Ketchup In Your Veins: What McDonald’s Taught Me About Passion, Pride & Having Fun


1990 was an exciting year for me. I had just arrived from the UK where I had run a couple of smaller businesses. In my first few months I secured a job in the heart of Sydney, as a trainee Manager at McDo nald’s brand new Circular Quay store.

At that time, I believed from my business experience in the UK, that it takes years of training, expertise and experience to run and manage a business. Then I landed in the McDonald’s system and my thinking was completely turned on its head.

The restaurant’s month-end closing process was my first shock. As all businesses know, month-end is the bane of everyone’s life – especially getting them completed in a timely and accurate manner. At McDonald’s I watched as the restaurants completed their month end P&L, ready to submit to the relevant store consultants, by 9am on the first of the month – whether it was 1st June, July or January, a Tuesday or Sunday, a normal working day or a public holiday. And to add to my shock, the personnel completing these month-end accounts were Store and Assistant Managers, the majority of whom were just 17 – 22 years of age.

I waited patiently for Head Office to get back to us with errors and oversights – but they never did. It was not long before I was doing monthend along with them and my awe only grew. While the system is now fully computerised, when I joined it was all done manually – pen, paper, clipboard, calculator and managers’ energy and enthusiasm!

At McDonald’s, complex processes – such as store financial controls and month-end processes – were broken down into simple templates that all came together in one large sheet. Once taught, these smart, elegant systems worked beautifully across the network.

The Processes and People

While I had many learnings during my time at McDonald’s, the first three still stand out:

1. Nothing is too important or complex that it cannot be broken down into its component parts and simplified;

2. Staff are honest, decent and quite capable of the extraordinary; and

3. Enthusiasm and commitment trumps experience and qualification.

This approach of simplifying every process was applied to everything in the restaurants. Whether it was staff recruitment or training, local store marketing plans or rostering, stock ordering or inventory control – everything was simplified and easy to learn.

More importantly, I learnt a lot about employing the right people – people with energy and enthusiasm. As a result, opportunities were provided to many people who would not have been considered for other jobs in more traditionally managed companies. The late Charlie Bell (President and CEO of McDonald’s International) and Guy Russo, now CEO of Department Stores (Kmart and Target) are both extraordinary examples of this powerful employment philosophy.

A Relentless Focus on Customer Service

A year later I moved into Head Office and found the same enthusiasm there. The focus at Head Office was on doing everything possible to ensure the restaurants were able to exceed the customers’ expectations. It was not the job of the restaurants to chase us for information, or stock, or marketing material, or anything else they needed to deliver outstanding customer service. As far as we were concerned, nothing was too small to matter.

Two examples of this focus were:

1. Some full rubbish bags were splitting in the restaurants which was catastrophic for the restaurant staff and unpleasant for customers nearby. Huge focus and attention was placed on resolving the quality issues and progress was regularly reviewed at the Top Management Team (TMT) meetings.

2. Concerns were raised as there was a positive variance with our mustard dispensers, which were to be dispensing insufficient mustard. This meant that the flavour profile of the relevant burgers was being compromised with too little mustard. The amount of mustard on a burger is  tiny – but that did not matter. We were committed to our customers and franchisees. To resolve the mustard dispenser matter, trials were run, alternatives were considered, results from trials in restaurants were assessed and again, like the rubbish bags, it remained a priority and was regularly reviewed by the TMT until it was resolved.

This commitment went through everybody and every department.

Assured Supply

A fundamental principle of McDonald’s supply chain – along with the safest, quality product at all times – is the concept of ‘assured supply’. A customer could not visit a store and be told the fries or nuggets were temporarily off the menu as they had run out of stock, or that the delivery had been missed, or that the supplier had delivered the wrong product. 100 per cent supply at all times was the expectation. Many new suppliers used to say “You are kidding, aren’t you? No one can assure this – there are always events outside of our control.” They were right – it is impossible to guarantee 100 per cent supply. However, if you start with the expectation of 100 per cent supply, work through what could happen, and develop contingency plans for these unusual, unlikely, and possible catastrophic events, you dramatically increase the chance of achieving your target of 100 per cent supply.

This meant that when there were ferry strikes to Tasmania, or floods in the Nullarbor desert, product was flown over to Tasmania and Perth respectively. An extreme example of this was the tragic gas explosion in Victoria leaving homes and factories without gas for several days. The ‘Bun Contingency Plan’ was activated and burger buns were freighted into Melbourne from the South Australian and New South Wales bakeries immediately. In this particular instance, because people could not cook at home, customers poured into our restaurants and unexpectedly demand increased over 50 per cent overnight! Due to the dramatic increase in volumes required, the Queensland bakery also had to step in and supply parts of northern New South Wales to ease the pressure on the NSW bakery as it supplied Melbourne. We even considered shipping  buns in from New Zealand if the demand had soared any further.

This could not have happened if it weren’t for the contingency plans that had already been developed by the supplier and McDonald’s which was then able to swing into place before this tragedy was being widely reported in the media.

While there are numerous examples, what was critical was that through it all, everyone worked together and the passion, commitment and pride shone through.

We used to call it ‘ketchup in your veins.’

Ketchup In Your Veins

I had never experienced such extraordinary passion and pride in a brand until I worked at McDonald’s. It touched everything we did – from the store month-end closing processes to new product innovation and incredible marketing campaigns. Everyone in the organisation was united by a common purpose, way of working and commitment to excellence. When you witness your CEO jumping onto the fry station to help because he has walked in to a busy restaurant with long queues, you understand what ‘ketchup in the veins’ really means.

I used to think the ‘ketchup in your veins’ was unique to McDonald’s. I have learnt since then that it is achievable in any organisation. However, it requires a number of elements to come together at once. These include a real passion for – and belief in – the brand and product/service offering, a focus and steely determination to try and do the right thing by everyone (and most importantly the customer), and a commitment to quality at all levels. It takes serious hard work, determination and persistence to bring it all together – but it can be done, as I see in my work with both franchise and non-franchise organisations today.

Having Fun

After an early business training in the UK where business was taken very seriously, there was one learning at McDonald’s that I really valued – the importance of having fun at work. This is so often frowned upon, considered irrelevant, forgotten or overlooked. Yet we spend more time at work and with our colleagues than with almost anyone else. Having pride in what you do, getting satisfaction and enjoying your work, your team, and your company does translate into greater productivity and an improved culture.

When an organisation puts in place great people and processes, mixes in a generous dash of customer focus, and tops it off with pride, passion, fun and a commitment to learning, the foundations for developing their own unique version of ‘ketchup in your veins’ are truly in place.

Nicola is a Director of TeamsPlus, specialists in improving company and departmental performance through High Performance Team Development, Leadership Coaching, Customer/ Partner Engagement and Management and Business Planning. Nicola Larking joined McDonald’s Operations as a trainee Store Manager in 1990. She left in 2003, having served as Executive Vice President, Director of Restaurant Supply and Systems Supply in Australia and Corporate Vice President, Director of Supply Chain Management in Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.

She can be contacted at: