Here's another one of the amazing people I've met while researching and writing books: George Cohon. He's legendary in the world of McDonald's Restaurants. Back in 1967, George had left the security of a Chicago law firm to move lock, stock and family to Canada as the new licensee of McDonald’s Restaurants for the eastern segment of the country. Though McDonald’s was virtually unknown north of the 49th parallel, George had a great belief in himself, his product and the men running McDonald's in the U.S., like founder Ray Kroc and CEO Fred Turner. He accepted the challenge and began promptly opening restaurants, becoming a full Canadian citizen in the process.
I've written about George in my book "Pushing The Boundaries" (pushingtheboundaries.life) because he accomplished many firsts for McDonald's, not the least of which was taking the North American chain into Russia.
"Think about it," he told me as I caught up with him at his beautiful home in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he and his wife Susan spend the winters before returning to Toronto. "There was no such thing as a McDonald's in the USSR in 1976. For many people, it was unimaginable. There was so little common ground between the two economic systems at the negotiating table, there was nothing to do but be creative."
Let's acknowledge that "being creative" took 14 years! The culmination, against all odds, occurred on January 31, 1990, when a McDonald's Restaurant opened at Pushkin Square in Moscow. The mastermind behind this event, George Cohon, was now senior chairman of McDonald's Restaurants of Canada and McDonald's Russia.
But apart from his mastery of defeating the odds and accomplishing this intercontinental feat, let me recount two quick stories about George because they tell so much about this extraordinary man...
George had bought himself a nice home in Toronto’s stylish Forest Hill district. And while he was traveling often, opening up new venues for McDonald’s, he always insisted on being home for weekends with his family.
So, we proceed to a Friday afternoon where he pulls his car into the driveway, pumped about a good week’s work and even more exhilarated to be home. As he steps out, he hears, “Looks like the dirty Jew is back,” from his neighbour "whispering" to her husband. George stops. Until this point he had no idea his next-door cohorts were anti-Semitic.
Walking inside, George sets down his bags, walks to the phone and calls his lawyer. “I want you to buy the property next door for me,” he says. “Pardon George?” “I want you to buy the property next door,” he repeats. "Let's just figure out how not to live next door to them. I know it's not for sale but make them an offer. I don't have the money but let's just buy the house and be done with it."
The record will show that George persisted and ended up owning the property. "It was actually a good deal," he tells me today. "Ended up being worth an awful lot more than I paid for it."
OK, a good deal... but who does this?
George Cohon, that's who.
Story #2. George is about to buy a car, a Jaguar. The salesman gives him a price, they negotiate a bit, and done deal. George gets his pen out to sign on the dotted line when the sales guy asks if he'd like a cold drink. "Sure," George says, "a Coke would be great."
"No, actually, it's not."
He's told they only have a Pepsi machine, to which George states, "You'll have to get rid of that Pepsi vender or there's no deal."
The salesman is shocked, unsure what to do or say. The dealership owner comes over and asks, "George, what's going on? I'll run across the street and buy a Coke for you."
"Not good enough," George says. " Aside from the fact that Coke is the better drink, McDonald's has a great relationship with Coca-Cola and my son works for Coke. I just won't enjoy getting in my new car every day being reminded of Pepsi. Let's forget the deal."
No way. "What can we do to make this better?"
"Well, can you get rid of the Pepsi machine?" George asks.
"I guess... but how would we get a replacement?"
"No problem," George replies. He promptly calls Coke and speaks directly to the President! He hangs up and says, "At 10am tomorrow, the President of Coca-Cola Canada will personally deliver a Coke machine."
And so, Pepsi is toast and in its place, a sparkling new Coke dispenser.
George buys the car.
Same question: who does this?
George Cohon, that's who.
* * *
Must say, I love these two stories that tell so much about the character and perseverance of an amazing man who I am privileged to call my friend.