For the Cuban-born Ralph Alvarez, working for McDonald’s had long been a dream. As a young businessman, he navigated through the quick-service restaurants of Burger King and Wendy’s, but his greatest achievement was when he finally walked through the two

He’s lovin’ it; the Ralph Alvarez story: for the Cuban-born Ralph Alvarez, working for McDonald’s had long been a dream. As a young businessman, he navigated through the quick-service restaurants of Burger King and Wendy’s, but his greatest achievement was when he finally walked through the two golden arches

Kerri Allen

This, however, is not one of those American Dream stories of an inmigrante who goes from rags to riches. Rather, it is a story of a Cuban-American man who had educated parents, studied hard in business school, and slowly worked his way up to become president of McDonald’s North America–the highest-ranking Latino within the mega-corporation.

The ladder of Success

The Anglo-looking but thoroughly biligual Ralph Alvarez comes from a very successful family. His mother was a marine biologist in Cuba and became a researcher and professor at the University of Miami after relocating to the U.S. during Castro’s takeover. His father was the President of Cuban Airways, but was unable to work in the U.S. after a debilitating stroke. Alvarez recalls, “As an immigrant, and losing everything they lost, [my parents] were so determined to ensure that their kids wouldn’t have to go through that and that they were absolutely self-sustaining.” Their determination paid off in spades. The eldest Alvarez son was valedictorian at Princeton University and went on to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, while Ralph became one of the most powerful and influential businessmen in the world. While it wasn’t a completely smooth ride, Alvarez has experienced a good deal of luck to complement his talent.

With his mother on the graduate school faculty, Ralph attended the University of Miami for his undergraduate education. Why did he choose that school? “Free tuition!” is his first response, but he adds, “It had a good business program, which is what I was going to study and I could stay at home and still help out with the family.” With his brother at the expensive Ivy League school up north and because “classic immigrants didn’t believe in debt,” he went to school locally, where we would be no burden on the family finances.

After graduating cum laude, Alvarez was hired by an accounting firm of whom Burger King was a client. He was tapped to do some financials, and before long he was a director of finance with Burger King. As he would continue to be throughout his entire career, Alvarez expeditiously ascended through the ranks, always looking for the next strategic jump.

“It became obvious that if you wanted to continue in this industry you had to get into the operations side of the business,” he says. “I was still pretty young, and through their training program I went and ran a restaurant for a year. My first assignment happened to be as managing director of the Burger King business in Spain. I was young and was probably under qualified, but overqualified compared to everybody else because I was bilingual. I got the opportunity because I spoke Spanish and was willing to take a risk.”

The opportunities eventually led from Iberia to the UK, and later to oversee much of the Burger King business in Europe; and from 1986 to 1988, he was the president of Burger King Canada. “Burger King was owned by Pillsbury and it was always a dynamic tension there. It became obvious that Burger King was not a piece of business that they were going to nurture for the long term.”

So he flipped the burger, so to speak. “I tried getting in with McDonald’s in 1987, because they were the obviously biggest player. It was the first time I tried to contact McDonald’s–or anyone for that matter–but the door wasn’t open. They basically hired from within. A year later I moved back to the U.S. I tried getting in again with McDonald’s [but could not]. Wendy’s had started a turnaround and gave me an opportunity in 1989.” As a corporate vice president for Wendy’s in Florida, Alvarez largely oversaw acquisitions.

In 1994–seven years after his initial attempt–McDonald’s finally gave Ralph Alvarez a call. “They approached me through a headhunter and I said I’m not gonna call you back! You didn’t call me before, I’m not calling you!” he now says, a little bemused. A friend had tipped the company off to Alvarez’ quality of work, which set the wheels in motion. “He said, ‘Do not be hard-headed about this. This is what you’ve always talked about. Pursue it and see if it’s something worthwhile.’ I really made a career decision to join McDonald’s.”

“One of the reasons I was recruited was because they wanted Hispanic talent they didn’t have–to bring in leaders that understood the Hispanic culture and the Hispanic marketplace to take McDonald’s to the next level in that area.” About his work in Spain and Mexico, he adds, “I always want to go back to international, learning different cultures. It really makes you grow as a person. Those are great journeys.”

Alvarez quickly rose through the company as regional director of Chipotle Mexican Grill, a partner brand of McDonald’s; regional vice president of McDonald’s Sacramento; president of McDonald’s Mexico, president of the Central Division of McDonald’s U.S.A., then chief operations officer and finally president of McDonald’s U.S.A. He took his post as president of McDonald’s North America in January of this year.

“I’ve been fortunate to have been given a certain level of talent and the opportunity to develop that talent: education, patents that allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do to make myself better, companies gave me great opportunities to travel the world and learn more. I think it’s what you do with the opportunities that are there and whether you stay hungry.”

Good Eats

Ralph Alvarez oversees more than half of the McDonald’s restaurants on earth–that’s 15,000 plus. And while it may seem like McDonald’s restaurants spread like wildfire in every direction, 2003 was the worst year in the history of the formidable corporation, which reported its first quarterly loss since its inception in 1955. It was speculated that an increasingly health-conscious America was turning away from the eat-and-run Big Mac and seeking out low-carb meals, quick-service restaurants with internet access, and a caffeine jolt to compete with that other ubiquitous corporation.

To help return the company to a profitable position, Ralph Alvarez was promoted from chief operations officer to president of McDonald’s U.S.A. in August 2004. By the end of that fiscal year, the company reported a stock increase of 29%, the annual cash dividend had doubled from its 2002 numbers, and United States comparable sales were up 9.6%–the highest increase three decades.

The good news kept on pouring in. Advertising Age awarded the company with Marketer of the Year for it’s “i’m lovin’ it”/”me encanta” campaign (its crusade to shed its ketchup-and-mustard-in-middle-America persona and entice younger, hipper clients with 70s haircuts and worn-out jeans). The worldwide corporation also continued to reach out to the Hispanic market through far-reaching menu and personnel initiatives. Alvarez muses, “I think they’re loyal because we have advertised and catered to Hispanics for 30 years now, we were, in our industry, by far the first that didn’t do a dubbed commercial. Our commercials are truly understanding of the personalities of how a Latino person is going to feel about the brand.”

Many menu items cater specifically to Latinos. Scores of American customers can find a Fiesta Salad, Newman’s Own salsa, a Spanish omelet bagel, or a sausage burrito. Uruguyan customers can order up a McHuevo–a hamburger with a poached egg on top. If you go to Colombia, a McNifica will appear on the illuminated menu board.

There are premium salads on the menu, including the highly-advertised Fruit and Walnut Salad, Newman’s Own dressings, veggie burger, chicken on whole wheat buns and yogurt parfaits. Even Ronald has taken on a slimmer appearance, looking fitter in the children’s Web site games and in various ads. The savvy corporation is offering healthier options and active partnerships to accommodate the newest American health inclined conscience.

On May 4, 2005, McDonald’s announced a partnership with nutritionist, author and motivational speaker, Dr. Ro, to promote “It’s What I Eat and What I Do[TM] … i’m lovin’ it[TM]” public awareness campaign. They initiated a partnership with New York Sports Clubs–buy one new premium salad and get a free week at the gym. They also sponsored the last Man Standing one-on-one basketball tournament.

A basketball player in his high school years, Alvarez’ athletic interests now take second string to his work obligations, but he makes time to cheer on his favorite teams. “I love watching sports. During football season, about every weekend I travel to college football games. I love the purity of the college game.” Another way for the businessman to relax is dining out with his wife. “I love to eat. I love food.”

Mc Labor

With more than 30,000 restaurants in 119 countries on five continents, McDonalds is a company that employees hundreds of thousands of people. As the U.S. population becomes increasingly Hispanic, the diversity-conscious corporation includes more and more employee training styles, company practices and menu items to attract both Hispanic employees and customers. “We believe McDonald’s Hispanic franchisees represent the largest single Hispanic business in the country,” the company’s web site announces.

Ralph has his own thoughts about their Latino employees and customer base. “The growing business that the Hispanic community represents today is impressive–the fastest growing part of the U.S. As a company, what we started about a year ago is really not a plan as much as it is making sure that [the Latino element is] weaved in through everything we do. Understand that America, which has always been a melting pot, has this melting pot piece now that is Spanish-speaking, and different Spanish cultures that are a big part of it. And so whatever you’re doing, from training to menu development to your practices in the restaurant, you am considering the part that 30% of your employees am Hispanic today.”

Leo Lopez is a good example. Born in Cuba, he got a job at McDonald’s as a teenager, and he wistfully recalls, “A cheerleader that I wanted to go out with was working at that McDonald’s. I went out with her once and never again, but I stayed at McDonald’s and I worked for Angel Rodriguez, an owner/operator who still is to this day like a second father to me.”

The Orlando-based businessman now owns five of his own McDonald’s restaurants, but he strayed for a while after receiving his business degree. “After I graduated college, I stayed working at McDonald’s because I was very happy there–I was a store manager. Finally, after I got married I left McDonald’s to go into banking. I took at $10,000 pay cut from my job as a manager at McDonald’s to take an entry-level job in banking to use my college education. I wanted to work in a field that I had studied. I progressed to vice president very early and then someone from McDonald’s asked if I wanted to be an owner/operator.” The 42-year-old Lopez has been there ever since.

Alvarez understands this type of loyalty, especially within the Hispanic community. “Many companies have policies that you can’t hire relatives. We’d never do that. In our business you want to be open to the Hispanic families, ’cause that’s why they come to work for us. We have different relatives that all work together in the same restaurant.” That is the exact case with Leo Lopez. “When we were growing up, at one time, my brother, sister and I were all crew people. I was a manger, I bossed them around–these am a younger brother and sister–it caused some problems at home. My mother worked in the local store marketing. The only one that wasn’t on the McDonald’s payroll was my father, who’s an architect, so we didn’t have anything for him to do!”

Lopez is no exception to the rule. McDonald’s employees are some of the most fiercely loyal overall. Yvonne Alvarez (no relation to Ralph) insists that, “you have to have the ketchup in the blood.” Like the Lopez family, Yvonne’s relatives work together at her restaurant in Florida. “A lot of us work for McDonald’s: my sister, my brother-in-law, my cousins. I have my niece working for me. She’s been with us for about three months and she’s already thinking about being a manager. That’s what she wants to be in life.”

For many immigrants to the United States, McDonald’s is the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Flexible regarding English-language competency and supportive of Hispanic employee advancement, McDonald’s is often the first place new immigrants look for work. Wee have 1,500 restaurants in Latin America, so a lot of the folks that immigrate here experience our brand in their home countries and more so that any other brand. So they already bring what in their home country was probably a visit that was a special visit, because that’s how we first developed the brand,” says Alvarez. “All of a sudden they get to the U.S. and you have that ‘OK, it makes me feel good.’ That’s why we’re also the first place to go look for a job.”

When Manuel Medina arrived in New York from Mexico City, he did just that. Medina still straggles a bit with his English, but his passion for McDonald’s is perfectly clear. “When I came to this country, after a few months, looking for a steady place to work, I found McDonald’s. They gave me the hours, they appreciate my work, and I stayed with them. I started as a crew person. They help me.” Today, Medina is a restaurant manager in upstate New York, and the recipient of the company’s Ray Kroc Award for excellence, given to managers whose stores maintain a high level of profitability.

Alvarez concurs, “If we come up with a training program, obviously today it’s bilingual. Anything that we do goes through a screen of ‘How would this resonate in the Hispanic sector?’ From product name to product taste to the personality that you give the product to how we deal with each other at work–you understand the differences that come from the different cultures.”

Leader of the Future

As in the case of Leo Lopez, who formed a strong bond with his former employer, Angel Rodriguez, McDonald’s often provides important role models for Latino employees. While Ralph Alvarez may not be at the counter with the night crew, his position still offers him the opportunity to be a mentor to aspiring business professionals. As a Latino with so much power, he is grateful for the ability to impact young people. “There are a lot of young people moving to the U.S. that need role models. Education, to me, is the great equalizer–you’ve got to do that to get closer to a level playing field. Language skills: great equalizer. And then creating environments where people believe ‘I can get there also and be like that because they look like me or speak like me or am willing to spend time with me.'”

He married a Cuban-American woman, and together they raised both of their children to be bilingual. “They’re very proud of their heritage and very proud to be Americans. You can be both. I am a flag-waving American to the max.” In the Alvarez family, American pride runs deep. “My uncle only drives a Cadillac. To him, it’s symbolic of the opportunities this country gave him when, in essence, he didn’t have a country to be in. How much better does it get than that?”

When his parents came to the United States, they too were in search of a place to call home, and Alvarez has taken some of those lessons into his business practices. “As an immigrant, I look at it as ‘What a great country’ and it’s a melting pot. That’s why I still love Miami so much. It’s a melting pot of all these different cultures, and everybody kind of gets along. To me, the playground is the best example, a great equalizer. Believe me, you didn’t pick someone on your team because they were your buddies or because they looked like you, you picked the best player possible because you wanted to win that game. That’s what business should be too.”

Based on last year’s achievements within the McDonald’s corporation, Alvarez and his colleagues seem to be on the winning team. Regardless of skin color, religion or gender, the company has assembled a worldwide team of outstanding leaders who are ushering the company and its new generation of employees to a higher plateau of success. “The best gift you have as a leader, besides trying to paint a sound business strategy and clear direction, is giving people the ability to spread their wings.”

* what Hispanic Heritage Means to Me:

“I am flag-waving American to the max. As an immigrant, I look at it as ‘What a great country’ and it’s a melting pot. That’s why I still love Miami so much. It’s a melting pot of all these different cultures, and everybody kind of gets along.”


* What’s in a name?

Alvarez: A derivative of the name Alvaro, Alvarez, meaning son of Alvaro, is a popular and frequent name in Spain, particularly after the Middle Ages. It is believed to have originated from the German Alwars, which means “guarded” or “protected”

Photos for Latino Leaders by Stephen Serio Oakbrook, Illinois

COPYRIGHT 2005 Ferraez Publications of America Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group