Leadership ProfileMarch/April 2023Previous IssuesWomen in FranchisingWomen in Franchising Article

Leadership Profile: Putting People First

Michèle Boudria shares how she rose through the ranks to become the first female CEO of McDonald’s Canada

By Roma Ihnatowycz

Around one in 10 people in Canada have worked for McDonald’s Canada or an independent franchisee at some point in their lives. Who among us doesn’t know someone whose very first job was working at the legendary quick service restaurant?

So it was for Michèle Boudria, who started working at McDonald’s in her hometown of Aylmer, a district of Gatineau, Quebec in the early ’80s, when she was a high school student. The difference for Boudria, however, is that her early job at McDonald’s was far more than just a “first job.” She never left.

Instead, Boudria spent more than three decades climbing the career ladder at the famous burger brand. Today she’s the president and CEO of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada.

It’s a success story par excellence. What started as a fun, part-time job to earn a bit of extra pocket money morphed into a phenomenal career. “I’ve really ‘come up’ with the brand,” Boudria says.

Not only does Boudria hold the top job at McDonald’s Canada, she’s also the company’s first female CEO, a fitting achievement for someone who has long supported diversity, equity, and inclusion in the McDonald’s network. Boudria previously chaired the McDonald’s Women’s Leadership Network in Canada, and she also held the position of vice-chair for the brand’s U.S. Women’s Leadership Network.

For Boudria, ensuring there’s an ample talent pool of qualified women is not a purely egalitarian effort. It makes solid business sense, she says, pointing out that McDonald’s Canada already has many women in senior executive positions: “I’m surrounded by many women executives. Here in Canada, 50 per cent of our executive senior roles are held by women.”

It’s on the franchisee end that Boudria sees the greatest opportunity, and where she wants to see more women join the McDonald’s franchise family. “Women today make up about 15 per cent of our franchisee system and I’m personally committed to growing that number,” she says. “I would say, get to know us, understand what we offer, and know that we are excited about having more women join our system. I encourage anyone who is interested to reach out.”

Forward trajectory

While she may not have known what lay in store when she was working behind the counter so many years ago, even as a young student, Boudria was astute enough to work hard and earn the attention of management at her local McDonald’s. She started as a crew member and she was quickly promoted to crew trainer, then shift manager, all while she continued her studies.

At one point, Boudria aspired for a career in journalism, completing a journalism degree at Algonquin College in Ottawa. But she quickly realized the scope of opportunities afforded to her by McDonald’s and came to a life-changing decision: “I really fell in love with the brand, everything about running a business, and I could see a future there. I decided to work towards building a career with McDonald’s.”

Boudria began working full time, moving quickly to be promoted to a general manager at the Rideau Street restaurant at the age of 21. “Even though I was young, they could see some of my innate talent and potential, and really got behind me to help me progress and teach me the ropes,” she says.

Boudria then took on different roles across the Ottawa market, including operations manager for all the McDonald’s corporate restaurants in the region. From there, she moved on to national and international positions of increasing responsibility, primarily in operations. This included a leadership role in the company’s worldwide operations team out of its Chicago headquarters, as well as prominent roles within its Canadian leadership team, both as a McCafé officer and west regional vice president.

Prior to taking on her current CEO position last June, Boudria was the managing director of McDonald’s in the Netherlands, a global experience she calls “fantastic.” As she explains, “McDonald’s believes in providing as many opportunities as possible to prepare you for any future role you may have [and] when you move to an unfamiliar culture, it tests your resilience and allows you to work on your agility.”

While her career ascent may seem extraordinary, Boudria asserts her experience is far from an anomaly at McDonald’s. On the contrary, she’s quick to praise the many development opportunities and training the brand offers all its employees, opening the door for steady career progression.

Much of this training takes place at its Hamburger University in Chicago. (Yes, that’s the school’s actual name.) The training centre was set up in 1961, in the basement of a McDonald’s restaurant. Today, Hamburger University represents a commitment to developing people within the McDonald’s network, giving them the opportunity to receive world-class training, interact with others, and celebrate success.

“We have a very detailed curriculum and very robust training that is specific to the individual—we teach everything from finances to marketing skills,” says Boudria. “McDonald’s is incredibly dedicated to providing people with opportunities if the desire is there, and that really speaks to our values as a company. It’s the backbone of our brand.”

People-focused president

Aside from the in-house support, mentoring, and instruction Boudria received, she also attributes her success to three key qualities that she brings to her work on a daily basis: grit, humility, and a strong people-focused attitude. All three have helped her succeed, but it’s her love of interacting with those around her and nurturing their potential that brings Boudria the most joy, especially when it comes to interacting with franchisees.

“Spending time with franchisees and the next generation of franchisees is really exciting for me, [as well as with] people who work in the restaurants and in the Drive Thru,” she says. “Maybe that crew member I meet next week will be in my chair one day, and that to me is incredibly important, focusing on what I believe is going to drive our future success.”

“The biggest lesson for me,” adds Boudria, “is that if you take care of the people, they will take care of the business. That is 100 per cent my motto and how I operate.”

Much of the McDonald’s Canada success story relies on the more than 250 franchisees spread across the country. More than 90 per cent of the 1,400 Canadian restaurants are locally owned and operated by independent franchisees. And there is plenty of room for more, says Boudria, noting the company is always on the lookout for new franchisees. Ideally, they need to “have an entrepreneurial spirit, a growth mindset, some leadership experience, and a lot of passion. And they need to be a brand fan. They need to be really excited to join us Under the Arches.”

Strong community connection is also key, especially for a brand like McDonalds, where 90 per cent of its restaurants in Canada are locally owned.

Following the challenging early months of the COVID-19 pandemic (which the brand weathered quite well thanks to its hefty scale and strong supply chain), Boudria is now focused on leading McDonald’s Canada into a brighter future. Responding to trends as they happen and staying current is key, she says, pointing to the company’s mobile app and MyMcDonald’s Rewards program as recent examples.

The brand is also keeping its finger on the pulse in piloting innovative delivery options that keep the planet in mind. In April of 2022, with its supply chain distribution partner, Martin Brower, McDonald’s Canada also began trialling the new Volvo VNR Electric Class 8 tractor for distribution to restaurants in the Montreal area, to test the use of lower tailpipe greenhouse gas (GHG) emission vehicles in its supply chain fleet. The vehicle is operated by Martin Brower. It’s part of McDonald’s Canada’s long-term goal to transition to lower-emission vehicles in its entire supply chain fleet. Globally, McDonald’s has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. “Electric trucks allow us to deliver product to restaurants with the planet in mind,” says Boudria. “We’re trying to evolve in ways where we’re able to bring more sustainable solutions to the table.”

As the brand evolves, so too does Boudria’s work within its executive ranks. While it’s been decades since she was a crew member working in a restaurant, one thing has remained constant: loyalty to the brand that provided her with her first job and a stellar career.

“I made a leap of faith to join McDonald’s and I never wavered from that,” sums up Boudria. “It was the brand for me. Always has been and always will be.”