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McDonald's Should Fear Its Franchisees

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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After much anticipation, the newly installed chief executive officer of McDonald's, Steve Easterbrook, has announced a sweeping turnaround plan aimed at cutting annual costs by around $300 million at the struggling fast-food behemoth. Wall Street was unimpressed: the stock fell after Easterbrook made his announcement.

But a far important constituency is also grumbling: the franchisees who own most of the outlets. Many have already expressed skepticism about Easterbrook’s leadership, complaining that McDonald's was imposing new burdens, products and obligations without any understanding of the strain the changes will place on franchise owners. 

There’s little evidence that Easterbrook's plans to turn McDonald's into a "modern, progressive burger company" -- which include selling 3,500 of the restaurants it owns -- allayed the concerns of the franchise owners, who have experienced falling sales in many parts of the world.

Easterbrook's plan seemed largely aimed at creating value for shareholders, not helping franchisees. The vexed history of franchising suggests it may be a mistake to disregard this constituency.

Franchises have been around in different forms for centuries: the word derives from the Middle English fraunchise, meaning a freedom or privilege.  At first a franchise was something that a ruler would confer upon some subject -- such as the right to collect tolls -- in exchange for a fee or cut of the proceeds.

Businesses eventually adopted the franchise model as a way of outsourcing distribution. The Singer Sewing Machine Company helped pioneer the practice in the 1850s, selling the exclusive “right” to market the company’s goods in a given sales territory.

This would later be expanded to other goods and services in the early 20th century, when companies as diverse as General Motors and A&W Root Beer sold the rights to market their products to franchisees. But there was limited oversight. A & W stores, for example, did not resemble one another in any way, save for the presence of the root beer and the trademarks. 

After World War II, McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants introduced “business format” franchises. Unlike conventional franchises, this wasn’t a way to delegate distribution; it was a means to sell an entire way of life to aspiring small-business owners.  McDonald's founder Ray Kroc described this as an “updated version of the American Dream,” and his company, along with Howard Johnson’s and other restaurants, made it a mainstream phenomenon.

In business-format franchising, the parent company maintains a rigorous level of control over franchisees, holding them to standards of appearance, cooking times, the dress of employees, accounting methods, and just about anything else that can be standardized and controlled. McDonald's went so far as to create its famed “Hamburger University” in 1961.

In principle, this insured success for both the corporation and the franchise owners. But in practice it relegated franchisees to a genuinely subordinate position. Harold Brown, a lawyer and critic of business format franchising claimed in 1970 that “numerous franchisors have stated that their franchisees are like children, demanding constant discipline and control.”

This attitude didn't always sit so well with franchisees. The control imposed from above was fine so long as the decisions made at corporate headquarters worked well on the ground, but that wasn’t always the case.  In the late 1960s, a number of high-profile franchising ventures ended in revolts.

Troubles often began when corporate headquarters failed to deliver on promises.  Domino’s Pizza, for example, expanded its franchise operations throughout the 1960s, but failed to deliver sufficient support, financing and training. Profits plummeted and the company almost went bankrupt in 1969. 

Two years later, enraged franchise holders sued Domino’s, alleging that the corporation had imposed obligations on outlets without providing the necessary support. There was much anger as well at Domino’s insistence that outlets only purchase supplies from the parent company or an approved supplier. Eventually, Domino’s bought out the embittered franchisees, increasing the number of outlets under direct ownership.

Similar tensions resulted in a number of high-profile revolts of franchisees against their corporate masters. Chicken Delight, founded in 1952, expanded over the course of the succeeding decade, but then failed to deliver the necessary support to franchise owners, despite forcing them to pay the corporation higher prices for everything from paper plates to batter for the chicken. A number of franchisees eventually sued the company, setting in motion a chain of events that led to what the Wall Street Journal described in 1972 as “the virtual dismantling of the Chicken Delight organization.”

Shakey’s Pizza, Mister Donut and other companies faced similar revolts around the same time. Some, notably Mr. Donut, mended fences with their franchisees, granting them increased control over local decision-making, financing, accounting, and even the expenditure of ad dollars. Others moved away from top-down decision-making, setting up venues where franchisees could express their concerns. Still others sought to curtail the number of franchises, bringing stores back under corporate control. All of this worked: many companies turned around, and the reputation of business-format franchising eventually improved.

McDonald's, which sailed through this period without problems, might want to take a page from the past as it tries to right the ship. It’s suffering from many of the same problems. In a recent survey, franchisees struck much the same tone as their disgruntled predecessors of the 1960s, citing an out-touch management that seems more interested in off-loading costs onto franchisees than fixing the problems that beset the chain.

Unfortunately, Easterbrook’s turnaround plan made almost no mention of the franchisees that are the public face of the company. Worse still, is his vow to increase the number of stores in the hands of franchisees from 81 percent to 90 percent -- which some franchisees believe will make the company even more remote from the concerns of the owners on the front lines.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net