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When George Cohon came to Canada from Chicago in 1968 to run the fledgling Canadian operations of McDonald's, he immediately fell in love with the country. He became a Canadian citizen. He later was awarded The Order of Canada for his outstanding contributions to his newly adopted country.
Never one to do things in half measures, when George was sworn in as a citizen, he had the entire Bobby Gimby band in the courtroom play "Canadaaaa". He has become a great Canada booster and contributor to worthy causes. One year he and two other major donors saved the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto from extinction:
"I figure you have to put something back into the country you live in. This country's been good to me, to my wife and children. So you find the time for that sort of stuff whether it be for Terry Fox or Rick Hansen or the Ronald McDonald Houses. You do that because you have an obligation to do it."
When George Cohon came to Canada there were six McDonald's doing about a million dollars a year. Twenty one years later there are 625 restaurants with sales of about $1.5 billion a year and growing.
"I remember opening the first one in London, Ontario. We decided to donate the opening day proceeds to a crippled children's charity. I had to go to a meeting of the agency's board to explain who McDonald's were!"
He has no need to explain who McDonald's are anymore. Not even in the Soviet Union. Under George's directorship, McDonald's of Canada signed a deal to open 20 McDonald's in the USSR, the first one opened January
1990 in Moscow's Pushkin Square, very close to Red Square. The Soviets own 51 percent and Canada owns 49 percent. What a gutsy move!
"Gutsy? I don't think so. We started on that project in 1976 and we finally did it in J989-so I don't think of it so much as gutsy as forward thinking. There are 280 million people in that country. On average we serve 50 thousand customers a day. In our first year we served over 15 million customers. That's over half the population of Canada. Our McDonald's there is the highest volume McDonald's of anywhere in the world."
In addition to owning part of the Soviet McDonald's, the Canadian branches train Soviet staff at branches in Toronto, Ottawa and London, Ontario.
"1 used to say in jest that Burger Diplomacy would bring people together, working shoulder to shoulder and they'd be friends. And my God, it's actually happening!"
McDonald's is so famous that in a survey taken in a group of Canadian schools 70 percent of the students identified John A. MacDonald, the founder of the country, as the Hamburger King. When George Cohon was told of this he said: "Only 70 percent? We have to go after that other 30!"
We asked George if there were as many opportunities in Canada as there were when he came here in 1968.
"Almost every day some youngster out of school, not necessarily university, comes to McDonald's, works hard and becomes an owner/operator at outlets right across this country. If getting ahead means working seven days a week and giving 110 percent of your effort, you do it. I've never been much of a one to punch a time clock. I never thought of the hours I've had to work. I look forward to coming to work every day. The founder of McDonald's, Ray Kroc, had a saying: 'If you don't look forward to coming to work, you're in the wrong job. '
"Canada is such a wonderful country. In the next decade we have a rare opportunity to emerge onto the international scene. You see the space ship with the Canada spar arm on it; you see that Bombardier has contracted to build all sorts of trains in Europe. You see Olympia and York, probably the largest real estate developer in the world, changing the faces of cities all over the world. As we go into the next century I think Canada will be in a great position to affect the way the world is."
That's George Cohon, who in 21 years built the largest quick service restaurant chain in Canada employing over 60,000 people. And also the highest volume restaurant in Russia. He's another Canadian Achiever.
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