What McDonald's Learned From Burger King's Turnaround

Maybe America's biggest burger chain will try selling Whoppers next?

McDonald's Profit Trails Estimates As Sales Slump Persists
Photographer: Luke Sharrett

McDonald’s chief executive officer, Steve Easterbrook, unveiled his turnaround plan for America’s biggest burger chain, making a big deal out of an initiative to carve up his company into four geographic segments and put them under new management. “It will spread insight faster, it will enable quicker decision making, it will eliminate mistakes, reduce costs, and unlock growth,” he said in a videotaped presentation this week. He also touted the promise of McDonald's sleeker operations in Australia

What Easterbrook neglected to mention was even more intriguing: McDonald is following the lead of Burger King, its second-largest competitor. Burger King seemed to have lost its way until 3G, the Brazilian private equity group, took it private in 2010 as part of a $4 billion billion leverage buyout. The new owner rejuvenated the troubled chain with young leadership and a restructuring plan that was highly controversial at the time.

Some in the fast-food business believe that burger chains need to own a significant number of their stores to truly understand the market. That has been McDonald’s philosophy. The Brazilian private equity crew had different ideas. Arguing that franchisees would run them better, 3G sold off all but 52 of the 12,174 restaurants owned by Burger King around the world. Instead of falling on its face, Burger King's overall sales in the U.S. rose 1.6 percent last year, outstripping both McDonald’s (-1.1 percent) and Wendy’s (-0.4 percent), according to Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consultancy.

Not surprisingly, Easterbrook's turnaround blueprint for McDonald's includes a plan to sell 3,500 of his company’s stores to franchisees. When the disposal process is over in 2018, McDonald's will own only 10 percent of its stores, compared with 19 percent today. No, Easterbrook’s plan isn’t as radical as the one 3G put into place at Burger King, but it’s a validation of the private equity firm's strategy.

Dave Henkes, a Technomic vice president, believes McDonald’s proposed selloff makes sense. “Franchisees tend to perform better,” he says. “They are driven, motivated owners who are more innovative and think outside of the box.” McDonald's specific numbers in the U.S. last year bear this out. Henkes says sales at McDonald’s company-owned stores in the U.S. fell 3.6 percent last year.  By contrast, its franchisee-owned ones suffered a decline of only 0.8 percent.

Even so, McDonald's shares fell after Easterbrook made his announcement. Perhaps he hasn't  been bold enough. When 3G bought Burger King in 2010, the chain still owned 11 percent of its stores worldwide. The new owner got rid of nearly all of them as fast as it could. Based on McDonald's recent numbers, Easterbrook needs to do the same. Why wait until after 2018?  

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