Charlie Bell, who worked his way up McDonald’s Corp. to become its chief executive last year, has died of cancer in his native Australia. He was 44.
Bell was diagnosed with cancer last May, only a month after ascending to the top job. He left the fast food giant in November, after several rounds of treatment. McDonald’s announced his death Sunday evening in the United States.
“It is with great sadness that I pass on the news that our dear friend Charlie Bell passed away peacefully ... surrounded by his family,” Guy Russo, McDonald’s Australia Ltd. chief executive, said in a statement.
Bell was replaced as CEO by Jim Skinner, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company’s third CEO in a year. Bell was chosen to follow former chief James Cantalupo, who died of a heart attack in April 2004.
Early last month, Bell and his family returned to Sydney where he was continuing his cancer therapy. McDonald’s spokesman Walt Riker declined to comment on whether Bell was in the hospital or at home. No funeral arrangements have yet been made, he said.
“Charlie Bell gave his all to McDonald’s,” said Andrew J. McKenna, chairman of the company’s board. “Even during his hospitalization and chemotherapy, Charlie led this company with pride and determination.”
A meteoric rise
Bell rose through the ranks of the fast food chain, starting at a Sydney-area restaurant in 1975 and becoming the youngest store manager in Australia by the age of 19.
From 1993 until late 1999 Bell was managing director of McDonald’s Australia. He then served as president of McDonald’s Europe until December 2002, when he was named president and chief operating officer and a board member of McDonald’s.
“Charlie grew up with McDonald’s,” Fred Turner, the company’s former chairman and CEO, said in a statement. “He always put the system first. His natural love of people, his energy and passion for life and the business were contagious to all who came in contact with him.”
Under Cantalupo and Bell, McDonald’s staged a rebound in sales as the company slowed the pace of new store openings, added popular new salads and breakfast items to its menus and shed noncore parts of its business.
Ernie Adair, the chairman of the Black McDonald’s Operations Association, said that in his short time as chief executive, Bell became known for his insistence of financial discipline. Further, he said that Bell made it clear that he believed it was time for McDonald’s to focus more on the restaurants already operating than expansion.
“I believe he recognized it was time for McDonald’s to slow down and exhale for a moment in terms of growth (and to) focus on growing same unit sales rather than expansion,” Adair said.
Last month, McDonald’s spent $300,000 to fly Bell and his family to Australia on a private medically equipped jet, and agreed to ship their belongings and buy the Bells’ Illinois home. The company also will pay any tax bills for the arrangement, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The company also amended a stock options agreement with Bell, allowing him to transfer 1.44 million options to his wife. McDonald’s also allowed 655,000 of those options to vest immediately.
Bell is survived by his wife, Leonie, and a daughter, Alex.