Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the son of a rabbi and a social worker, David Green never saw the sky as the limit. He would ride his bike eight miles to the local airport and spend hours watching the takeoffs and landings. That fueled a 50-year passion that he now fulfills piloting a six-seat jet. But it was at McDonald’s where Green took off, rising from an assistant marketing manager in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1972 to becoming the fast-food giant’s global marketing officer.
Green, who retired in 2002, and his wife of 43 years, Linda, now split their time between a home on Manasota Key and a summer place in Bigfork, Montana. He has devoted his retirement to enriching the community, currently serving on the board of the Sarasota Orchestra and the Hermitage Artist Retreat. He’s also involved with Jewish Family and Children Services.
Over breakfast at a Venice diner, Green recalled what he learned playing a major role for decades at one of the world’s most successful companies.
“They talk about the 36 righteous men of the world—my father was one of them, an incredible person. And so was my mom, who was a social worker. My father had a work ethic that probably influenced me more than anything. He had an electric typewriter, one of the very early ones, and he’d be sitting in his study working on his sermons. As a kid, I remember standing outside listening to the click, click, click. I’d watch him take the piece of paper out and work on every word and then put the paper back in and work on every word again. His manuscripts were full of edits. He wanted to be perfect in what he said and how he said it.”
“McDonald’s was an incredible experience because they really valued the individual and they wanted you to make a difference no matter what level of the organization you were in. It was a company where you could go out, work hard, make mistakes—just don’t make the same mistake twice —and succeed. Not a lot of Ph.D.s, not a lot of people with advanced degrees. It was people who grew up in the trenches.”
“Even though I was in the marketing department, I worked at least a week every year in the restaurant. Most people did. It was expected that you knew at least a little bit about operations. Part of my job was talking to restaurant owners and co-ops about marketing. But If I walked in the door and the restaurant had just gotten slammed with a school bus full of kids, I wasn’t going to talk marketing. I was going to get behind the counter and drop fries or draw drinks. And because I was able to do that, my credibility went up.”
“I came to understand how important campfire stories are in big institutions. For instance, at McDonald’s, if there was a little man in the parking lot picking up cigarette butts you knew you were in trouble, because that was [McDonald’s founder] Ray Kroc. There was a time when Ray went into a restaurant that was filthy, and he jumped on top of a table and yelled out, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you are not getting what McDonald’s is best at. This restaurant is now closed. Please come back tomorrow; it will be a lot better.’ That kind of story, just like fireweed, spreads throughout an organization. Every great company, whether Walt Disney or Steve Jobs at Apple, has this kind of institutional story that goes around and tells you what the culture is about.”
“Successful marketing is absolutely dependent on having a great product, a product that customers like and value. McDonald’s always had that operational focus. You would go back into the kitchens at headquarters and there would be Fred Turner [CEO after Kroc] tasting the salt that was going to go on the French fries and he would go ‘Arghh, I don’t like this, it’s too salty.’ It wasn’t micromanagement; it was the intense operational focus that they had that created consistency.”
“In marketing, I learned that the two aspects in which you communicate with people are rational and emotional. If you just stay on the rational side, you’ll never establish a great relationship with people. So some of our great commercials were tear-jerkers that touched your heart. It’s what made us part of the family and part of the conversation. Just when the menu started getting a little boring, the next campaign would come out … ‘Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun,’ and people would go, ‘Oh, yes!’”
“Nothing can take the place of being passionate, persistent and honest about the company and its products. When I started on my career I worried about my next promotion, my next pay raise, my next office space. Often I would second guess an action before taking it because I wondered how it would affect my career. I found out that I was worrying about false goals. Promotions, raises, bigger offices are rewards, not goals. Demonstrating over time that you have a quality work ethic, an ability to get important tasks accomplished and playing well with talented co-workers will get you those rewards much faster than worrying about the rewards themselves.”
“I’m a big believer in having passions outside of work. For me, it was flying and nature. For 15 to 20 years, on almost every weekend from spring to fall, my wife and two sons and I would go canoeing. We’d camp Friday and Saturday nights and come home Sunday. I worked incredibly hard, was the first person in the office in the morning and the last person to leave at night, but on Friday’s McDonald’s had a half-day and was good about saying, ‘Get out.’ And I did, which allowed me to have memorable experiences with my family.”