These Men Are Leading the Turnarounds at McDonald's and Wal-Mart

McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) and Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), the undisputed leaders in their industries, have undergone notable turnaround efforts in the past few years after both companies came under the new leadership of Steve Easterbrook and Doug McMillon, respectively.

In this episode of Industry Focus: Consumer Goods, Motley Fool analysts Vincent Shen and Sarah Priestley look at their paths to the CEO office and their respective visions for each company, including new initiatives, early results, and the challenges that remain.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This podcast was recorded on Aug. 30, 2016.

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Welcome, Fools, to the latest episode of Industry Focus,the podcast that dives into a different sector of the stock market every day.I'm your host, Vincent Shen. It isTuesday, Aug. 30, and today, I have the great pleasureof introducing Sarah Priestley, who's making her Industry Focus debut -- kind of -- at least, for the Consumer Goods sector. I know you've been on the show with Dylan for Tech a few times. How are you doing, Sarah?

Sarah Priestley:I'm good! Thank you very much for having me.

Shen: Are you excited?

Priestley:Yeah,very excited. This is interesting for me, very interesting -- not, obviously, that tech isn't. Hopefully Dylanwon't listen to this podcast. (laughs)

Shen: So,we have a great discussion for you today. But I wanted to mention that Sarah and I arepretty excited that, at this moment, there's about 36 hoursremaining to the month of August, because we've been suffering through the past 30 days,after we decided to try to kick sugaralong with a few other Fools here at HQ. Basically, the rule was no added sugar. Things like fruit are fine,but the good stuff, things like ice cream, chocolate, are no-go. Andyou can't forget that a lot of savory foods, too, like pasta and bread,I've been missing pizza a lot, even ketchup has added sugar too. So,Sarah, I have to ask you, what has been the toughest thingfor you to avoid in August,in terms of sweets?

Priestley:Chocolate. Chocolate has beenmissing from my life.

Shen: That'sa very common answeramong the people who are participating, assomething that's hard.I have to say,when the clock strikes midnight tomorrow,what's the first thing you think you're going to be eating,if you're up at that time?

Priestley:Myparents came a few weeks ago, and they broughtsome British confectionery, which I'm very partial to. So,I have some stored British confectionery that I may crack out at midnight tomorrow.

Shen: That'sa very good choice. I think I might be waiting with a spoonand a pint of ice cream, frankly, but we'll see. I'm not really sure yet.

Getting down to business, Sarah hadsuggested a really interesting topic for the show today,basically around executive leadershipand the impact that new CEOs have had in twomajor companies in the consumer retail worldthat have been struggling in one way or anotherover the past few years. Our first companyisMcDonald's,now led by Steve Easterbrook, who'sbeen at the helm for about 20months at this point. Sarah, what is Easterbrook's story? Let'sstart with that. How did he get to that position? We'll go from there.

Priestley:Steve Easterbrookstarted January of last year. He's pretty young. He's only 49. He's been working at McDonald'salmost since he left college. Hestarted in 1993. He attendedHamburger U, which is the internal training program. He headed McDonald's U.K. and then went on to head international, and left for a brief period of time to CEO forPizzaExpress andWagamama, in the U.K., which I know that you're not familiar with. But if you envision, if you will, a mix betweenChipotleandOlive Garden that's kind of what you've got. It's a step above fast casual, becauseit still has table service, but it's in that realm.

Shen: So,he's obviously spent many years with McDonald's -- pretty much his entirecareer except for that short hiatus of just two or three years. Prior to Easterbrooktaking the role, I think a lot of people who follow McDonald's,in general, who see headlines ... Comparable restaurant growth at the company was trendingdownward into negative territory across a lot of its major markets since 2012. The brand was losing, I think,a lot of its luster among consumers and investors. Competition inthe restaurant industry was definitelyvery intense. You had fast-casual entrance, in general, among the bigincumbents.

So,Easterbrook takes the job. What do you think,at the time, were the biggest issues on the docket that he needed to address?

Priestley:Well, I think foranybody coming into this position, it's the scale of the company. The company is so huge that any change they makehas to be pretty impressive to move the needle. To justgive you a very brief idea of how big the company is --they once considered including blueberriesin one of the menu items. In one day, overnight, they looked at buying one third of the U.S.'s capacity for blueberries. It's a massive company. Anything they do really has to be quite huge.

Then,I think you touched on a couple of the issues. There was definitely a lack ofconsumer favorability toward the brand. Andyou even saw this in the restaurants,they started to get a little bit degraded. And then, I think,competition from fast-casual companies. We'vementioned already Chipotle. And also,generally, the environment is movingmuch more toward healthy eating options, which theydidn't cater to very well.

Shen: Sure. With that context, there'sdefinitely been a lot of initiatives that he has kicked off, orthings he has put into placeto start what you call the turnaround. Thestock's definitelybounced back quite a bit, I'd say, from the approximately $90 per share thatit was trading at in January 2015 when he started. We can get to that a little later,I really want to focus more on the qualitative side. What do you think were the things that worked and didn't work? In general, what did he kick off since taking the reins, essentially?

Priestley:He started these initiatives. At theend of this year, they're going to transition from these turnaround plans to a more long-term progression. It'sinteresting, when he announced the turnaround, Forbes called the video in which he released itspectacularly awful. It was called a yawnfest. Andthe stock actually fell 2%. So you can see,initially, there wasn't very much supportbehind what he was saying. My personal feeling on this is thatSteve Easterbrook happens to be British. I feel like we are not particularly good atshow business and showmanship,and I think that's probably why his presentation was lacking a little bit feeling behind it.

Shen: Sure, like that pizzazz.

Priestley:Absolutely, which you are all very good at. So,some of the things that he started,I would split it up into fourdifferent sections. There was a general shake-up. Helooked at efficiencies, better care of employees,all driving toward a better customer experience. Just to touch on the shake-up,I think this is very, very important for a companylike McDonald's that's been around for a very long time. It's been beloved, and it's kind of rested on its laurels. It's officially kind ofplateaued.

So,he's moving the office locationfrom Oak Brook, which is a western suburb of Chicago, they've been there since 1971, to Chicago'sFulton Market District downtown.I think this really symbolizes a lot more than it actually delivers. Itsymbolizes the fact that they've been in the suburbs, they've been surrounded by fences and beenseparated from a lot of their competitors, and they've lost that competitive edge, they've lost that drive. He wants to bring them back in toget them to where their consumers are,attract top talent to the downtown area,cost savings from moving, too. But generally, just giving off this impression that things are going to change. So,that's a big step for the company.

The other thing is, he's restructured the company into four different sections. You've got the international lead market, high growth markets, and then two subsequent sections. And for all of these sections, he's changed the management. And that's a big structural change for the company, and it really shows you where they're focusing their attention. And I thinkit's a very sensible thing to do, with trying to devolve the turnaround plan they have.

Withregards to efficiencies, he's cutting $500 million in SG&A [selling, general, and administrative expenses] by the end of next year. Job cuts are rumored to be part of that. I think there will be some attrition just frommoving the location of the company, and then, the franchise models. Thefranchise model that they currently have is around 81%. They're 81%franchised currently. They want to move that to about 93%. The result of that will be better insight into the locality, sowhat people like in the area,especially in the Asia region,but also the margins are lot better. They're 82% for a franchise store compared to 15.2% for company-owned. That's huge.

Things like simplifying the menu -- the menu had grown 43% in the last seven years. That's huge. It hadbecome incredibly cumbersome for the staff when they'retrying to take customer orders, and also for the customers who,essentially, you want a burger and frieswhen you go to McDonald's. And that became hard to get.

Shen: Absolutely. There are a lot ofsurveys that research analysts and banks will go out and do, where they talk to franchisees about their experience, what they like and don't like from companywideinitiatives. A lot of them had mentioned the fact that --funny enough, one of the initiatives that a lot of people have attributedsuccessfully to Easterbrook is all-day breakfast,with the fact that menu complicationwas a big issue for customer service in general. AndI think that definitely flowed down to the customer experience. They justmentioned that trying to keep therestaurants running smoothly and efficiently,with all these different menu items,and the fact that it just took longer,for example, people in line trying to figure outwhat to order, that slows down the works allthe way down the line.

Priestley:Absolutely. And you touched on all-day breakfast. All-daybreakfast has been a huge driver for them, as you can see in the quarterly results. And they actually rolled that out in four months, whichI think demonstrates that they've gone from such a cumbersome, slow-movingorganization to actually beingvery fast to enact this. They launched it inOctober of last year, which is going to make the comps for this coming quartervery difficult for them, I imagine.

But they're also doing other things. They moved frommargarine to butterfor the flavor. They're using MSC-certified fish; preservative-free in their chicken nuggets. They're moving away from antibiotics. They'redoing a lot of things to improve the quality of the food that they're delivering. Andsome of these things that they're doing, obviously, they're using as promotional to prop the products. But some things they're not. They'reactually using sustainable beef sources, and they're mixing that in currently at a low percentage into what they already use. Andthey're going to gradually increase that untilthey're using 100% sustainable beef. Thisisn't something that they've talked about very much,and it shows you, I think, that theirquality is being taken very seriously at the company,not necessarily just in advertising.

Shen: Yeah,it's not just marketing to compete with Chipotle, for example, to say, "Hey, we're also sustainable, we're alsogiving you the healthier foods that a lot of consumersseem to be wanting these days."

Priestley:Exactly, yeah.I think they were heavily criticized beforeEasterbrook took over fortreating millennials like a homogeneous group, and trying to push forward healthy eating -- kale was always the joke. I think this is similar. They could becriticized for going toward sustainabilityas a ploy,but I really do think they're trying to embody that. And I think,generally, that it's just becoming a better organization. They're taking better care of employees. They've raised wages. There's tuition assistance, which is fantastic. I think 5,000 people qualify for Archways to Opportunity, which is helping them. And this has had a direct impact. It's reduced turnover, and it's also giving customers friendlier, happierpeople to interact with when they go to McDonald's.

Shen: Sure. Andobviously that's very important. We've covered a ton of initiatives that you've mentioned under Easterbrook. Idefinitely think he's pushing the company in the right direction, especially with this bigger picture, long-term focus. Evengoing back to the beginning, which you mentioned,about the office move, that can really impact morale. That can reallyimpact the culture, especially at headquarters, theircorporate headquarters. Andother companies have done that, too. I believe it wasGap, also, new leadership took over and just changed the layout, theinterior design in the office. That can really flow through to the rest of the business.

Without getting too focused on short-term trading moves,I mentioned that the stock was up quite a bit overEasterbrook's tenure. Forty percent at one point this year, I think it was in May. The gains now are closer to 25%. But still, in a period of 20 months, really solid, especially for a bigger, well-known, mature brand likeMcDonald's. But if we look a little deeper at the financials, when Easterbrook took over, in terms of trailing earnings, it was trading at about 19 [times] by my calculation. Now, it's about 24 [times]. Butearnings per share hasn't changed all that much. Butlooking at the financials, what do you think? Do you think the business istrending in the right direction, in terms ofsome of the big metrics we might look at, like comps and things along those lines?

Priestley:Absolutely. They had their fourthconsecutive quarter of comparable-store sales growth, which isfantastic. I think last quarter, the comps got more difficult, so they are starting to slow, which affected the stock price. But ifyou look at the first half of 2016, their net income was $2.27 billion, versus $2.13 billion for the year previously. Earnings per share of $2.51 versus $2.09. So, they aredefinitely making empirical improvement.

Franchise margins were also up 6%. You are starting to seesome of thecost of the improvement measures,such as the increased wages, taking effect. Butif you look at some of the qualitative measureslike customer satisfaction, their scores improved in seven out of nine markets.YouGov also does a consumerperceptions report. They take 1,400 companies, they rank what was most improved in terms of customer perception, and McDonald's was fourth. That shows you that they're making leaps and bounds from where they were.

As I mentioned, last quarter the pace of growth slowed due toharder comparisons, but alsothe industry experienced a 350-basis-point decline due to deflation at grocery stores. So,it became tangibly cheaper for people to eat at home than it is to eat out, whereas before, if you go to the lower fast food restaurants, that's always been touch and go for families. Butnow it's categorically cheaper to eat at home, which has impacted the whole industry.

Shen: Sure.I want to wrap it up here before we move on to our next company,which is another big name that a lot of people will recognize. Do you have any view for Easterbrook in terms of, he's kind ofstabilized the business,and put it on the right track. What do you think is maybe, next year or five years, his view? Do you think it's going to be growing stores? Youmentioned the refranchising and how important that is,especially with the improved margins they see. Maybe certain markets become a focus? Maybe inAsia-Pacific, for example?

Priestley:Yes,he absolutely has a plan to open more stores. I think they want to open 4,000 new stores. I will say, that needs to be 4,000 of the right stores. They'reclosing underperforming restaurants right now. The focus,absolutely, is in the Asia region. They'rerefranchising a lot of those because they've underperformed historically. The viewpoint on that has been that they didn't have the insider knowledge, if you like, into the locality. And that's what they're hoping to give them now. They've also opened theirfirst restaurant in Kazakhstan. Indifferent places like that, they'restarting to have a presence. So definitely, growth is on the agenda. I would also say, he probably wants to apply some of these learnings and findings from what they've done in the U.S. to other countries, too.

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Ournext company is the king of retail, Wal-Mart. Current CEODoug McMillon has beenin the position since February 2014 -- and even more so thanEasterbrook, who hasimpressively had such a longtenure with McDonald's --he's a company man through and through. He has been with Wal-Mart since his job as asummer associate there in 1984,when he was just 17 years old. The true case ofsomebody who started at the company and just rose through the ranks, now leading it. What do you think?

Priestley:I think he has rightly been praised frommultiple sources, even COO ofFacebook,Sheryl Sandberg,has given her praise to him after meeting him in an exchange program.Fortune has done an article called "The Man Who's Reinventing Wal-Mart." He's been called themost qualified person since Sam Walton. There's ahuge amount of expectation on him. As you said,he's a company man through and through. He's from Arkansas. He worked there in high school, he's stocked shelves, he's done a $2.4 billion merger in South Africa. So he has a huge amount of experience.

And then, the other thing is, he's incredibly likable. InNew York and Washington, D.C., where Wal-Mart hastended to have a worse reputation with how they treat employees, there's ad campaigns going on at the moment. You may have already seen them. They feature him on hisInstagram feed, basically visiting the store andtalking about how much better they're treating their employees. It's a very compelling ad, he's very likable. I read somewhere that he strikes the perfect balance between being veryaffable and aggressive, and that'sexactly how I would put it.

Shen: Let'spaint a little bit of a picture here.I think some people are familiarwith the fact, once you reach the scale, similar to McDonald's, that Wal-Mart has reached, doing anything that really moves the needle for the companybecomes really challenging. But,before McMillon took the helm and became, potentially,the most qualified CEO since Sam Walton, what was Wal-Mart facing? And then, we can get into the steps that he took.

Priestley:I would say Wal-Martessentially came to prominence bysaturating markets. They werethe most convenient option at the lowest price. But the problem is, now,they have competition from all sides. From the lower end,Dollar Generaland the dollar stores' increasing popularity.CostcoandTargetas the big-box retailers.Kroger, they've really upped their game in terms oforganic and fresh. I think Wal-Mart missed the mark on that,initially. If you look, a decade ago, Wal-Mart was 15% to 18% cheaper on groceries than Kroger. The gap is now 4% to 7%. So that's getting a lot shorter.And, the other thing is,in terms of convenience,WalgreensandCVSare leveraging theirgeographic dominance and offering groceries there, sopeople have another alternative.

More than all of that, though, is online. If you look,Amazon2012 to 2015 doubled their sales. Wal-Mart grew their sales by 8.6% in the same period. It's the Amazon effect. There's definitely online sales, which is taking away from Wal-Mart revenue.

Shen: Yeah, with that kind of growth...unfortunately, consumer spending has not been growing at that rate. That is Amazon taking shares,especially, from a lot of the traditional retailers, Wal-Mart being, in my opinion, the epitome of that. But they're moving, it seems, forward, under McMillon's guidance. Obviously,big challenges, but still a very large, stable company. A very strong, incredible financial position. But, what is he doing to shore things up for another, essentially, generation of dominance in this space?

Priestley:I think you'll seea lot of similarities between this andEasterbrook,purely by the fact that I think they're bothhuge companies, huge examples ofAmerican commerce, and by consequence, they havesimilarities in their turnaround plans. So he's also doing a shake-up. He's moving execs. Currently, the head of China will now go and take overAsda in the U.K., which is struggling quite significantly. Greg Foran, who's a New Zealander, has been moved to the head of the U.S. Andinterestingly, when he first took the position, he listed no bad feedback from store managers. He then took this feedback and gave improvement plans, which he's going to review on the 30th of September. And he's put clocks that count down to the 30th of September in a lot of the stores and back offices in Wal-Mart. So, that's very interesting, that technique that he's adopted.

Again, Wal-Mart is focusing on making happier workers. CFO Brett Biggs said in the last earnings call that happier workers have beenresponsible for sales increases. That's interesting. Again,they've raised minimum wage, increased training. And then,I think they're focused most predominantly on e-commerce. If you look, the ShippingPass, that's to counter Amazon Prime. ShippingPass is essentially their equivalent for $50. McMillon has talked about going Wal-Mart-sized in e-commerce. I like the term. And he's doing that. He's in anacquisition in China, and recently in the U.S., to really bolster their online offering.

[Editor's note: Wal-Mart acquired a 5% stake in, not the entire company as implied in the comments above. We apologize for any confusion.]

Shen: Yeah, we talked a few episodes ago about that.I was able to focus a little bit more on the Wal-Mart and deal,if you're curious about that, because it is a very interesting tie up between them. How much of an impact it will necessarily have size-wise,, though it's grownincredibly in its first year, is still very smallrelative to Wal-Mart,obviously. But it's the technology, I think, that provides,and some of the logistical intricacy there, in terms of how they build a cart for a shopper, that Wal-Mart is really interested in. It'll definitely be, in the next year or two, an opportunity for McMillon to really leverage that and see where it goes.

Priestley:Yeah. He's made it known thatthat's his focus, and I think he's investing very heavilyin that area. Interestingly,we were talking about McDonald's moving theirheadquarters to the downtown Chicago area. Theire-commerce headquarters is near San Francisco. They're doing that to "invadeSilicon Valley for talent." They'revery much aware that if they want to get the best people,they need to be in an attractive location. And they're doing that. AndI think that shows the importance they're placing on it.

Butall of these moves are, essentially, again, toimprove customer experience. They want to meet the customer where they are -- very much representative of the push-pull model. They're going to offer pick-ups. They're pulling trucks into people's workplace parking lots, and they can do pick-ups from there. They've rolled that out to 30 more markets. They've added more products, improved their fresh produce.

And then, on the reverse side, they're also looking into cost efficiencies. They've divested their Suburbia brand in Mexico, which was their clothing brand. And then,looking even in the minutiae of detail -- the bakers, they found, were using spoons to frost, and they were wasting 36 truck loads of icing a year. So, they now have new scrapers not to waste those 36 truck loads. We laugh, and it is funny, but that's the kind of level of detail that these CEOs need to go into, if they'rereally going to get acute cost savings.

Shen: Yeah. For a company this size, that little bit on the spoon amounts to 36 truckloads a year. That'spretty incredible. So,we have a few more minutes. I figure we can look at their recent results as a single time period indicator of some of theprogress they might be making. They reported on, I think, August 18, so very recently. The big thing that stood out to me personally was, previously, this was again tied to, their e-commerce growth was pretty strong. It was over 20% not that long ago. It was trending downwards, then, bumped up again to 12% for this quarter. What else stood out to you?

Priestley:They had organic sales growth of 2.8%, which is great. Comp-store sales at 1.6%. This amounts to their eighthconsecutive quarter of positivesame-store sales growth. They'redefinitely getting into that safety zone,I would say, where they're securing their seventhconsecutive quarter ofpositive traffic. Interestingly, they also noted that sales haveincreased from their own staff members, which may be showing a greater positive feeling toward the company.

International business was the underlying negative. 2.2% underlying sales growth, which is great. But if you break that down, the U.K. seriouslycontinues to struggle. Comp salesdecreased 7.5%, andoperating expenses were up 8.3%across the board due to wage hikesand things like that. So, thegeneral trend is definitely positive. There aresome areas they still need to improve, and there was a lot of focus given to those on the earnings call. So,I would say that's in good shape going forward.

Shen: OK. Now, at this point, as we'rewrapping up, we have the story for McDonald's,we have it for Wal-Mart. Two very different businesses with their own challenges. But Easterbook and McMillon's turnaroundinitiatives seem to share quite a few themes. What are your final thoughts, takeaways, in terms ofsome of the similarities there, but alsoin terms of the importance ofleadership? I think both ofthese examples that we looked atdefinitely took on a hands-on approach. I think,you mentioned earlier, with McMillon, for example, his ability to think "big picture," to drive and innovate, but at the same time, to have a really good grasp, the fact that he rose up the ranks, of the day-to-day operations being so important.

Priestley:Absolutely.I think this is an incredible examplethat we have right in front of us of two CEOs and a turnaround plan. Youdon't get that very often. They're both young,they're both company men,essentially. They both facesimilar challenges. Scale is huge for both companies. They haveexposure to different regions.I think it's about 60% for McDonald's, international exposure,and about 30% for Wal-Mart. So they both have those effect challenges. They're both trying to return value for shareholders. These are value stocks, and there's thatunderlying pressure on them to do that.

And I think they've both taken a very, as you said, hands-on approach to shaking up the way the company operates at a fundamental level. Not only is that difficult to do,it's also incredibly brave,especially if they have been brought up,essentially, in their careers under this management,and they've been learning that way to manage, their whole careers. It's difficult. And, as far as,how much does a CEO actually impact on the ground -- there's 3,000 books a year writtenon the topic of leadership. It's a very highly debated area. I would say these are twoexamples where they're having a direct impact. I would tend toward the Upper Echelon Theory ofLichtenstein and Collins, who did a good-to-great analysis, and say thatexecutive values do have a direct impact on the way that companies operate. This is a tangible example of that.

Shen: Perfect.Sarah, it was awesome having you on.I really look forward to having you on the showagain. It's nice to have someone in studiowith me to talk to,instead of talking to my computer. If you enjoyedthe discussion and you want to learn moreabout leadership and some ofthe great CEOs in the sector and others, there's also an excellent episode of the Rule Breaker Investing podcast from Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner. Hetalks about his experience and lessons that he learned from another highly respected CEOin the consumer world. That's Howard Schultz,the founder ofStarbucks. Thatepisode went outon Aug. 10th, and it can be found at,along with some of our other great shows.

You can also continue the conversation with us viaTwitter @MFIndustryFocus, orsend us any questions or comments via email to Peopleon the program may own companies discussedon the show, and The Motley Fool may haveformal recommendations for or against stocks mentioned,so don't buy or sell anything based solely on what you hearduring the program. Thanks for listening and Fool on!

Sarah Priestleyhas no position in any stocks mentioned. Vincent Shen has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Costco Wholesale, Facebook, and Starbucks. The Motley Fool recommends CVS Health. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.