Profiles In Badassery: Don Thompson

Sure, their main product is part of the reason this country has an obesity problem, but being a multi-billion dollar company with over 33,000 locations 119 countries is pretty damned impressive. It is all headed up by a Boilermaker, who is now officially a Captain of Industry. He doesn't need Calgary apartments for rent because he can buy Calgary.

This week Don Thompson, who grew up in the infamous Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago, took over as the CEO-designate of McDonal's Corporation. He is a Purdue badass that is now in charge of a company that has almost $32 billion in assets and over 400,000 employees worldwide. he is also the first African-American CEO in the history of McDonald's.

Thompson's Background

Thompson was a business man from the beginning. He grew up on Cleveland Avenue in Chicago, just three blocks north of Cabrini-green. The Green is one of the most infamous public housing projects in America. As Wikipedia describes it:

The poverty-stricken projects were actually constructed at the meeting point of Chicago's two wealthiest neighborhoods, Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. Less than a mile to the east sits Michigan Avenue with its high-end shopping and expensive housing. Specific gangs "controlled" individual buildings, and residents felt pressure to ally with those gangs in order to protect themselves from escalating violence.

During the worst years of Cabrini-Green's problems, vandalism increased substantially. Gang members and miscreants covered interior walls with graffiti and damaged doors, windows, and elevators. Rat and cockroach infestations were commonplace, rotting garbage stacked up in clogged trash chutes (it once piled up to the 15th floor), and basic utilities (water, electricity, etc.) often malfunctioned and were left unrepaired. On the exterior, boarded-up windows, burned-out areas of the facade, and pavement instead of green space-all in the name of economizing on maintenance-created an atmosphere of neglect and decay. The high "open galleries" were enclosed with steel fencing along the entire height of the building to prevent residents from emptying rubbish bins into the yard, from falling, and from being thrown off to their deaths (giving the visual appearance of a large prison tier, or animal cages, which further enraged community leaders).

This was not a fun place to be. Gangs infamous used to celebrates New Year's Eve by firing guns into the air, causing police to close off several blocks around the area. Fearing for his safety, Thompson's grandmother moved him to Indianapolis when he was in the sixth grade, and that is where his business skills began to flourish:

So at age 10, when McKenna believes Thompson was in the sixth grade, his grandmother, fearing growing gang activity on the Near North side, moved him to Indianapolis.

"When I was 11 years old, I printed up little business cards and distributed them in a nearby convalescent home," Thompson told the Franchise Times this month. "The residents hired me to do errands or clean their apartments."

To Purdue:

As with most Purdue graduates (myself included) Thompson's primary education was not in the field in which he excelled. He was recruited by the Minority Engineering Advancement Program into the School of Engineering, where he earned a B.S. in electrical Engineering.

It was at a scholarship banquet that he met his wife, Liz, who was also an escapee of the Cabrini-Green Projects. The two have since taken their blessing and have worked to give back to the area of their youth:

At a 2009 fundraiser for Access Community Health Network, Thompson shared that when he and his wife were growing up, their hospital was a clinic in the Olivet Community Center. Then he announced that he and Liz were making a $10,000 contribution to the network of community health clinics, in addition to the $5,000 McDonald's gave at Thompson's behest. He and Liz have served on or remain active in too many charitable organizations to list.

"He and Liz are working on an initiative to help young African-American males achieve higher education attainment and have more opportunities," said Terry Mazany, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, where the Thompsons have a donor-advised charitable fund. "He has never forgotten his roots. He knows how education is a game changer. He understands it because he lived it."

Moving up in business:

Thompson first worked for Northrop Grumman out of school. He married Liz in 1988 and they have lived in the Chicago area ever since. Two years after they were married a recruiter at McDonald's found him, and his path to the top started:

A cold call from a recruiter about two years after their wedding changed Thompson's life. McDonald's was looking for someone to engineer "robotics, control circuitry and feedback loops," Black Enterprise reported. Thompson, as the story goes, assumed the company was McDonnell Douglas Corp., a defense contractor that competed with Northrop Grumman.

Thompson told Black Enterprise that he even asked the recruiter when he should fly to McDonnell's headquarters in St. Louis for the interview. The recruiter replied, "This is McDonald's hamburger." Thompson said his response was, "You got the wrong guy, because I'm not flipping hamburgers for anybody." He was especially concerned, the magazine reported, of what his grandmother would think.

Soon thereafter, an engineer working at McDonald's invited him to visit. Thompson later accepted a job designing robotics for food transport and control circuits in cooking equipment. He was promoted less than two years later.

As you can see, this is not your average McJob. He was impressive enough as an engineers that he eventually moved into the operations of the business, which is not an easy feat. Thompson basically had to teach himself about business, so, he started where many teenagers start: making fries in the kitchen of a local restaurant. He eventually became a shift manager, assistant manager, and finally co-manager of a south Chicago McDonald's.


Eventually, he worked his way up even further, being named the manager of the San Diego region in 1998. While this sounds all good and well, at the time he took over it was rated 39th out of McDonald's 40 U.S. regions. Under Thompson, it quickly shot up to No. 2.

That naturally caught the eye of those even higher in the industry. He eventually became President of McDonald's USA, which means he was in charge of the strategic direction of over 14,000 restaurants in the U.S. He has also been U.S. Chief Operating Officer, Executive Vice President and Division President.

Thompson has also been honored by Purdue as well:

Thompson has accepted the Purdue University Outstanding Electrical and Computer Engineering Award along with being named a Purdue University Old Master Fellow in 2006. In 2008, he received an honorary doctorate degree from Excelsior College in Albany, New York.

In addition to being promoited to CEO this week because James Skinner retired, Thompson is a trustee at Purdue and on the Executive Leadership Council

This quite an impressive feat, as in less than 20 years Thompson has risen from making fries in the make of a McDonald's to the top of the company. More importantly, Thompson has done what Boilermakers do with their success: he has given back. He continues to be active in restoring Chicago neighborhoods and helping at risk youth while being involved in the direction of our beloved University. That is badassery of the highest order.

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