Roger Stevens
Roger Stevens

I had the pleasure of meeting McDonald’s Corporation President and CEO Don Thompson this past weekend before he spoke to a packed house at the Purdue University Agricultural Alumni Association annual meeting in Indianapolis. Urged to give the keynote speech by fellow Purdue University trustee and past National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) president John D. Hardin, Jr., Thompson had some thought-provoking comments about the world's largest foodservice company. McDonald’s serves 70 million customers every day in 119 countries and employs 1.8 million people across the globe.

An imposing figure, Thomson looks like he could have been a linebacker for Purdue’s football team while he was studying electrical engineering at the university. He caught my attention by starting the speech off describing the sheer scale of McDonald’s Corporation. For instance, his company is the third largest company in the world in terms of employees, with Walmart being number one and the Chinese Communist Army second.

For pork producers, the most interesting figure may be that McDonald’s purchases 200 million pounds of pork every year. The company also purchases two percent of the world’s beef each year, as well as huge amounts of chicken, cheese, etc.

All of this puts Thompson in a unique position to play an outsized role with the supply chain, including pork producers. The challenge for Thompson is that he must balance the needs of suppliers with the needs of his customers and employees. This is no mean feat, with customers’ desires changing and their ability to express themselves around the globe almost instantly with the advent of social media and the Internet.

Thompson said it is critical for him to listen: to customers, to suppliers, and even to vocal minorities with extreme views about how food is produced. From his customers he is hearing three things that are most important to them: transparency, food quality and sustainability.

Transparency means consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced. Food quality means taste and wholesomeness. And sustainability means producing the food in an environmentally sustainable way at a price his customers’ desire.

From his suppliers, such as pork producers, he knows they need a sustainable business model that allows them to make decisions about how to raise pigs. He knows pork producers cannot change the way they produce pork overnight, or even in a year, as some animal rights group would like. But, Thompson also knows that pork producers must change eventually if they want to satisfy his customers’ needs.

One in eight U.S. workers has worked at some time for McDonald’s Corporation, so Thompson knows he must listen carefully to them as well.

And he knows he must listen even to extreme voices – those who have concerns about the way food is produced. Individuals in some of these groups are capable of producing a video that can go viral on YouTube in less than a week’s time, significantly affecting his customers’ view of McDonald’s Corporation and its suppliers.

For Thompson, this means bringing all of these groups to the table so that everyone understands each other, and figuring out how to satisfy what consumers want in a way that works for everyone involved.

Roger Stevens is president of Stevens & Associates, Inc., a communications consulting firm based in Indianapolis, Ind. The comments and opinions expressed herein are those of the author.