Live and Learn: George Cohon

Q&A with McDonald's Canada and Russia founder George Cohon.

My father left the Ukraine when he was six months old, in 1906. The name of the city he came from was Yekaterinoslav. In 1926, it was changed to Dnipropetrovs'k. It's one of the biggest cities in the Ukraine. My mother was born in the United States.

I grew up on the south side of Chicago. There were neighbourhoods that were 100% black, neighbourhoods that were 100% Italian, neighbourhoods that were 100% Irish-Catholic, neighbourhoods that were 100% Jewish. It taught me to get along.

My father was a lawyer. My grandfather owned a bakery. He died six months before I was born, so my father ran the bakery. My other grandfather had a plumbing store. I remember working there at the age of 12. I realized you could save money and you could go out and buy something.

I went to university in Des Moines, Iowa, which I loved. It was a great place to go to school. People used to leave their doors open in those small Iowa towns. I had to get my grades up to get into a good law school. I wanted to go to Northwestern. A law degree is a good education, whether you practise or you don't practise. I practised for six years — anything that came my way.

One of the guys I went to law school with worked for McDonald's. This started a process where I was acting on behalf of a client. He wanted the Hawaii franchise. Ray Kroc [McDonald's founder] said that Eastern Canada was open. My client said no. So Ray said, “Why don't you take it, George?” I said I had no money. Ray said go out and borrow some money and figure it out.

The first store opened in London, Ont., in 1968. I could say that people say London is a great test market, that you get a feel there for what the Canadian market likes. I could give you all of that, but the real situation is that we could make a deal there.

After the first store opened, we invited Ray Kroc to come up. He had never been to Canada. So he's playing the piano and he says, “If you want to sell it back to me, I'll have the cheque ready tomorrow for a million dollars.'” My dad was sitting next to me; I thought he'd broken my rib cage, he hit so hard. He said, “Is he serious?” But I thought to myself, I didn't come here to open one restaurant and then sell out. And if he offered a million for one, what would he offer for two?

Going to Russia was the result of a chance meeting in 1976. The government of Canada borrowed buses that we used for charity. It had the delegation from the Soviet Union coming to the Olympics. So I said to my wife, “Let's go meet the Russians.” I take my card out of my pocket and show it to the RCMP protecting these guys. I've just about talked my way through when someone from External Affairs says, “You have to go through protocol, these are important visitors.” I said, “The protocol is that I own the bus.”

I took the Soviet delegation to McDonald's for a snack. I asked if McDonald's would work in their country. They said absolutely. So that chance meeting in 1976 started the quest. We signed the deal in 1988. The first one opened in 1990. That's 14 years. I ran into the midst of the Cold War. It was Karl Marx versus Adam Smith. But I took my time. I just hung in.

I've taught a Harvard case study on McDonald's in Russia four times. We picked 1998. The ruble overnight is destroyed. People's bank accounts are wiped out. Do we raise menu prices? Do we lay off employees? The students break up into teams. Most say raise prices. But we did the exact opposite. We didn't lay off anybody. And we lowered prices on a couple of basic items.

I became a Canadian citizen in the 1970s. I had met Prime Minister Trudeau. I really respected him. I wanted to vote for him. At that time, it was an automatic revocation of U.S. citizenship. But I just thought it was more important to follow my instincts.

I don't think I'll ever really retire. But now I don't feel guilty if the snow flies here and I'm at my house in Florida.

I still go to Russia two or three times a year. I pretend to work, they pretend to pay me. That's an old Russian proverb.

George Cohon

Toronto/Palm Beach, Fla.

Born April 19, 1937, Chicago McDonald's founder in Canada and Russia


After practising law for six years, becomes licensee for McDonald's in Eastern Canada; opens first outlet in 1968.


When McDonald's Corp. reacquires Canadian license, becomes CEO of McDonald's Canada, a position held until 1992.


Becomes Canadian citizen; later goes on to be named as member of the Order of Canada in 1987 and officer in 1992.


Begins negotiations to bring McDonald's into what was then the Soviet Union. Finally opens first outlet in Moscow in 1990.


No longer involved in operations, but raises funds for Ronald McDonald House; chairs Santa Claus Parade in Toronto.