McDonald’s is not just another Chicago company.
The fast-food giant has some 200,000 employees and 400 restaurants in Chicagoland alone. Its global revenues are in excess of $112 billion. For good or ill, its name is known across the globe as shorthand for American culture.
And since its relocation of its global headquarters, with its thousands of employees, from west suburban Oak Brook in 2018, it has had the most significant economic impact on Chicago’s now-thriving West Loop neighborhood, and city blocks beyond, sinceOprah Winfrey opened Harpo Studios before skedaddling for the West Coast.
So when the impressive new CEO of McDonald’s, Chris Kempczinski, has pointed things to say about the current state of Chicago, it merits attention. And when Kempczinski spoke this past week to the Economic Club of Chicago, he did indeed have points to make.
“Can you imagine Chicago without McDonald’s?” Kempczinski asked, rhetorically, at the start of his speech. “I cannot.”
That’s not an unusual opening salvo at the Economic Club, an elite gathering of various business and civic leaders, where corporate speakers typically tout their value and importance to the city — in McDonald’s HQ case, a claimed economic impact of $2 billion. Kempczinski, a spicy chicken sandwich to Ken Griffin’s Big Mac, didn’t fully adopt the tone of the billionaire, who outlined the reasons for the pending exit of his Citadel headquarters when he delivered red meat to the same club earlier this year. But Kempczinski’s more measured comments quickly evolved around a similar menu.
“The facts have not been especially kind to the city of Chicago of late,” Kempczinski said.
He noted there were fewer large companies headquartered in Chicago this year than last year, fewer this month than last month, a rejection of the preferred City Hall narrative that has painted the phenomenon as natural comings and goings.
“I’ve heard some people discount Boeing’s departure, Caterpillar’s departure, Citadel’s departure,” Kempczinski said, sarcastically.
Some people? That would be City Hall’s spin, which the McDonald’s leader demolished simply by saying that the departures, we all can agree, are not good news for the city. Or the state.
“Everywhere I go around the world,” he then said, “I am confronted by the same question: What’s going on in Chicago? While it may wound our civic pride to hear it, there is a general sense out there that our city is in crisis.”
We get around too. And that’s not an unfamiliar experience to us, either.
Moreover, Kempczinski’s comment was amplified Thursday by a Wall Street Journal report on the Economic Club speech, as Kempczinski, who did not have to go to this place at what is typically a glad-handing lunch, surely knew was likely to be the case. This wasn’t just a warning of a city in crisis — it was a warning made in public that was willing to risk making things worse in the hope of making them better.
Some veterans of City Club yaks were by now wondering when was the last time, Griffin aside, that a Chicago CEO talked of a city in crisis in public, given the typical imperative not to annoy a city leadership that might have long memories when a corporation needs some kind of favor.
But the McDonald’s boss had plenty more to add.
“I’ll tell you, quite honestly and transparently,” he said, “that others do sense our vulnerability.”
Translation: Mayors and governors from outside Illinois have been calling up and suggesting that the grass is greener elsewhere for the HQ of the burgers and fries colossus. It raises the question of how many other Chicago corporations are receiving the same overtures. Plenty, no doubt.
What did Kempczinski see as the fundamental problem? In essence, the loss of the city’s signature public-private partnership, which has served it so well in the past.
Unlike Griffin, the McDonald’s CEO avoided criticizing elected officials, explicitly at least. “It doesn’t really matter why,” he said, letting the reality that such a partnership must start in City Hall hang unsaid, “but we need to get it back.”
Kempczinski then said there were three main issues plaguing the city: crime, the overall business climate and mindset. “We are playing defense when we need to be playing offense,” he said.
Had Kempczinski been running for mayor, he’d likely have won the vote of every member of the Chicago business community with a speech that better articulated the problems of this city than any speech by an actual political leader of the last several years. His comments likely will serve as a blueprint for any pro-business mayoral candidate who has yet to emerge, and could also have been a blueprint for a different Republican candidate for governor of Illinois.
What Kempczinski had to say from the bully pulpit of running so huge a Chicago-based entity should immediately be taken to heart.
He inarguably spoke from a particular, elite point of view, but there can be no dispute that crime affects all citizens of the city and that McDonald’s knows and operates in more Chicago neighborhoods than any other international business. There can be no question that little can be achieved to raise all neighborhoods without the public and private sectors operating in partnership. And there is no question that Chicago has been subsumed by a negative mindset and a public image that, make no mistake, has fallen off a cliff.
Past time for the city to go to work together, Kempczinski was saying, and he is right. The question remains who will lead the effort.
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