McDonald’s Corp. chairman and CEO Jim Cantalupo, who orchestrated a turnaround of the fast-food giant after overseeing the proliferation of its restaurants worldwide in the 1980s and ’90s, died unexpectedly of a heart attack Monday at age 60.
The company moved quickly to name Cantalupo’s successors. Charlie Bell, McDonald’s 43-year-old president and chief operating officer, was elected CEO by the board of directors and will keep the president’s title; Andrew J. McKenna, 74, the board’s presiding director, was named chairman.
Cantalupo was stricken in Orlando, Fla., where McDonald’s was holding its international franchisees’ convention. The company said he died at a hospital after suffering the heart attack at his hotel just after 4 a.m.
“Jim was a brilliant man who brought tremendous leadership, energy and passion to his job,” McKenna said. “He made an indelible mark on McDonald’s system.”
A three-decade veteran of the Oak Brook, Ill.-based hamburger giant, Cantalupo returned from a brief retirement to take over the top post in January 2003 in a management shakeup. McDonald’s had struggled through two-plus years of sagging U.S. sales and had reported its first-ever quarterly loss for the last three months of 2002.
Under his leadership, the company worked to revitalize its brand through new products, a focus on health and a return to the basics — better food and faster service — instead of the expansion he’d once championed.
The fast-food giant slowed its breakneck expansion pace, closed hundreds of restaurants and added new menu items, including an entree-sized salad and the McGriddle breakfast sandwich. Last week, the company kicked off an anti-obesity campaign by announcing the introduction of Adult Happy Meals, with salad, bottled water and a pedometer, as well as healthier options for children’s Happy Meals.
The company also introduced a new global advertising campaign, adopting a slogan — “I’m lovin’ it” — meant to appeal to younger and hipper consumers. Customers responded, and so did shareholders — McDonald’s stock rose 71 percent during his tenure.
Cantalupo previously had made his mark as head of international operations, overseeing a more than sixfold increase of its international restaurants from 1987 until his retirement in 2001.
Bell had been the heir apparent since the company promoted him from head of European operations in December 2002 as part of the shakeup that saw CEO Jack Greenberg depart.
A native of Australia, Bell began his McDonald’s career as a part-time crew worker in Sydney and advanced through the ranks, becoming Australia’s youngest store manager at 19, vice president at 27 and a member of the Australian board of directors at 29. He previously headed the company’s operations in his home country and in the Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa division.
“Charlie Bell has worked side by side with Jim during these past 16 months to revitalize McDonald’s all over the world,” the board said after the succession vote. “He is ideally suited and prepared to continue Jim’s remarkable focus and discipline on our business.”
McDonald’s spokeswoman Anna Rozenich said she was not aware of Cantalupo having had a previous heart attack or health problems.
He had lost weight in recent years and appeared fit after having been overweight in the 1990s, according to franchisee consultant Dick Adams, a former McDonald’s executive. Adams said international travel takes a toll on industry executives, resulting in numerous premature deaths.
“He was doing an extensive amount of international travel,” Adams said. “That’s about the most stressful thing you can do to yourself.”
Analysts said Cantalupo’s death is a harsh blow to McDonald’s, even if it was well-prepared with a deep lineup of experienced executives.
“Cantalupo was in my mind the one guy who was able to get their organization shifted out of the expansion mode and more in an efficiency mode,” said Morningstar analyst Carl Sibilski. “It was a tough thing to do. Not a lot of people thought he could do it, but he proved them wrong.”
Cantalupo, a Chicago native, joined the company as controller in 1974 after eight years with Arthur Young & Co. He was promoted to vice president in 1975, senior vice president in 1981, Chicago district manager and zone manager for the northeastern U.S. before moving to the international job.
The Orlando convention, where Cantalupo was to have delivered opening remarks to franchisees Monday morning, was postponed. Franchisees interviewed expressed sadness but said they expect the company’s day-to-day operations to remain the same.
“The company has been on a roll for the last year,” said Jim McGarry, who owns a McDonald’s in Boston. “He was a big part of it. ... Everybody’s walking around here kind of shocked. (But) business will go on.”