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McDonald's seeks new spark

The world's top burger chain is replacing its U.S. leader, probably wanting a more aggressive approach.

November 16, 2012|Tiffany Hsu
  • McDonald's USA’s outgoing president, Jan Fields, backed efforts to modernize the chain and make its food more healthful. But consumers’ enthusiasm didn’t last.
McDonald's USA’s outgoing president, Jan Fields, backed… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)

The head of U.S. operations for McDonald's Corp. is on her way out amid the burger chain's efforts to counter intense competition and a string of uncharacteristically sour financial results.

Jan Fields will depart Dec. 1 as president of McDonald's USA, a position she has held for more than two years. She will be replaced by Jeff Stratton, currently McDonald's global chief restaurant officer. Both are 57.

"The time was right for this leadership change," company spokeswoman Lisa McComb said. She called it "a business decision by our senior management team" and said it was "not related to one isolated thing or a short-term viewpoint."

McComb said Fields is "looking forward to spending time with her family and friends."

Most industry analysts doubted that Fields was directly responsible for the company's financial misses, but they believed that top management and directors had lost confidence in her ability to turn around the U.S. division of the world's biggest burger chain.

"There weren't any major alarms, any perception of management problems," said Nima Samadi, a restaurant analyst with IBISWorld. "There's no fire or even that much smoke. This looks more like a preventive measure than anything else, a recognition that McDonald's needs someone more aggressive."

Fields backed efforts to modernize the chain and make its food more healthful. But many of those programs -- once considered innovative -- have since been copied by competitors, and, worse, consumers' enthusiasm didn't last.

Last month, McDonald's same-store sales tumbled 2.2% in the U.S. and 1.8% globally compared with a year earlier, the company's first such slide in nine years.

The numbers spooked investors already wary over the chain's slumping profits, which fell 3.5% in the third quarter, to $1.45 billion, and sank 4.5% the previous quarter compared with the same periods last year.

Shares slipped 57 cents Thursday to $84.05. The stock has fallen more than 16% so far this year. Before this year, though, it had soared about 60% during Fields' tenure.

Analyst Andy Barish at the brokerage Jefferies & Co. recently said the stock probably would continue its decline as investors question how quickly McDonald's can regain momentum globally and in its U.S. business.

The U.S. region is the company's largest by number of restaurants; Europe is the chain's top region by sales. Five years ago, McDonald's U.S. operations accounted for 60% of the company's operating profit, a percentage that fell to 40% last year.

Analysts doubt that McDonald's can outperform last year's strong sales, which were aided by unseasonably warm weather. They also think the chain's global expansion plans and multibillion-dollar remodeling push may have stretched its cash thin.

Fields, who started out making French fries at McDonald's 35 years ago, rose through the ranks and has been called one of the world's most powerful women on lists compiled by Forbes, Fortune and other financial publications.

In 2010, she replaced Don Thompson as president of U.S. operations. Thompson became McDonald's chief executive five months ago.

Fields was credited with helping to expand McDonald's McCafe premium beverage menu, updating its restaurants, reworking the Happy Meal to be more healthful and disclosing calorie counts at the chain's 14,000 American outlets.

All were "universally successful initiatives" and often the first of their kind in the industry, analyst Samadi said.

In recent months, McDonald's rolled out its popular Monopoly promotion, pumped up Dollar Menu advertising, teased the upcoming return of the McRib and launched new products such as the higher-end Cheddar Bacon Onion sandwich.

But the Oak Brook, Ill., burger behemoth has struggled to overcome the competitive pressures that have emerged since the recession, losing ground to rivals ramping up their efforts to refresh their brands.

Burger King, for instance, unveiled a menu mirroring many of McDonald's more healthful, higher-end options, such as salads, smoothies and wraps. Wendy's, under the leadership of its new chief executive, has taken similar steps.

Coffee and breakfast chains such as Starbucks, Krispy Kreme and Dunkin' Donuts have boosted their marketing dollars, threatening to poach customers of McDonald's McCafe line.

Kids meals with toys -- a McDonald's mainstay at a premium price -- are losing their clout as young families pinch pennies and children turn more to digital games, according to a report this year by research firm NPD Group.

"Kids are so advanced in terms of technology that the premium that comes with a kids meal today isn't as appealing to them as it once was," NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs said.

McDonald's recent efforts to disclose more nutritional data met with mixed reactions from parents and health advocates and have become "a double-edged sword" by making it "more obvious that the food is not that good for you," said Jason Moser, an analyst with the Motley Fool.

The weaknesses have allowed upscale fast-casual brands such as Smashburger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries to draw customers away with promises of sustainably sourced ingredients and more well-rounded meals.

"For a long time, McDonald's was the only one consistently innovating and introducing new products," IBISWorld's Samadi said. "They were far and away ahead of all their competition.

"But that gap is starting to close, and now there's much less differentiation for McDonald's."

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Headwinds

The world's largest fast-food chain has been buffeted by a slew of problems in the U.S.:

* Increased competition

* Less excitement about new menu offerings

* Customers looking for better values and more healthful food

* Kids less interested in Happy Meal toys

Source: Times research

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