Can you still go from burger flipper to president?

Fred turner

Former McDonald's president Fred Turner, who died this week, made it from burger flipper to the top. But is this still a realistic way to get to be boss?

When Jarrod Best was 16 his dad told him he was "not quite clever enough" to go to university.

It is not a piece of advice you will find in many parenting manuals, but it did the trick for Jarrod, who found a job as a tea boy with Leeds-based building firm GMI Construction and set about proving himself to his family.

Twenty years later, he is the part-owner and managing director of that firm, employing 80 people and with an annual turnover of £70m.

His father was a successful businessman and young Jarrod, captain of the school rugby team and a competitive cyclist, was always driven to succeed.

Fred Turner 1933-2013

Fred Turner
  • Began his career as a grill cook at McDonald's outlet in Des Plaines, Illinois
  • Worked his way up to become chief executive in 1974, responsible for global expansion of brand
  • Also responsible for introducing Chicken McNuggets in 1983

"You want to look at your dad across the table, being able to match him pound for pound, rather than asking to borrow money all the time," he says.

Best's story is increasingly unusual. In the corporate world, the ability to sweet talk City investors and plot global strategy can be valued more highly than the traditional virtues of hard work and common sense.

Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today, says working your way up from the shop floor, in the way Turner did at McDonald's, now largely belongs to the realms of corporate mythology.

"It is quite a folksy and backward-looking attitude. That is not meant to sound snotty but it would actually be a waste of time in many businesses."

Many large firms expect their executives to spend a week or two on the shop floor to learn how the business works - and that, argues Gwyther, is more than enough.

"You don't have to spend years working as a chimney sweep to know about chimneys."

There are plenty of examples of executives who have worked their way up from humble beginnings, particularly in industries such as retail and catering where having an instinctive feel for what customers want is prized above specialist knowledge.

Nissan boss Trevor Mann CBE

Trevor Mann
  • One of several Nissan executives who worked on the production line in Sunderland
  • Inspired to get into engineering by his father, he started at the company as team leader on trim and final assembly
  • Rose through ranks to become senior vice president for Europe in 2007
  • "I wouldn't say I was a particularly good scholar - I was not interested in sitting in a classroom, I was always more practical"

But those who have made it to the very top, after starting at the very bottom, are rare.

Charismatic and forceful enough to have made a fortune in their own right, yet conformist enough to have stayed with the same firm for life, they have always been a somewhat exotic breed. They often speak about the vast organisations they head being like a "family". They speak of how anyone can make it to the boardroom if they are bright enough and put the hours in. It is not just empty corporate rhetoric.

In their case, it is true.

Michel Taride, president of car rental giant Hertz's international arm, says "people's eyes pop" when he tells them he has been with the same firm for nearly 40 years.

Taride spent his teenage years hanging around the beach and dreaming of being a musician.

He only applied for a job as a branch manager with Hertz to please his mother. To his great surprise, he loved the job and, after a break to travel the world, began his steady climb up the corporate ladder.

He acknowledges that the world has changed since he started out.

"People are becoming less loyal, more ambitious, more individualistic. There is less sense of commitment to a company."

But he sees himself as a role model and inspiration to young members of staff who might have more life experience than academic qualifications.

Stuart Rose Former M&S chairman Sir Stuart Rose started out on the shop floor

Sir Stuart Rose is also big on life experience.

The former Marks and Spencer chairman says he started out selling pyjamas at the retail giant. It was the only place he could find a job after his father, who had tried to push him into medical school, threatened to cut off his pocket money.

"People today try and go down a conventional route. More importantly, and more erroneously, they try and plan their careers to the nth degree," he says.

The result of this, he says, is that they can become "very bitter and twisted when they don't make it".

"We live in this instant society. Everybody needs to be at the top. Only one person can be chief executive. I worked in an organisation which employed 100,000 people. That means 99,999 are not going to be chief executive."

The patron saint of 'rags to riches'

NY poor school 1887

The American dream - that hard work will allow any poor boy or girl to achieve greatness and prosperity - is nowhere more exemplified than in the work of the 19th Century bestselling novelist Horatio Alger Jr (1832-1899).

Ragged Dick, one of his most famous books, describes a young boot-black who rises from a life on the streets to a respectable job in a bank.

Although his literary merits are dubious, Alger's influence remains immense.

In 2003, Michael Moore wrote: "[The US is] still addicted to the Horatio Alger fantasy drug... the average American still wants to hang on to this belief that maybe, just maybe, he or she (mostly he) just might make it big after all."

Not everyone has the leadership gene, he argues, and large companies need to find a way of making those who don't get to the top feel more valued.

He is also concerned about the apparent collapse in social mobility in the UK. It is a complaint that can be regularly heard in the US and around Europe. Young people have a "greater sense of entitlement" now and are less willing to make sacrifices, or move around the country, to further their career, he says.

"A lot of them are narrowing their own horizons. It is the more comfortable world we live in today."

Ian Payne is also frustrated by what he sees as the lack of ambition among some young people. The chairman of Stonegate, one of the UK's biggest pub groups, which counts Slug and Lettuce and Yates's among its brands, started out pulling pints in a Maidstone pub.

Payne cheerfully admits to being biased towards people who started at the bottom, like him. He has made sure there is a giant map on the break room wall at each of the 460 pubs in the group, showing how it is possible to climb the corporate ladder.

He speaks with pride of a 27-year-old he met recently at one of his pubs. She started out working part time behind a bar while studying English at Edinburgh University, and, like him, fell in love with the trade and is now an area manager.

On the other hand, he adds: "There is a guy who's been working for us for six years and is still in the same job. He has a double first in mathematics so he is obviously very bright. I told him he needed a bloody good kick up the arse."

Payne believes that far from being a dying breed, bosses who work their way up from the shop floor will become increasingly common as fewer people opt to go into higher education.

Successive governments have spoken of the need to improve the status of vocational qualifications and increase the number of apprenticeships.

But it is the attitude of individual companies, and their willingness to train and mentor their staff - rather than treating them as expendable commodities - that can make all the difference.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    'he has been with the same firm for nearly 40 years'

    .. and there is the opportunity, a stable company in expansion. Like the caterpillar smoking on the mushroom in Alice in Wonderland, if the mushroom grows you get carried along

    Elsewhere - All time high EU youth unemployment

    Alongside the Tory small business environment. Take a large business & wait, you'll have a small one soon enough ; )

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Ah, capitalism's oldest myth - anyone can get rich, if only they work hard enough."

    Anyone CAN get rich...the myth is that *everyone* can get rich. This is why we need to teach children at school that success means out-performing those around you, not that "everyone is a winner".

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I suspect that the "old school tie" still prevails in the UK. Have a look at the FTSE 500 top dogs and see how many came from state schools? Jobs for the boys is still the motto amongst many top execs as they would much prefer to have someone who agrees with them than someone who points out their comapanies failings and possible corruption hence the latest LIBOR scandals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Surely it's about gettign the right balance. I have known managers who have come from the bottem who know the lower down jobs inside out, yet are useless because knowing what your staff do dose not make you able to manage them. Equaly I have known many an MBA with no idea how things work in the real world.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Companies like MD or M&S are so big these days that these possitions just get filled up by people with experience/university graduates. They don't have the time or want to pay for peoples training for the future, they'd rather get someone in with experience.

    BUT thats not to say it's impossible. It's also up to the person to show drive and willing to get themselves noticed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @ - Alasdair
    Ah, capitalism's oldest myth - anyone can get rich, if only they work hard enough.

    You are right, you cant get there by hard work alone, you need a healthy dose of luck - but you need to have done the work to benifit from the luck.

    There is no entitlement and no replacement for hard work.

    @ everyone - Lets celebrate effort, hard work and determination instead of mocking it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    This article describes the "American Dream": dead. I'm not saying it can't be done - but to suggest that "anyone" can do it is fallacious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The very last paragraph says a lot. When the word "personel" was replaced by "human resources", it spoke volumes about how businesses regard their staff, so business can hardly be surprised when hardly any reciprocate with great loyalty.

    Rags to riches has always been the exception rather than the rule in the corporate world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    None applies to a political career in the UK. Starts with rich-enough parents who privately school their child, support them through Oxbridge, support them through internship, support them until.... election, board membership, international consultancy, and other payouts come along.

    Add guaranteed income with benefits including pension etc with the day job. Nice

    Poor people need not apply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    It's a 2-way street: its possible to get from the bottom to the top, but ONLY in a company that values your experience and loyalty and hard work. I've seen too many hugely experienced, highly-talented, loyal, hard-working people passed over for promotion, or laid off in favour of younger and cheaper employees. This is why it's rare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Problem is, to work your way up you need to move companies. Because there are fewer roles today, because the old folks stay in the jobs too long because their pensions are worthless, and because the other company wants to pay you more. Can't blame anyone, its capitalism at work and it works well enough for now....

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    No, not any more. Now you need qualification after qualification. The 'corporate ladder' is skewed towards people who can write a dissertation, rather than people who work their way up. There is no real mobility any more within corporate structures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    With 50% of the population going to universities... many graduates will be starting at the bottom of firms... some may make it into management, with a stiletto dagger and a hell of a lot of butt kissing... but the ladder to the top is very long and there are too many old boys who slip in on the upper rungs!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The Romans used to say the same thing about slaves - there are even a few famous cases of it happening!

    Still, you wouldn't find many today who use it as an excuse for slavery.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The question should be how much easier is it for people born into wealth to get top positions than people born at the bottom?
    People born into wealth have the luxury of being able to work for free to gain experience - people without the support of wealthy parents cannot do this – this is the new politically correct way for the political elite to keep the rest of us in our place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The term 'McJob' is actually pretty offensive because unlike just about every other major corporation a huge chunk of McD's board DID start off in the kitchens.

    Incidentally my uncle who's only academic qualification is an HND and is ex-public health labs lab tech is now an MD in one of the worlds biggest pharma companies. My grandad was a shipyard electrician. It can be done

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    LOYALTY - both from the company to the employee, & from the employee to the company. Few companies pay attention to loyalty, good workmanship; accordingly, persons literally work their butts off & don't get noticed. They leave, start over. The solution may be employees partial ownership of company in the way of shares + meaningful input from shop floors on how work processes can be improved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    No mention of the fact that companies just aren't committed to their employees any more... After decades of hard work, you are ripe for the scrap heap, because they can get somebody younger cheaper - or so they think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.



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