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2009 Chief Executive of the Year Dinner

Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy passes the baton to Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald’s

In July, more than 200 CEOs gathered at the New York Stock Exchange to honor one of their own: McDonald’s Jim Skinner. Named 2009’s Chief Executive of the Year, Skinner is the 25th CEO to receive the award, joining such business luminaries as Jack Welch, Andy Grove and Bill Gates.

“CEOs get a lot of attention,” noted last year’s honoree, Xerox Chairman Anne Mulcahy, in bestowing the accolade. “There’s some good, there’s some bad and occasionally there are some awards, but this one truly is special because it is based solely on job performance and the judge and jury are a group of your peers.”

In designating a recipient, Chief Executive magazine considers nominations from CEOs and their peers. Top nominees by votes are then passed on to a panel of CEO judges who weigh candidates by such criteria as leadership, integrity, ability to outperform and commitment to employees.

Jim Skinner excelled in every category, reported J.P. Donlon, editor-in-chief of the magazine. “When I visited with Jim at McDonald’s Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters a few months ago, he told me in a very matter-of-fact way, ‘What we do here is not that complicated, we’re a restaurant business,’” said Donlon. “That may be true, but the ordinary becomes extraordinary when it is seamlessly executed every day in 119 countries around the world.”

Skinner, who began his career with McDonald’s in 1971 as a restaurant manager in Carpentersville, Illinois, was named CEO in 2004, at a time when the company was struggling, and acted quickly to turn the company around. Between 2004 and 2008, revenue climbed 41.1 percent in four years, and net income jumped by 81.3 percent. But his real achievement was the methodology behind that financial feat, noted Mulcahy. “No one who knew him was surprised by his recipe to turn things around,” she said. “The goals of his ‘plan to win’ were simple and straightforward: faster, friendlier service, more  choices for a changing consumer, more appealing restaurants, better values, sharper marketing. But more important, the execution was brilliant.”

Today, McDonald’s sells as much chicken as it does beef, and is the single largest consumer of apples in the U.S. Its customers are as likely to eat a chicken wrap or apple walnut salad as they are a cheeseburger and fries, noted Mulcahy, who adds that Skinner eats McDonald’s food every day and is as unpretentious as the company he runs. “Despite all that change, Jim has insisted that the company’s core values remain constant.”

In accepting the award, Jim Skinner acknowledged the support of his family and his leadership team, along with the entire McDonald’s system in helping to achieve that execution. “Together, our franchisees, employees and suppliers make up what we call our three-legged stool,” he said. “We succeed only when all three legs of that stool are strong, aligned and performing at the highest levels.”

In closing, Skinner noted that while the challenges of leadership have grown more complex in the current business climate, holding fast to fundamental principals will serve today’s business leader well. “The key trait for any CEO today is the ability to balance your epiphanies with your execution,” he said. “Big ideas and bold strategies are important. But given the times we’re in, what matters most are results. There’s a saying that ‘good ideas are common—what’s uncommon are people who will work hard enough to bring them about.’ I try to make sure everyone at McDonald’s keeps that in mind as we  innovate and  work to grow our business.” 

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