To Russia With Fries
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 30 Oct 1997, p. 141-149
Cohon, George A., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The book that the speaker wrote. Its reoccurring themes. Never forgetting from where you came. Remembering your roots and wings. Spreading your wings. Some personal history. The ghost writer and co-author of the book, David McFarlane and the speaker's experience in working with him. Having fun at work. The part of the book that talks about the speaker's experience in the Soviet Union. How the story of the book began. 14 years to make a deal. Pessimism about the deal. Some statistics from the restaurant at opening, and some from today. The speaker's meeting with a customer in the restaurant and to what that lead. The speaker's relationship with President Gorbachev, and Yeltzin. The importance of charity. Raising money for Ronald McDonald Children's Charities of Canada. The McDonald's philosophy to be good corporate citizens.
Date of Original
30 Oct 1997
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
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Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
George A. Cohon, Senior Chairman, McDonald's Restaurants of Canada and Russia and Co-author of "To Russia With Fries"
Chairman: Gareth S. Seltzer, President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Julie Hannaford, Partner, Borden & Elliot and a Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Rev. Ian MacLean, St. George's United Church; David McFarlane, Co-author, "To Russia With Fries"; Marina Tulupnikova, Director, Human Resources, McDonald's in Russia; Gordon McIvor, Vice-President, Public Affairs, Canada Lands Company and a Director, The Canadian Club of Toronto; Peter Beresford, Senior Vice-President and Director, Marketing, McDonald's Restaurants of Canada and President, Ronald McDonald Children's Charities of Canada; Suzanne B. Labarge, Executive Vice-President, The Royal Bank of Canada; Douglas Gibson, Publisher, McClelland & Stewart Inc.; Maureen Shaughnessy Kitts, Director, Communications and Public Affairs, McDonald's Restaurants of Canada; George Mencke, Executive Vice-President and CFO, McDonald's Restaurants of Canada and Chairman, Ronald McDonald Children's Charities of Canada; and Alexander (Sasha) Tilinin, Crew Instructor, McDonald's in Russia.

Introduction by Gareth Seltzer

With respect to today's luncheon, the Empire Club of Canada wanted to do everything that it could to make this event a success but we wish we had a larger room as you have drawn an outstanding turnout. It reminds me of a story about one of the Carnegies who said: "A billion here and billion there; pretty soon it adds up to real money." The McDonald's story and the McDonald's in Canada and Russia story is one of those understated exaggerations. With a billion served here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to an incredible story.

The man behind that story here in Canada and in Russia is our guest today, Mr. George Cohon. And while you might notice that Mr. Cohon is not shy, there is truth to the saying: Give a busy man something to do and it gets done. I will not give you the George Cohon story because it is within his amazing book "To Russia with Fries" that is for sale right outside this room. I will tell you why it is more than just a good read. All of Mr. Cohon's royalties from the sale of this book will be contributed to the Ronald McDonald Children's Charities, perhaps the single most important start-up venture of Mr. Cohon's life. The Ronald McDonald Children's Charities is a non-profit organisation with one simple objective: to help children in need, largely by supporting children and the families of children faced with life-threatening or chronic illnesses and disabilities--and it is important to note that McDonald's of Canada covers the administration costs of the Ronald McDonald Children's Charities in Canada so all proceeds go directly to where they are needed most. In fact, when George first told Joan Kroc, the wife of the late Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's Corporation, she said: "If you raise one million dollars, I will match it."

In the 1920s a young man approached Dale Carnegie and asked for one million dollars for a performance theatre. Mr. Carnegie said to the man: "I don't want to give you the whole thing. If you raise one half, I'll give you the other half." The young man came back to Mr. Carnegie's office the next morning and said that he had raised the money and wanted to collect. In his amazement, Mr. Carnegie asked where he got the money so quickly. "Simple," said the young man, "Mrs. Carnegie." Let's all support Mr. Cohon on his venture to help those in need and be thoroughly entertained at the same time by matching Mr. Cohon's tireless effort and purchase the book. Essentially, let's large size it! To complete my introduction, I am pleased to ask Sasha Tilinin to say a few words.

George Cohon

In case you didn't know I've written a book. I've tried to be as low-key as I can about the writing of this book. Doug Gibson who is the publisher said: "You have to get out and create a buzz about the book. You have to get out on talk shows and television and do whatever." I have been doing that for the last eight or 10 days. A couple of nights ago I just wanted to relax a little at home and I went down to the refrigerator just to get a snack. When the refrigerator door opened and the light came on I gave a 20-minute speech so you are in for trouble here today.

The book has a couple of reoccurring themes. The first theme is what I call roots and wings, a concept that I learned a long time ago. And the concept is: never forget where you came from. I guess my grandparents taught it to my parents. My grandfather and grandmother left Ukraine in 1906 when my father was six months old. They left during the height of the pogroms. They were thrown out of the country. You should never forget your roots.

As you start to expand and as you start to grow, you spread your wings and as you spread your wings you come back to your roots. We ended up in Chicago. Suzy who is here with me and I were married in Buffalo. We are both Americans. We are now both Canadians. I'm very proud to be Canadian and I love this country.

When I first met Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's, I was a young lawyer in Chicago with a client who was looking for business. I was acting on behalf of the client and Ray Kroc said: "You don't want to be a lawyer for the rest of your life." I guess I didn't. Something went off in my head and we moved here with absolutely no money and have been fortunately very successful thanks to the customers that continue to come into McDonald's.

I want to refer to David McFarlane, the ghost writer and co-author of this book. David was an absolute delight to work with. We spent the better part of a year together.

After we were together about four months I got up early one morning and there was a fax for me. We had transcribed nearly four or five hundred pages. He wrote me a note which I thought said: "George I can't seem to follow your thought process. I think it is desperate." I went to breakfast and said: "Suzy things are desperate." We had been working a long time on this book and here's the ghost writer saying my thought process was desperate and that it couldn't be a chronological book--born in 1937 in Chicago; now sixty years old living in Canada. It's got to flow the way your mind flows. It can't be the way a normal book would be." Sue said: "He is absolutely right. Your thoughts are disparate." I looked at the word and I had never heard the word. I thought it was desperate. So I called David and said: "What does disparate mean?" That was what he had to work with. So life should be fun. Business should be fun.

When I was a young boy growing up I started working when I was 12 years old in Chicago. The work ethic was you worked Monday to Friday. You didn't have fun at work. You got paid to work and at the end of the day you know you'd have fun. You couldn't wait till Friday. The whole term TGIF came into being--thank God it's Friday. That was my thought process when I was very young. But fun can be serious business. You can have fun in your life and you should have fun. When you get up in the morning you should look forward to going to work. Ray Kroc used to have a great saying: "Look forward to going to work in the morning. If you don't, change jobs." I have always had a lot of fun. I started at the same time as the fellow who is head of McDonald's in Japan. We had great competition--who had the most restaurants, who had the higher sales, who had this, who had that. He wrote a book so I sent him a fax a couple of months ago which said: "I'm writing a book; do you want to have a competition on who sells the most books? How many books have you sold?" And he replied: "My book has been reprinted seven times and I've sold a million and a half copies." I didn't answer him.

So the concept of going through life having fun, that work can be fun, is another thread that goes throughout the book. Another one I think is determination and perseverance. There is a saying that I love that says: "Perseverance and determination alone are omnipotent."

A part of this book talks about my experience in the Soviet Union. That started in 1976 at a supper we had with a group of Soviet delegates that I did not know. They were in Ottawa observing the Olympics that were taking place in '76 and going back to plan the 1980 Olympics. We met when the Canadian government called and asked to borrow a custom coach that we had. It was a very nice bus that we used for charity to raise money and tour people around. I said: "Sure." My wife Suzy and I and our two young boys were at the Olympics. I'm in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt when I see the bus. I go up and say: "Let's meet the Russians." As I was talking my way through the RCMP and the KGB all of a sudden someone from Ottawa comes up. He's got clipboards and protocols and he's very officious and he says: "I'm from External Affairs. You can't go up to these people like this. You have to go through protocol." I said: "The protocol is I own the bus." That started this odyssey. Everyone thinks there is some Machiavellian scheme that took place somewhere. Why would Canada instead of the United States go into Russia? It started just as simply as I said and that was the supper in 1976.

The odyssey took a long time. It took from 1976 to 1,990, 14 years to crack through and make a deal. I felt we had one in '79. I was in a hotel room for 17 days waiting for the phone call for the signing. Waiting in a hotel room for that phone call I got sick. A floor lady appeared. Floor ladies control the keys; they were this indomitable force like granite rock. When I got sick, this woman whom I thought was really tough went home and got a special soup, a Russian chicken soup, to nurse me back to health. I thought: "Would that happen in a western hotel? The Russian soul must be pretty good." So I just sort of hung in.

There was pessimism about the deal. You'll never cut the deal. Well we cut it. You'll never get good supply. Well we got good supply. You will never be able to build buildings to your standards. Well we've done it. You won't get good crew. We took out one ad in one newspaper one day and we got 27,000 written responses if you can imagine. So we sat and opened 27,000 letters and we hired 630 people.

Was it busy at the opening? Well I guess it was busy We served over 30,000 people in one day. That restaurant now averages 40,000 people per day. It's the busiest restaurant in the world. We now have 30 restaurants that are open. President Gorbachev has been great.

I met Sasha in the restaurant and he's got a Big Mac, he's got a double cheese burger, he's got two orders of French fries, he's got a couple milkshakes, he's got a couple of pies and I'm waiting for someone else to sit down. But nobody ever comes. I watch him start to devour this food. I have a translator and I introduce myself and the translator starts to translate and he says: "I'm trying to learn English. Try to speak to me in English." So we talk in English and then I invite him upstairs to meet the management team and I say this is our best customer. If everyone ate this way around the world our stock would be doing well. I give him a business card. About a month later I received a letter: "Dear Mr. President, you may remember me. My name is Sasha Tilinin. I live outside Moscow. You met me in the restaurant. I'm 13 years old. I have an idea for your McDonald's." And he gives me a great idea. Why don't we have signs on the subway with arrows. So I go to Peter Beresford, who is the Senior Vice-President of Marketing, and he says: "That is a pretty good idea. We should do that."

Sasha and I started corresponding with one another. He's now 20 years old and just a wonderful young guy. He became my advisor. I've watched him grow and develop. That's the future of the country, young people like that.

President Yeltzin came into the restaurant. Sasha and I actually greeted him. He had a whole entourage of people and I said: "This is my advisor Sasha," and he looked down and just about said: "Well who the hell are you?" Sasha said: "I am his advisor." Yeltzin was great. We invited him to the restaurant and he was just unbelievable. He bit into his Big Mac. "How is it President Yeltzin?" "Not enough salt." That video clip opened "Good Morning America." We opened a restaurant about three weeks later and his wife came out. We wanted to support a charity she was very involved in to buy a piece of equipment for a children's cancer hospital and we said we would give the opening day's proceeds, whether she came out or not. She wanted to come out and accept the cheque. She bit into a Big Mac and the same cameras were there. "Mrs. Yeltzin your husband said: 'There's not enough salt. What's your reaction?"' She said: "It doesn't matter what I cook at home, there is never enough salt for Boris."

There is one more thing that happened with him which is really comical. He said: "Have you ever been to Siberia? Would you like to go to Siberia?" I said: "Well why?" He said: "Well I want to send you to Siberia." And I said: "Mr. President what a strange thing to say to a western businessman. We have in our mind this concept of Siberia. You banish people there; it's the vast outer hinterland. Why do you want me to go there?" He said: "Well I come from a town there and I want you to put a McDonald's in my town." "Well I'll go and look at it." And he said: "No I Want your commitment that you are going to do it." I said: "Well how can I promise you. If I promise and don't do it, then I am lying to you and I don't want to lie. I've got to look at the town." He said: "That's good enough for me. Give me a call when you want to go and I will see to it that someone meets you." We walk outside and there's a reporter from CNN who's a pal of mine and I sort of steer Yeltzin over to him. He's an expert on McDonald's. Yeltzin stops and said: "Mr. Cohon is a very smart businessman." The guy from CNN said: "Why is that?" "He's agreed to put a McDonald's in my town in Siberia."

Another theme in this book that is very important to me is charity. It's giving back. It's being part of the community you live in. We cannot live in a vacuum. We all owe a duty to society. So part of this book that I think is important is helping people and I have a challenge that's going on. The challenge is to raise money for Ronald McDonald Children's Charities of Canada.

All the royalties from the book go to Ronald McDonald Children's Charities. We had a big launch party here a few nights ago and I'm going out of Toronto with a little over $600,000 in the bank. I sent the book to Joan Kroc, who is the founder of Ronald McDonald Children's Charities, and said: "Read about Ray; he was my mentor. Is it okay?" It was in the galley stages just before going to print and she called back and said: "Yes it's great George." I told her about the million dollars and she said: "I'm going to match it." "You will do what?" "I'm going to match it with a million." "Are you sure?" She said: "Done deal. It's done George. I'll match it. Go raise the money." I was so excited I called David and I said: "We have got to get it in the book. We have got to get the match in the book. She said she would do it but in print it will even be better. I was so excited I neglected to ask her whether it was Canadian or U.S. funds. So I sent that to her and she said: "Well yes that's fine. Put it in. What's this Canadian or U.S. fund deal?" Well I said: "Well the Canadian or U.S. fund deal is that you don't think in Canadian dollars do you Joan? "No I live in California. I don't think in Canadian dollars." "Well I am a very proud Canadian. I think in Canadian dollars and I'm going across the country to sell books and the books are sold for Canadian dollars." And she said: "Well I think in U.S. dollars." "Great. I'll raise a million Canadian and you match it with a million U.S." And she said: "That's great." A million U.S. is 1.4 million Canadian. I'm going across the country and I want to raise more than a million. I don't want to set my limit at a million because this is going to help a lot of children, a lot of children who need some help and so I'm out and about.

The McDonald's philosophy is to be good corporate citizens. We have done it from day one. The Ronald McDonald Children's Charities is just a super charity and we have a motto that little people shouldn't have to deal with big problems. And so am I trying to sell this book? Well yes. There are people in the room who haven't bought it and when I'm done with this speech I'm walking out to where the books are. If you want to buy a book and get a signature on it, I would be more than glad to oblige. Thanks for your support. I enjoyed being with you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Gordon Mclvor, Vice-President, Public Affairs, Canada Lands Company and a Director, The Canadian Club of Toronto.

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To Russia With Fries

The book that the speaker wrote. Its reoccurring themes. Never forgetting from where you came. Remembering your roots and wings. Spreading your wings. Some personal history. The ghost writer and co-author of the book, David McFarlane and the speaker's experience in working with him. Having fun at work. The part of the book that talks about the speaker's experience in the Soviet Union. How the story of the book began. 14 years to make a deal. Pessimism about the deal. Some statistics from the restaurant at opening, and some from today. The speaker's meeting with a customer in the restaurant and to what that lead. The speaker's relationship with President Gorbachev, and Yeltzin. The importance of charity. Raising money for Ronald McDonald Children's Charities of Canada. The McDonald's philosophy to be good corporate citizens.