Succession planning

McDonald's CEO Skinner on retirement: 'It's the perfect time'

March 23, 2012: 8:42 AM ET

McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner discusses his decision to retire from the fast food giant, the coming challenges for the company, and why he's taking the old McD's coffee lids with him when he clocks out.

Interview by Beth Kowitt, writer

jim_skinner_mcdonalds

Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald's, announced his coming retirement on Wednesday.

FORTUNE -- The wheels of McDonald's lauded succession planning are now in motion.

The fast food giant announced on Wednesday night that Jim Skinner, who led the company for seven-and-a-half years, is retiring. McDonald's (MCD) president and COO Don Thompson will step into the top job on July 1.

Fortune profiled Skinner last summer, when we described his leadership as having brought on nothing short of a Golden Age for the Golden Arches. Last year's profits hit $5.5 billion, more than double what they were in 2004, the year Skinner took over. The stock reached an all-time high of $102.22 on January 20.

Beyond delivering stellar financials, Skinner also developed a deep bench; he cared deeply about succession planning at all levels of the company. He became CEO under tragic circumstances, after former CEO Jim Cantalupo died of a heart attack and Cantalupo's successor underwent treatment for cancer.

Thompson's biggest challenge as CEO will be to maintain the momentum that took hold on Skinner's watch. Last May, I interviewed Thompson at McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., while reporting the Skinner profile. "He has been one of the strongest mentors I've ever had," he said of his boss. "He's given me tremendous room in terms of the day-to-day business of McDonald's."

The no-nonsense Skinner, who spent 41 years with the company, is an operations guru with a penchant for always putting the customer first. In our 2011 story, we noted that Skinner had his own stash of the old type of McDonald's coffee cup lids, because even though customers liked the new design, he really didn't.

At the time, I tried to get Skinner to talk about retirement, but he only joked that he would retire when he ran out of his supply of lids.

The following are edited excerpts of one of Skinner's first interviews since Wednesday night's announcement.

Fortune: So you ran out of lids?

Jim Skinner: I assessed my lid collection, and I think I've got about 25 years left, so I'll be taking those with me.

Why now?

Everybody's asking this question, and I think it's the perfect time for McDonald's. The true measure of a successful succession plan is manifested by the CEO handing off at the right time. In many cases, that's sooner rather than later.

Some other people have also said, "It's a little sooner than we thought." I'm 67 years old, I've been here 41 years, and I had 10 years in the Navy before that. What better time than now, when the company's performing at the highest level ever and there's the opportunity to pass it on to someone who's more than ready and capable of delivering sustained growth well into the future.

MORE: Why McDonald's wins in any economy

Succession planning has been a priority for you. Can tell you me how long this has been in the works?

I basically felt the responsibility to the board of directors to be sure I provided them with someone who could run the company when I'm gone. Until I was capable of doing that I would not have left, and it takes time. Don's been in the [COO] job for two years. I've been tutoring him and mentoring him and will continue to do so over the next 90 days. But he's a very talented guy, 22 years at McDonald's, ran the U.S. company. As I like to say, he's the real deal. More

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    Apple has earned its reputation as a secretive outfit, keeping a tight lid on information about its inner workings and plans. So it's hardly surprising that a resounding silence has surrounded the question of who will MORE

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