Don Thompson is known to show up for early morning meetings with other trustees of Purdue University carrying armloads of McDonald’s Egg McMuffins and cups of coffee.
That gesture says a mouthful about the 48-year-old Thompson, who on Wednesday was named president and chief executive officer of McDonald’s, becoming the first black leader of the world’s largest restaurant chain.
A leader with deep Hoosier roots, he is often described as warm, friendly, inspiring — and very attuned to other’s needs.
“I find him to be a clear-thinking and practical and process-oriented member of the board, as you might expect of an electrical engineer,” said Michael R. Berghoff, president of Lenex Steel Corp. in Indianapolis and another Purdue trustee. “He has a dynamic personality and a great antenna for what motivates people by understanding the emotional side of behavior.”
Thompson was born in Chicago but moved as a child to Indianapolis’ Northside to be raised by his grandmother. He graduated from North Central High School in 1980 and from Purdue at West Lafayette in 1984 with a degree in electrical engineering. He was named to the high school’s alumni Hall of Fame in 2010 and appointed by the governor to the Purdue Board of Trustees in 2009.
Thompson, who has climbed during 22 years with the company from making Big Macs in an Illinois restaurant to regional and national leadership, wasn’t available for interviews Thursday after his latest promotion was announced. He succeeds CEO Jim Skinner, who is retiring after 41 years.
But a 2008 profile in the trade publication Franchise Times quotes Thompson about his accidental introduction to the food industry.
Soon after graduating from Purdue, he worked as an engineer at an aerospace company.
One day, he received a message from a recruiter who he thought was representing airplane builder McDonnell Douglas.
Actually, it was for a management trainee job with McDonald’s, the restaurant chain. So he took a chance, changed careers and rose rapidly.
Thompson is married to another Purdue electrical engineering graduate, Liz, and they are the parents of a son attending the University of Notre Dame and a younger daughter.
The Thompsons met as young scholarship students at a banquet in 1980 at Purdue. They had shared an early childhood on Chicago’s rough South Side.
Friends including Berghoff said it is not unusual for Thompson to spend time after trustee meetings getting to know new scholarship students.
“He is very sensitive to how loans and support can allow a student to go to school” and take advantage of opportunities, Berghoff said.
Virginia Booth-Gleghorn, director of Purdue’s minority engineering programs, said Thompson’s dedication to young people’s education is evident, from his personal donations to his hands-on attention.
“What really touches my heart about Don is he really takes an effort to remember and credit the programs that helped him,” she said. “He was amazed his whole life changed once he learned about engineering.”
Thompson formerly was president of McDonald’s USA and became the operating chief of the global company in January 2010. He will assume his new role as chief executive July 1 for the Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s.
“It will be a seamless transition,” said Peter Saleh, an analyst at Telsey Advisory Group in New York. “They’re not going to skip a beat going from (Skinner) to Don.”
Thompson faces the challenge of boosting sales amid increasing competition from Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and others, plus higher commodity prices.
“Everyone today is trying to steal shares from them,” Saleh said. Thompson’s challenge will be to protect the breakfast business and continue to expand McCafe specialty beverages.