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McFutures: Entrepreneurs Reveal Their Burger-Flipping Pasts

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McDonald’s plans to hire 50,000 employees today and while it might just be "flipping burgers," for many young employees laboring in the shadow of the golden arches, a job at McDonald's is the springboard to a fulfilling career.

The challenges and demands of working in a fast-paced, high-volume environment often prove to be fertile training ground for future business owners.

Want fries with that?

James Valentine started working at McDonald’s at the age of 16. At the time, it was just a way to earn extra cash to go to college and study police science. Two years later McDonald's offered him an opportunity in management, so Valentine decided to trade in his dream of being a cop for a new dream. He worked his way to upper management, and then moved on to become the first franchisee of a Wisconsin-based sandwich chain called Cousins Subs.

In his new role as a franchise owner, Valentine's early lessons as a McDonald’s manager stayed with him.

"I would say everything I do now is what I learned back at McDonald's -- the management aspect of motivating, challenging and demanding excellence," he said.

Valentine, 55, recalls three supervisors who had a significant impact on his development while at McDonald's.

"Each of them took me under their wing and spent extra time in their life teaching me how to be better in whatever position I was," he said. "These guys really challenged us to be very good at what we did and gave us the opportunities to succeed."

But in Valentine's opinion, McDonald's isn't the company it once was. "Their standards have changed," he said. "Back in the '70s, the focus was 100 percent on the consumer. I'm sure you still have people in McDonald’s that still do that. They're just not necessarily all grouped together."

Despite this change, if Valentine were 16 years old today, he would choose to work at McDonald's.

"They haven’t changed in a bad way," he said. "Society changes , and people have different motivations."

Hamburger University

One thing that has changed for the better is McDonald's training ground—Hamburger University (HU). Established in 1961 in the basement of an Illinois McDonald's, HU now has seven campuses around the world, with 64 full-time professors and the ability to teach in 28 languages at their U.S. location. According to a recent press release, employees can even use classes at HU toward college credit. The average manager completes about one semester of college equivalent credits, which they can transfer to select universities across the country.

Bob Wilson, 54, remembers Hamburger University fondly.

"I went to a week-long training course for management supervisors, and at the end of the week I won a gold hat award— for best exemplifying McDonald's," he said.

Wilson worked for McDonald's for about seven years before moving on to work for Little Caesars, a pizza chain. Today, he owns 13 franchises of Hungry Howie's Pizza throughout Michigan.

McDonald's laid the foundation for his subsequent success, Wilson said.

"I was young and naïve, but McDonald’s taught me so much," Wilson said. "I wouldn't be as successful as I was if I didn’t have that grounding."

Up the ladder

Stephen Buttrick also started out at McDonald's, but unlike Valentine and Wilson, his early experiences led him to another industry. Buttrick began at 15, flipping burgers and toasting buns to pay his way through college. He ended up working for McDonald's for 25 years, and then moving on to the Brueggers Bagels franchise.

But after decades in the food industry, Buttrick decided to open up a CertaPro franchise, the largest painting contracting company in North America.  Despite the industry change, he found that his skills from McDonald's still applied.

"You never forget those skills," Buttrick said. "People development, communication, being a good role model for employees, being able to set goals and delegate -- all those skills are transferable no matter what the job."

Business News Daily Editor

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