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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : McMOM : Multimillionaire Isabelle Villasenor of Corona del Mar has a string of fast-food restaurant franchises, but her real joy comes from being a good mother, daughter and bicultural citizen. It's a life of business, family and philanthropy that she has built with hard work, vision, dignity and a sense of humor.

November 13, 1994|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tucking up her navy suit pants, Isabelle Villasenor kneels to mop up a spilled soda at her Cypress McDonald's. Quickly, she dispatches a clerk to fetch a refill, flashes the frazzled mother an I've-been-there smile and assures her, "We'll getchya another one."

Customers pushing strollers toss her hellos. They ask about her daughters, whom they've watched grow up. "So Jenny's getting married!" says a cheery woman slurping a Coke.

During the lunch hour, Villasenor, 48, parks her gleaming white Mercedes outside her newest addition, a McDonald's shoehorned inside a Cerritos Walmart. Over a cup of black coffee, she can hardly focus on telling her life story for watching the counter operation. ". . . Opened this store in July and I was . . ." The conversation trails as her blue eyes rake the perimeter, checking the niggling details that can bring you back for a Quarter Pounder or send you off for a Whopper.

"I walk, talk, eat and breathe McDonald's," she admits with a dimpled smile. "It's who I am."

She's Sonia Braga meets Sally Field, a businesswoman who takes in more than $7 million a year but someone much more than a burger maven with golden arches. The child of an immigrant gardener and a secretary, she used her smarts to turn misfortune into her defining moment, yielding not just riches but contentment.

Hers is a feel-good tale, one of triumphs over challenges--a loving but low-income childhood with no hopes of college, a young marriage, early and painful divorce, single parenting with little job experience.

A working single mom who once ran her business from her bedroom--her two daughters, nonetheless, can't remember a day when she did not pick them up after school.

How many high school students, assigned a term paper on heroes and inspiration, would write about their mom? Hers did. Now college graduates in their 20s, they manage three of her five--soon to be six--franchises and visibly adore her.

Before they marry, they intend to have graduated with their degrees from Hamburger University at corporate headquarters in Oakbrook, Ill. At a time when other twentysomethings complain about having McJobs, Villasenor's daughters dream of owning their own franchises. They consider her their best friend, someone who gave them values and responsibility and the true meaning of love.

She has talked free trade with President Bush and Vice President Quayle and wears her wealth with ease. She has been interviewed by the New York Times and Fortune magazine, employs 200 people and has the affections of the Sisters of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart.

She has presided over the national McDonald's Women Operators, a group that helped earn the company an award this year for promoting females and has helped raise scholarship funds for college-bound Latinos.

She earns the admiration of senior Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who strained a 20-year friendship with native son Carl Karcher by granting her a lucrative franchise at John Wayne Airport.

She may own a charming house in Corona del Mar and a cabin at Lake Arrowhead, two Mercedeses and other luxuries, but none of it will ever match her joy at being a good daughter, and her original childhood dream come true: being a great mom.

"She's not a do-gooder. She's a good person," says Sister Catherine Marie Stewart at the Heart of Jesus Retreat Center in Santa Ana, an oasis for children where Villasenor has helped with fund-raising. Stewart never stops smiling as she talks about Villasenor--how she supplies the cups for meetings, how she starts and ends every visit praying in the chapel but never misses a visit to the kitchen for Sister Hermine's chocolate chip cookies.

"I've known her six years. What I like about Isabelle is that she's very personable. She's a good mother and a good friend. She's given those girls a great view of life, but not overprotected. She's been loved, too; you see that. Life hasn't been always rosy, but she's come out of it stronger."

*

Avitachese como una mujer , her father, Jesus, would say. Buck up! Be strong like a woman! It was the kind of ironic thing you'd expect to hear from a man who "invented the word macho " but admired the women who fought beside their men during the Mexican Revolution.

He had left his small town outside Guadalajara to fight in the war before migrating to the United States in 1927. Here, he met Villasenor's mother, Magdalena, an El Paso native 24 years younger. The two settled in Culver City.

Her father maintained the gardens of the wealthy and famous--actors such as Van Johnson, for one. Her mother was a secretary who kept her husband's invoices in order. Their first child was a son, stillborn, which may be why their daughter believes she was always overprotected, though never spoiled.

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