Skinner, never graduated from college), and he turned into a true believer. “I have my faith in God. My wife. And the McFamily,” he’d say.
In 2006, Skinner, who had been named CEO two years earlier, made Thompson president of McDonald’s USA, overseeing all domestic operations. In 2010, he appointed Thompson chief operating officer, essentially his No. 2. (Skinner declined to comment for this story.) It was a great time to enter the corporation’s highest ranks: Worldwide, McDonald’s was on a roll. During Skinner’s eight-year tenure, the company’s stock price tripled, beating the market averages by a huge margin.
Thompson proved an energetic and hands-on executive, keen to involve himself in the smallest details—something he says he learned from Turner, whom Thompson credits with a near-mystical understanding of the business. (Turner could taste when the starch levels in potatoes were slightly off, touch a bun to determine its moisture levels.) Thompson had also developed an uncanny ability to nurture his staff even as he lowered the boom, a skill for which Turner had nicknamed him the Velvet Hammer.
When Skinner retired at the end of June 2012, Thompson got his job.
One December day in Oak Brook, in the Latin America Room (each McDonald’s conference room is named for an area in which the company operates), I sat in on a meeting with Thompson and his communications team, a group of eight that included the equivalent of a chief of staff and a speechwriter. Sipping on a large McDonald’s iced coffee and whistling quietly to himself, Thompson studied a packet on China that had been prepared for his upcoming trips to Shanghai and Beijing. “Will the ambassador be there the week we are?” he asked the group.
Thompson came across as both formidable and disarmingly informal. (Later I saw him try to get the attention of a woman preparing burgers in the Arch, a McDonald’s franchise inside the corporate headquarters, by calling out, “Hey, Lil’ Bit! Lil’ Bit!”) Each time he was ready to move on to the next agenda item, he said, “Alllrighteee!” or “Goooood enough!”, stretching out the words like gooey cheese. “Purrrfect!”
At the meeting, Thompson tweaked his speech for a National Urban League event in New York City. Looking over another talk he was to give for Ronald McDonald House, a company charity that provides families of hospitalized children a place to stay, he requested extra time to make the rounds. “You can’t go to a Ronald House and not tour and see the folks!” he boomed.
Thompson was unfailingly upbeat around his staff. (“He’s one of the most inspirational leaders I’ve ever seen,” says Mike Donahue, cofounder of LYFE Kitchen and a former McDonald’s communications chief.) But during an interview in his office, Thompson made a rare departure from script. “My role comes with personal risk and job-related risk,” he conceded. “It comes with some sleepless nights.”
His worries did not include the quality of his company’s food. Along with every other McDonald’s executive I spoke to, he simply didn’t believe the research showing that Americans dislike the taste. (In a July 2014 Consumer Reports taste survey of hamburgers from 21 fast-food chains, McDonald’s ranked dead last, somehow behind even Jack in the Box.) As for those Internet memes about “pink slime” beef and McRibs made with plastic yoga mats? Thompson blamed what he calls “food quality misperceptions” by consumers.
That’s something he said he hoped to correct: “‘Here’s what’s in a McNugget.’ ‘Here’s where the food comes from.’ So people understand we’re a restaurant—we cook food at McDonald’s.” Last year, the company began airing “Our Food, Your Questions,” an online campaign of short videos. In one, a former host of the reality TV show MythBusters tours a McDonald’s chicken processing plant in Tennessee and declares of the meat: “It is what they say it is.”
As I left Thompson’s office, I noticed a wall-mounted screen in the hallway that displayed a digital version of the Plan to Win. This was a turnaround strategy that McDonald’s launched in 2003, shortly after it had experienced its first-ever quarterly loss. The main thrust: Go back to basics. While Thompson’s own plan to revitalize the company was forward thinking in many ways, the strategy sounded similar to that 12-year-old one. “The lesson for all is to get back to the core,” Thompson explained. “The first point of focus is always the customer.”
To set McDonald’s to rights, he said, the company must scale back and simplify its cluttered and confusing menu, which had quadrupled to 121 items since 1990. Some of the new offerings, such as salads, apple slices, and Go-Gurt, were added to appeal to health-conscious eaters. But many were simply new variations of Quarter Pounders, Extra Value Meals, and the like. As a result, prep times weren’t as fast as they once were. Thompson began paring some of those variations in January.
At the same time, he wanted to give more power to individual restaurants to tailor their menus to local tastes—jalapeño burgers in the Southwest, McRibs in the heartland.
He also spoke about the importance of investing in digital technologies. In September, McDonald’s partnered with Apple Pay to enable customers to make purchases with their mobile phones, and it’s building an app so that customers can place orders from them, too. It’s about time, according to Nicole Miller Regan, a senior research analyst at the investment bank Piper Jaffray. “Starbucks has long been offering mobile ordering, mobile payment, and electronic loyalty cards—all the things consumers want,” she says. “McDonald’s is drastically late to the game.”
Thompson’s biggest innovation, the linchpin of “the experience of the future,” is called Create Your Taste. On a touchscreen, you build a sandwich of your choosing by picking the toppings and cheeses and sauces, sort of like how you get to custom-make every meal at Chipotle, a company in which McDonald’s had been an investor until 2006. When your food is ready, a McDonald’s employee serves it to you not at the counter but at your table. (The regular McDonald’s menu—the “core menu,” it’s now called—will still be available for customers who prefer it.) So far, in the United States, the concept is a reality only at one restaurant in suburban Downers Grove and a few in Southern California; it will start rolling out nationwide this year.
Obviously Create Your Taste has been focus-grouped and market-tested endlessly. But McDonald’s has bombed other new product launches (McLean Deluxe, McPizza, and, on Thompson’s watch, Mighty Wings). The company’s appeal has for so long been the addictive combination of fats, sugars, sodium, and carbs (“Mmmm…”) and the price (a burger for just a buck on the Dollar Menu). Can McDonald’s really thrive both as an inexpensive fast-food joint and as a classed-up fast-casual spot?
Thompson likened this iteration to several the company has made over the years, such as moving from carhop to lobby service and offering breakfast in addition to lunch and dinner. “If you don’t move forward, you’ll be an obsolete brand,” he said with conviction. “You have to be able to embrace the future and move to where customers are and where data trends tell you they will be.”
Along a deep-dish Chicago gastronomy trail, on a spur off the Magnificent Mile, the Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s serves up company history in glorious bites. Statues out front of Ray Kroc and Ronald McDonald are embronzed as visions of Eisenhower-era Americana. An exhibit on the restaurant’s second floor charts the fast-food giant’s march into foreign countries: 119 thus far, with Kazakhstan soon to follow. The largest display takes you on a winding six-decade journey by way of McDonald’s place amid collective cultural touchstones, the brand right there beside the Lone Ranger and fallout shelters, civil rights and Studio 54, E.T., Nelson Mandela, and bling bling.
On a chilly Friday afternoon last November, a group of protesters breached this veritable McShrine: about 50 men and women, mostly Latino and African American, chanting “Sí se puede!” (“Yes we can!”) and hoisting placards that read “We Are Worth More.” Two women taking turns on a bullhorn, alternating between English and Spanish, bellowed that they had a right to form a union and that McDonald’s must pay them a living wage. They demanded a meeting with the owner to discuss an abusive manager.
Members of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, better known as Fight for $15, these McDonald’s fry cooks, sandwich makers, and order takers are among the lowest-paid employees in the country: The average fast-food worker earns about $9 an hour, or $19,000 a year assuming full-time hours, according to a recent study by Demos, a liberal think tank. Company-owned McDonald’s restaurants start their Chicago workers at the city’s minimum wage of $8.25 (slated to rise to $13 by 2019); franchisees set their own employees’ pay. At the Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s, teenage patrons (the vital millennials!) encircled the protesters, camera phones aloft, more excited to film themselves as part of a boisterous labor fight than to post images of Quarter Pounders.
Incongruously, in Oak Brook, executives were telling me about the great career opportunities the company offers. Many of these people had joined the company at the lowest levels and worked their way up. For instance, Jeff Stratton, a retired president of McDonald’s USA, started at a Detroit McDonald’s punching a register for $1.60 an hour. And 60 percent of the company’s franchisees began as hourly workers, said Thompson. (It currently costs $750,000 to buy a franchise.) “You don’t have to have a high school or college degree to have a career path forward at McDonald’s. We employ people who others don’t employ, let alone move on to be a VP in our organization.”
But with the proliferation of low-level service jobs and greater income inequality, upward mobility is a lot tougher than it used to be. Adjusted for inflation, the pay of minimum-wage workers has fallen 47 percent since 1968. More than half of the nation’s fast-food workers are on public aid, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois that was funded by a sister group of Fight for $15. Not without reason does the Oxford English Dictionary define a McJob as “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects.”
According to the Demos study, fast-food CEOs earn, on average, 1,200 times more than their lowest-paid workers—the widest gap of any industry. In 2012, the year Thompson became CEO, he pulled down $13.8 million in total compensation. This did not go unnoticed. In March 2013, Fight for $15 protesters and others tried to picket Thompson’s recently built mansion in suburban Burr Ridge (they were turned back by police). In January 2014, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times dubbed Thompson a “wealth addict.”
Liz Thompson found it difficult to comprehend why people would criticize her husband for his compensation. “It’s set by the board of directors, as is the case with any CEO,” she said. “He’s paid for performance.” Thompson, too, was exasperated. “What you don’t expect are the personal attacks,” he said. “Especially the way I grew up. I can’t believe it would come to that.”
Yet Thompson’s personal history could serve as a kind of bridge, says Thompson’s friend Terry Mazany, head of the Chicago Community Trust, a philanthropic organization. “With his background, Don could be a hero in regard to raising the minimum wage.”
So why not do something bold on workers’ pay? I asked Thompson. If McDonald’s led, others would surely follow. Improving pay might even help transform the perception of the brand.
Thompson calmly replied that he was one of the few leaders in the fast-food industry to state publicly that the minimum wage should be increased—slowly and combined with tax credits, special reduced training wages, or other ways to lessen the burden on small businesses. Even that modest endorsement, made offhandedly to business students at Northwestern University last May, sparked a swift backlash from franchisees and shareholders. “I got some feedback: ‘You sold us out,’ ” said Thompson.
A sudden wage increase (to say nothing of a union) would place an undue burden on franchisees, he argued, thus unbalancing the “three-legged stool”—which, under Turner’s tutelage, Thompson had come to see as sacrosanct. “This system is this system,” he uttered, like a tautological koan. “It’s made not just by the company but by the combination of all three parts working together. It’s what makes McDonald’s very special.”
It’s not that Thompson doesn’t sympathize with people who are struggling. He and Liz are involved in several youth and education philanthropies in Chicago, and I interviewed two successful young men who were at-risk local boys when the couple mentored them and helped support them through high school and college. But Thompson genuinely couldn’t seem to square the hardship stories that McDonald’s workers now tell with his own vision of the company. He saw those people as extreme cases, “used” by the unions, wholly unrepresentative of the McDonald’s experience. He repeated a response that seemed from another era: “We believe in a lot more than minimum. We believe in opportunity.”
Throughout Thompson’s two-and-a-half-year tenure, McDonald’s directors had publicly been nothing but supportive, even as their CEO—and their company—drew a parade of critics who seemed to choose hatin’ over lovin’. Like Thompson and other McDonald’s executives I spoke to, they believed the company was being unfairly targeted. Plenty of fast-food companies paid low wages and had similar food-sourcing practices. As the supersized symbol of an entire fast-food way of life, McDonald’s was taking the beating for all of them.
More crucially, the board stood by Thompson as he delivered poor results quarter after quarter. In late November, Massey told me that the board was “totally comfortable with Don and endorses him.”
The support of these business veterans heartened Thompson. They knew that he faced many problems beyond his control: Russia abruptly shutting down 12 McDonald’s restaurants last summer; a chicken supplier in China found to be selling expired meat in July. They knew it was tremendously more difficult to follow a star CEO than an unsuccessful one. And they knew that the fast-food business is cyclical. (“It’s the fourth downturn I’ve seen during my years here,” Thompson said.)
Board members understood, too, that McDonald’s, with some 36,000 restaurants worldwide, is a behemoth, and behemoths take a long time to turn around. Retrofitting all restaurants to roll out Create Your Taste would take years, Easterbrook told me. Massey said that the board wasn’t “looking for something splashy and quick. . . . We’re willing to go through a rough period as the plan develops, and stick to it.”
On the other hand, Thompson knew better than anyone that falling sales were a disaster. “The culture of McDonald’s is so sales driven; sales are top of mind in every meeting,” says former exec Donahue, who worked with Thompson. “You’re in panic mode when daily sales dip, let alone a few months’ sales. McDonald’s is a company that was used to never having a losing quarter.”
Thompson certainly had a hand in his own demise. He rarely gave interviews, for one thing. Putting yourself forward is not the McDonald’s way. But “when things aren’t going well, you need the leader to be out in the public spotlight,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management and an expert on leadership. “Humility is not a virtue at times like these.”
He adds: “Thompson didn’t have a clear message—he was trying a little of this, a little of that—and his company didn’t have a clear identity. It was a confusing mess.”
Perhaps Thompson’s nurturing Papa Bear style, his reassuring jollity, which had served him and the company so well in flush times, was less suited to a time of crisis, when more radical change is called for. At the most fundamental level, perhaps Thompson simply couldn’t see past the glitter of the Golden Arches. A company man through and through, reverent about McDonald’s visionary leaders, proud of its glorious history, he couldn’t manage to move the company much beyond where it had always been.
Turns out, of course, that despite the board’s protestations of support, Thompson had little more runway than the typical public-company CEO, who lives or dies by his or her quarterly earnings performance. McDonald’s fourth-quarter earnings call, made on the morning of January 23, sealed his fate. “We’re acting with a sense of urgency,” Thompson told investors and analysts after the dismal numbers were delivered. “We’re changing, and we’re doing it aggressively.”
The Q&A portion of the call drew a few skeptical questions. Asked Katherine Heng of Buckingham Research Group: “Regarding Create Your Taste, can you comment on any incremental traffic that you’re seeing?”
“Clearly we’re seeing positive results,” an unruffled Thompson replied. “Clearly otherwise we would not be implementing this.” He gave no specifics.
The call did not go over well. “McDonald’s Tried to Be All Things to All People. It Didn’t Work,” blared a Washington Post headline.
The noise from Wall Street and unhappy investors had finally grown too loud for the board. Chairman McKenna, a gentlemanly 85-year-old, declined to be interviewed. But Thompson told me what happened next. “The board and I had no falling-out. When you’re a CEO of a company and the financial performance isn’t there, that’s associated with the CEO’s performance. That’s just the way it is. I accept that fully.
“I told the board that I care more about McDonald’s than my job, absolutely. One of the things I would never want, I wouldn’t want McDonald’s ever to suffer because of any one individual, so my perspective was if we would be in a better position because of me, my retirement, then maybe that was a positive thing to do.”
At 51, Thompson is obviously not ready to retire. A day after the announcement, he said he already had “irons in the fire,” maybe “doing something in a different field, a different marketplace. There’s so much I want to do.”
For the moment, he was happy for a break. “I’ve been the shield in front of the brand for a lot of tough issues. That’s the role I’ve played,” he said. “After a time, you say, ‘Man, being the shield isn’t easy.’ ”
It was difficult to imagine him somewhere other than McDonald’s, carrying another company’s shield. And maybe Thompson was thinking the same thing, because he quickly added: “Make no mistake, I am and will be a brand ambassador. I am as proud as can be of the Golden Arches, because I’ve seen the things that we as a system do, the lives that are touched, the people who come from very humble beginnings to do some really great things. I will always support McDonald’s, just as long as McDonald’s continues to do those things.”