Fred L. Turner, former McDonald’s chief executive, dies at 80

A grill man turned chief executive at McDonald’s, Fred L. Turner oversaw an aggressive expansion of the company beginning in the 1970s that turned it into a corporate giant.

When he began reshaping the restaurants in 1968, he left a visible legacy by removing the signature golden arches from the building’s architecture and placing them on signs out front.

What McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc called Turner’s gift for “planning and vision” is reflected in a restaurant menu that includes the Quarter Pounder, which he co-developed with a California franchise owner in 1971. He also oversaw the introduction of such standards as the Chicken McNugget, the Egg McMuffin and the Happy Meal.

Turner, who was one of McDonald’s first employees and served as its chief executive from 1974 to 1987, died Monday from complications from pneumonia, McDonald’s announced. He was 80.

“Fred was a true pioneer and shaped the quick service restaurant industry,” Andy McKenna, chairman of McDonald’s board, said in a statement.

In 1956, Turner was a college dropout who had completed a two-year stint in the Army when he answered an ad offering franchises for a new fast-food chain, McDonald’s.

“He was little more than a kid, 23 years old. He had a baby face and the most infectious grin I’d seen in years,” Kroc wrote in his 1977 autobiography “Grinding It Out.”

While searching for a site to open a franchise, Turner worked the counter at what was then Kroc’s only McDonald’s, in Des Plaines, Ill. Soon hired by the corporation, he oversaw operations and training – and became Kroc’s protege.

From the outset, Turner “attempted to turn the task of running a restaurant from an art to a science,” according to the 2011 book “Essentials of Strategic Management.”

In 1958, he wrote McDonald’s original operating and training manual. A version of it is still used, the company said.

The manual included general operations advice and gave explicit instructions on food preparation, such as how to cut French fries (no thicker than 0.28 inches) or how many patties to place on the grill (no more than six).

In the basement of a McDonald’s in Elk Grove Village, Ill., Turner spearheaded the company training program known as Hamburger University. Since 1961, 275,000 people have “graduated” from the program. The campus at company headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., was named the Fred L. Turner Center in 2004.

When Advertising Age named him the Adman of the Decade in 1990, the magazine said that under his leadership, McDonald’s had been “a quiet pioneer” of marketing.

Major examples included a groundbreaking move in sports marketing, McDonald’s Olympic Swim Stadium, built for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles; and the creation of Ronald McDonald’s Children’s Charities, established after Kroc’s death in 1984 and considered a model for corporate community involvement.

Although Kroc did not have a son, he often claimed he did. “His name is Fred Turner,” Kroc wrote in 1977. “He has never disappointed me.”

Fred Leo Turner was born Jan. 6, 1933, in Des Moines, Iowa.

While at Drake University in Des Moines, he met his future wife, Patty, a fellow student and musician. His wife died in 2000. Survivors include three daughters, Paula, Patty Sue and Teri; and eight grandchildren.

Turner gave $1.5 million to Drake to build a jazz center and $1 million to endow a professorship in jazz studies.

Within a dozen years of joining McDonald’s Turner was president and chief administrative officer, and succeeded Kroc as chief executive in 1973. He served as chairman of the board of the company from 1977 to 1990.

Called out of retirement in 2003 to help McDonald’s restore the classic taste to some of its foods, he recognized that the Big Mac’s “secret sauce” had lost its zing. Learning that the original recipe had been lost, he got the recipe from the supplier in California who had helped develop it and resurrected the sauce’s kick.

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