When Steve Easterbrook, the new chief executive of McDonald’s, joined the fast-food chain in 1993 it was facing tough competition in its home market, problems in Asia and turbulence in Europe. A quick summary of the problems facing McDonald’s today – an assault from upmarket rivals in the US, a chips crisis in Japan and a moribund Europe – will at least hold no surprises for the 47-year-old Briton.
After an intervening period at Wagamama and Pizza Express, Easterbrook takes on the top job at McDonald’s at a time when sales have fallen for the first time in 12 years and it is losing customers.
According to the Watford-born executive, his fondness for the brand began during his grammar school days decades ago. In 1978, a visit to McDonald’s was still a novelty.
“Me and my mate used to go across the park, jump on the Met line to get the tube into Harrow. There was a sports shop we always used to go into, and there was a McDonald’s,” he told the Guardian in 2008. “We used to go off with three or four quid in our pocket. That would cover our train fare, mooching around Harrow, and going to McDonald’s. It was the first time I had shakes and fries.”
The 11-year-old could hardly have imagined that within 18 year he would be running the McDonald’s show in the UK, as president and chief executive.
His rise up the ranks was rapid. In January 2007, less than a year after he was appointed to run UK operations, Easterbrook was asked to add Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Ireland to his responsibilities, as president of McDonald’s northern European operation, overseeing 1,800 restaurants.
During his stint as head of the UK, Easterbrook proved he was up for a fight, confronting the chain’s dwindling reputation head-on. Among his initiatives was a campaign to change the dictionary definition of a McJob, which was “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, especially one created by the expansion of the service sector”.
The Durham University natural sciences graduate had a brief flirtation with other UK-based restaurant chains, leaving McDonald’s in 2011 to become chief executive of Pizza Express and later Wagamama. But by June 2013 he was back, joining McDonald’s head office in Illinois as global chief brand officer. Married with three daughters, Easterbrook is described by the chain as “an accomplished, McDonald’s veteran”.
The chain’s first British-born boss might be US-based now, but he is still a fan of Watford football club.