The father of McDonald’s SA, Greg Solomon, is not one to turn down an opportunity. His journey from engineer to managing director is no secret recipe either.
As far as interviews go, meeting up with McDonald’s MD, Greg Solomon, at the launch of the company’s newest and greenest restaurant in Goodwood outside Cape Town, was by far the most colourful and exciting.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning. We were surrounded by so much colour and excitement. The celebrations were in aid of newest and greenest McDonald’s restaurant in Goodwood outside Cape Town. This newly erected steel frame restaurant is the latest creation forming part of many other sustainability measures the company has recently launched.
Before the interview, the Leadership team was privileged to be among the first to sample the latest addition to the McDonald’s stable — the all-new Texan burger.
From the start it becomes clear that the new shop is another grand step towards showcasing the direction of McDonalds in South Africa — and how the ‘green and growing’ vision is driven steadfastly by Solomon — and how his leadership is key to the success that the company has seen in recent times. Solomon confesses; he is all about the brand he represents.
From being a successful civil engineer, looking for a move into the commercial and residential sector, as opposed to the industrial environment, Greg Solomon found himself immersed in an industry that was, at the time, not quite what he was looking for, but it certainly was the right path to his success.
Solomon believes wholeheartedly that with a brand like McDonalds there is lots of room for growth, as he has experienced. “If you’re passionate, you can easily move through the ranks. If I think back, I have to be honest, I would have never thought that I would be here today — running this business and being you know the managing director.”
Solomon joined the McDonald’s group as a project manager in the construction department in 1996. During his tenure in this position he was instrumental in building some of the very first McDonald’s restaurants in South Africa. Almost eight years ago Solomon was approached by the then managing director Terry Reese, who was at the time in the process of localising management. Solomon spent extensive time gaining cross-function exposure, education and experience across the departments. Before assuming the role of managing director, he spent five years learning the science behind the McDonald’s business and gained experience in all the company’s operations.
Solomon is a revered leader and his style is somewhat unique. He displays a quiet confidence and strength when questioned about leadership. He places emphasis on growing new leaders out of his staff. He is quick to refer to the “next Greg Solomon” and together with a robust management system within the company, Solomon is set to grow, develop, inspire and identify any potential candidates who could rise to the role of leadership within the McDonald’s corporation.
He insists that being a leader is an organic role, which he has assumed and developed through inspiration from the people around him.
“When I look back now I think I wanted to lead. When I was younger, I just naturally lead. I did not have a dream to be some mega leader, but all the way through school I played a leadership role in some way or another. My final decision to sacrifice five years of engineering to work in the restaurants was about people and leading people.
“In hindsight I would say I followed my destiny. People inspire me in this business. I often do what I do for the people of this business. I wake up every single day to make somebody else’s dream materialise and somebody else becomes a leader in this business,” he says.
Solomon describes his leadership style as one of coaching and he enjoys a challenging environment surrounded by a diverse team. As head of the organisation, he likes to be challenged directly by his team as he believes that is how growth happens. Regarding his idea of, as he put it, creating an environment of positive discomfort: “This is not a business where I have just found a bunch of ‘Greg’s’ to follow me. That would make for a very boring and fragmented business. I purposely choose people who are going to challenge the system and challenge me. I have created an environment of positive discomfort if you want to put it that way, so that people are empowered.
“Leaders have to make decisions, but that is about 30%, maybe even 20%, of the time. The people who work for me are more clever than me. I am privileged to have recruited them, developed them and coached them. I need to listen to who they are and some of the best ideas come from the people in our franchises,” he says.
Solomon believes that it takes courage to challenge your leader but it takes courage as a leader to give permission to your people to challenge you.
“Good leaders need to make tough decisions and I guess I’ve never been scared to do that—to make those tough decisions when they need to be made,” he says.
Solomon points out, with pride, that although he cannot know the name of all 9 000 of his employees, he maintains an open door policy as does the rest of the McDonald’s company worldwide. He insists on managing his business through his people and has as strong a focus on accountability, as he has on profitability.
Solomon encourages communication with all his employees within the available means and is excited about a new digital platform the company has developed. He describes it as an internal Facebook where anybody in the company can write to or blog whoever they wish to communicate with.
What Solomon does not boast about is that under his leadership, the company has, over the past three years, enjoyed incremental sales growth, increased guest counts, improved customer service and operating income. The fact that he has been elected as the chairperson of the Board of Trustees of McDonald’s South Africa Pension and Provident Fund, is definitely a strong indication of the trust his people have in him.
Under Solomon’s direction, McDonald’s South Africa is now changing the way it builds its restaurants and has embarked on rolling out sustainable restaurants across the country. They have taken specific measures in their building design, making sure that natural light and heat from the sun complement a minimum air-conditioning design, which forms part of a programme that Solomon refers to as ‘Project Green and Growing’.
This visionary programme targets a 20% saving in water consumption, a 20% saving on electricity consumption, 20% saving on costs and 20% saving on construction time, as the brand continues on its strong growth path.
The new restaurants are built using light gauge steel and energy efficient cladding and insulation systems, which mean the restaurants cool down and warm up faster.
“We brought drive-thru to this country. We brought handheld breakfast to this country, we introduced 24/7 shops and now we’ve brought McCafe. McDonald’s need to continue to lead. We have an accountability, we have a responsibility to do that, so this building that we’re sitting in today is no different to probably 40% of the existing McDonald’s restaurants. What makes this fundamentally different is that it is a green McDonald’s. This is a McDonald’s that is striving to give back to the world and back to the planet. We started off with a vision, the green and growing vision,” he says.
Solomon is extremely passionate about his brand and due to his personal interest and passion in his work he strives to listen to his consumers as a consumer himself.
He has his favourites on the menu and is not afraid to share what he thoroughly enjoys on a weekly basis.
“I eat McDonald’s about five times a week, you know. My staple diet is the egg McMuffin. I ’eat my Big Mac once a week. The Big Tasty is my favourite dinner time food, which I have about every second week.
Regarding concerns about fast food being a major contributor to for example heart disease and obesity, Solomon told Leadership the company moving away from being a ‘fast food’ concern, to an establishment that is serving good food fast.
“We are a food business and we need to serve great tasting food that is good for people. At the end of the day we cannot serve people lettuce and tomatoes only—because we are a hamburger company with its heritage in the United States of America, but we are also very proudly a local South African company. Therefore we have to listen to what our local customs want, which explains why our menu has evolved so much.
“The chicken fold over is a local dish, and so is the corn option, the big breakfast and some of the McCafe products, like the carrot cake, is a real South African thing. So we are doing a lot of local meals because we are listening to the consumers.”
Solomon says health is paramount for him and the company and they will continue to pioneer and lead the way in this area.
“ Health extremists have defined health in a certain way, but for us it is about choice and education. The beauty is that we have built our business around a very diverse menu—from fresh juices, fish, chicken, beef and vegetarian meals. Interestingly enough, chicken is about 30% of our total business, fish is a growing part of our business right now. We’ve got different sizes, we’ve got fresh juices,” he says.
Greg Solomon and his team have an exceptionally inspirational outlook to how they run their business. Solomon says there is so much happening in the company and the growth factor is undeniable.
For this reason every employee gets a chance to be nurtured and everybody has the opportunity to gain something. Whether it be an education or simply being a part of a unique and innovative team.
Solomon’s vision and dream as a leader is to impact peoples lives positively, a vision he is fighting for within every decision he makes.