In 2006, with McDonald’s facing a growing chorus of criticism about the evils of fast food, one of the company’s rising stars, an executive named Steve Easterbrook, urged people not to “equate [the company] with society’s ills”.
“We don’t claim to be perfect,” the Watford-born executive wrote, in an editorial for the Guardian. “All we ask is that people judge us on the facts.”
Fourteen years later and having ascended the ranks of the original American hamburger giant, Easterbrook now finds himself at the centre of concerns about very different social ills.
The divorced 53-year-old was fired as chief executive of McDonald’s last year over a consensual relationship with a subordinate, which the company said “demonstrated poor judgement”.
Yet it is not that relationship that has provoked the current storm, but allegations by McDonald’s that he lied about relationships with other employees when he left the company with a severance package worth an estimated $41.8m last year.
In its complaint filed in the state of Delaware, where McDonald’s is trying to recoup tens of millions of dollars in severance and benefits from Easterbrook, the chain evoked founder Ray Kroc as it highlighted the company’s mission to be “wholesome” and “family-oriented”.
“Its most fundamental value is integrity,” McDonald’s added. “As its founder Ray Kroc said, ‘The basis for our entire business is that we are ethical, truthful and dependable.’ The company’s board of directors believes that as deeply today as Ray Kroc did in 1958.”
Being accused of tarnishing McDonald’s wholesome reputation is likely to be a painful experience for Easterbrook, who spent much of his career trying to reposition the corporate giant as a healthy and cheerful burger business where employees were nurtured.
His rare journey from Britain to the top of corporate America starts in his home town of Watford, where he attended Watford Grammar School for Boys and had his first McDonald’s fries aged 11.
From there he went to Durham University, where, as a talented left-arm spinner, he played cricket alongside future England cricket captain Nasser Hussain.
He started his working life as an accountant, but jumped over to manage a McDonald’s restaurant in 1993 for what he hoped would be a more interesting life.
So it has certainly proved. By the age of the 38 he was running McDonald’s in the UK while also taking care of his three daughters, aged eight and under at the time, alongside then wife Susie.
Easterbrook, who claimed in a 2006 interview to eat a McDonald’s every day, was credited with re-booting the flagging UK business. Tweaking menus, food-ordering systems and store designs, he also took on the critics and snobs.
“The McJob tag is demeaning to our staff and franchisees,” he said in 2006, even starting a petition to change the dictionary definition of a McJob.
He was promoted to chief brand officer in 2010 and moved to Chicago, but he moved back to Britain in 2011 to lead Pizza Express. He later told the Sunday Times that he “wanted to be back in the UK and have a little bit more consistency in my life”.
McDonald’s did not forget him, however, and, after a brief spell at Wagamama, he returned to McDonald’s and to Chicago. He was made chief executive in 2015, tasked with pulling the business back from a slide under predecessor Don Thompson.
He was seen at the time as a positive force for the brand. “He seems to have an intuitive understanding of the value of PR and will be valuable in changing customer perceptions about McDonald’s,” said Motley Fool analyst Asit Sharma at the time.
That reputation has soured, however, despite success in the job. His modernising efforts –including touch-screen kiosks and all-day breakfasts – have helped the share price more than double under his watch. But Easterbrook has been undone by his personal behaviour, in the glare of the MeToo era and amid heightened concern about bosses’ relationships with subordinates.
After Easterbrook’s departure last November, the Wall Street Journal reported that his successor, Chris Kempczinski, was “seeking to restore a more professional culture at McDonald’s after what some current and former employees described as an environment influenced by his predecessor’s late-night socialising with some executives and staffers at bars and flirtations with female employees”.
The newspaper added: “As CEO, Mr Easterbrook developed a reputation for flirting with female employees, according to some former and current employees.” Company executives have recently highlighted efforts it is making to “reinvigorate its values”.
The behaviour now alleged by McDonald’s is far more serious. The company claims that, after a tip-off, it found nude or sexually explicit photos of women, including the three employees, with whom Easterbrook was having a relationship on his email, and that he had approved thousands of dollars in stock grants to one employee with whom he had been involved. He deleted the pictures from his phone and lied to investigators, McDonald’s alleges.
Easterbrook has not yet responded to the latest allegations. In an email to employees when he was fired last year he accepted had had made a mistake, adding: “Given the values of the company, I agree with the board that it is time for me to move on.”
Weeks after he was fired, Easterbrook was pictured by the Mail on Sunday nursing his sorrows in the Sweetwater Tavern and Grille close to his Chicago apartment.
Perhaps, unlike in 1993, he was hoping his career had been less interesting.