On Topic: Lost and founders, or persistence pays off

Daniel McFadden/Weinstein Company

McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc is the subject of “The Founder,” a coming movie starring Michael Keaton (center).
Daniel McFadden/Weinstein Company McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc is the subject of “The Founder,” a coming movie starring Michael Keaton (center).

“If you believe in it and if you believe in it hard, it is impossible to fail.” — Ray Kroc

The unquestionable message for business and personal success in “The Founder,” the movie sort of, kind of based on the true story of Ray Kroc’s building of the global McDonald Corp. empire is persistence. Followed by persistence and persistence.

The movie opens with an amped-up Kroc (played by an entertainingly hyperactive Michael Keaton) tells us that, directly to the camera. The message comes up a little in his motel room as he listens to a motivational record, and in the movie’s denouement.

That, and not a lot of compassion for anyone else — competitors, allies, his long-supportive wife. “If my competitor were drowning,” he declares, “I’d walk over and put a hose right in his throat.”

That lack of human kindness also characterized, famously, his dealings with the real founders of McDonald’s, Mac and Dick McDonald.

In the movie, Kroc learns of their bustling one-location hamburger stand in San Bernardino back in 1954 when they place an order for six milkshakes mixers with his company. He telephones to verify the request — surely there was a mistake.

You’re right, one of the brothers tells him. We don’t want six. “Better make it eight.”


Kroc hotfoots it from Missouri, where he’d been peddling mixers to various carhop restaurants, to California to see for himself. There, he’s stunned to witness what the brothers have cooked up, through trial and error, “an overnight sensation 30 years in the making”:

Customers walk up to the window rather than having the food delivered to their car, and not only is their selection ready in seconds, it’s actually what they ordered. No plates or utensils, either — they eat the food with their hands, then throw away the paper bag.

The brothers invite him inside for a tour, where he marvels at the choreographed efficiency in such tight spaces, the devices they invented to pump ketchup and mustard onto the buns and the enforcement of two pickles per sandwich.

Moreover, they stick to what works. Sure, they’d tried lots of food items, but they decided to keep to the three most popular choices — hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes.

And all around are smiling, tidily dressed employees and smiling happy customers — wholesome families and, no kidding, even Cub Scouts, enjoying their food.

(The movie also feature lots of tight shots of hamburgers as well as of happy people devouring hamburgers. Don’t go on an empty stomach. I’m a vegetarian, and even I felt a few pangs before the picture was over.)

To overcome the brothers’ reluctance to branch out, he urges them to take chance “for America.”

McDonald’s, he says, “can be the new American church open seven days a week.”


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Kroc starts co-opting the brothers’ ideas early on — the golden arches, their speedy systems. He tells potential investors the first McDonald’s is the one he started, in Illinois, not the still-operating location in San Bernardino.

Soon, his business card lists him as the founder. In the end, we’re told the brothers never received a penny of their agreed-upon royalties, which would have amounted to a heck of a lot of money.

Not to take everything away from this movie version of Kroc — he knows an opportunity when he sees one. It’s his concept to build more restaurants — “franchise, franchise, franchise,” he tells the brothers — even though they’d tried that and failed.

To avoid their earlier missteps, Kroc insists on quality control at each location. Stick to the holy trinity of food offerings. For burgers: “Flip ’em only one time.” One keeping the establishments clean: “You got time to lean, you got time to clean.”

More than one scene shows Kroc picking up trash or hosing down a parking lot after hours.

And by golly, he is determined. Fortune, we’re told and in many variations, favors the bold.

That’s an old Latin proverb also endorsed in “Almost Famous” (2000). The difference is, though, in Cameron Crowe’s sort of, kind of autobiographical movie, the protagonist uses his superpower of persistence for good.

At 15 years of age, he jumpstarts his career as a rock journalist for “Rolling Stone” magazine. Along the way, the movie suggests, he helps a band leader find his own truth.

On the other hand, the morale of “The Founder,” as winning as Keaton’s performance is, isn’t so clear: Kroc takes what he wants and becomes rich and Truly Famous, while the nice guys — the McDonalds — finish last. Well, maybe not last, but certainly not first.

The leadership model for us regular mortals who may not sell more than 225 million hamburgers a year planet-wide? Maybe a mix of Kroc’s manic damn-the-torpedoes and kick all others to the curb stick-to-itiveness and Crowe’s offer a hand to those who’ve helped you.

Persistence doesn’t necessitate traveling alone.


Stuff coming up you’ll want to get in on starting next month:


• Feb. 9, at the Cedar Rapids Public Library downtown, will be The Gazette’s first Business Breakfast of the year. The topic will be “Creating Development Incentives for our Communities,” and we’ll have on our panel Coralville City Manager Kelly Hayworth, Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, developer and Aspect President Steve Emerson, and Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson. Go to or call (319) 398-8345 to reserve your tickets.

• On Feb. 28, we’ll launch Iowa Ideas, a series of collaborative symposia focused on topics vital to our state. The first event will be right here in Cedar Rapids and will look at two of those issues — regionalism/workforce and K-12 education.

To find out how you can join the conversation, go to

• As part of the Iowa Ideas initiative, we’re hard at work on a new magazine, to be published every other month. It will be inserted in The Gazette and sent out to symposia attendees.

The premier edition, with stories on all the Iowa Ideas themes, will debut March 5. Watch for it.

Whew. Now that’s persistence.

Michael Chevy Castranova is business editor of The Gazette; (319) 398-5873;

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Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.