McDonald's mourns loss of 2nd CEO


CHICAGO - McDonald's Corp. executives will focus on maintaining the momentum of the burger giant's turnaround, the company said yesterday, as employees mourned former Chief Executive Officer Charles H. Bell, who died Sunday after a seven-month battle with colorectal cancer.

That's hard enough for the few large companies that have ever dealt with the loss of an influential leader to illness. McDonald's - on its third CEO in 10 months - has had to do it twice since April.

Bell, 44, announced his cancer diagnosis in May, just three weeks after succeeding predecessor James R. Cantalupo, who died of a heart attack April 19. Bell, an Australian who began working at McDonald's at age 15, was Cantalupo's handpicked successor and was named to replace him hours after his death.

The two were the architects of a revitalization plan that extended hours, added menu items and employed a back-to-basics sensibility that ended two years of slumping sales.

Since Cantalupo launched the plan in 2003, McDonald's has logged more than 20 consecutive months of growing sales in the United States and six consecutive quarters of earnings growth, with profits up 42 percent in the most recent quarter reported in October.

"Charlie was an incredible leader," recently appointed CEO James A. Skinner said in a statement shortly after Bell's death. "Charlie was a role model for each of us, and we are better off, as individuals and as a system, because of him."

Skinner, who took over the company in November after Bell returned home to Sydney, Australia, in a medically equipped plane, said he plans to stick with the long-term plans set out by his predecessors.

Management experts and counselors said that's a good strategy when the unexpected or untimely loss of a leader sends shock waves of sadness and worry through a company.

"It takes time to grieve the loss of someone you like," said Gary Cohen, chief executive of Employee Resource Systems Inc., a Chicago-based employee assistance consulting firm. "In addition to feelings of sadness and loss, there's uncertainty about what the change will mean. ... It's a self-protection instinct, to ask, 'How is my job going to be affected?'"

CEOs often find there's no set playbook on how to deal with organizational issues when faced with a health crisis while still in the top seat at a company.

McDonald's ability to cope, initially, was helped by its practice of fostering strong long-term relationships with a large network of entrepreneurial operators and its tradition of grooming executives internally, giving it a ready pipeline of successors.

"The really good organizations that endure have enough stability in the center of the organization, in that big fat middle ground of operating managers" to weather sudden changes at the top, said James Schrager, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business.

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