When Christer Åberg decided to take up the role of McDonald’s Nordic CEO in 2017, it was after a year off that gave him time to reflect on what he valued most about his career. “I’ve changed jobs quite a few times but I had never had such a long break in between,” Christer tells The CEO Magazine of the year-long sabbatical. “So this was the first time in my career that I woke up on a Monday morning not having an instant meeting to go to or a back-to-back calendar. It was really refreshing and it gave me a lot of energy.”
Christer has been in consumer-related businesses his entire career. He spent 17 years at Unilever, beginning as a sales trainee, before rising up the ranks to managing director of its Home and Personal Care division in the Nordic region. He then moved on to work at other Nordic-based businesses, including Finnish food company, Atria, and Denmark’s Arla Foods, one of the largest dairy suppliers in the world.
Christer then moved to Norway with his family, where he was appointed head of Orkla’s Confectionary and Snacks division, before he switched gears to work at the largest European mattress manufacturer, Hilding Anders. Through the years, Christer also served on boards, including that of Axfood and ApoEx.
It was after his role at Hilding Anders that Christer took a break. And it’s where he discovered what he really loved was being in on the action. “It was about learning about myself,” he says. “When you’re running a company and in the thick of it, you can sometimes feel that it would be quite rewarding and relaxing to step out of that for a bit, but I realised that that’s not what I want to do right now.
“The break gave me the insight that, as much as I enjoy advisory and board roles, I do a better job in them when I am more operational myself. I get the most energy from leading businesses.”
And from there, Christer got the call to head McDonald’s Nordic.
With a strong background in consumer products, Christer was perfectly poised to assume the CEO role at McDonald’s Nordic – which comprises the more than 400 McDonald’s restaurants in Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden. At the time, McDonald’s Nordic was undergoing a significant change, with Terra Firma Founder and Chairman Guy Hands having purchased the business in early 2017 to become its main franchiser.
And it was Guy who selected Christer to become CEO. “I had worked in the four markets we have in McDonald’s Nordic for a long time,” Christer says, “and I think Guy felt these are four countries that have a lot in common but still have some distinct differences. He was looking for someone who had the experience to get that scale from four quite small markets but also make sure we didn’t lose the local touch.”
Christer considers Guy’s ownership of the QSR chain’s Nordic licence, a ‘new chapter in McDonald’s history’. “It was a big change for the people who had been employed by McDonald’s before but were now suddenly employed by Guy,” he explains. “Yes, we have a new owner, but we still need to be an active part of the McDonald’s family, which is important for our success going forward.”
Thinking back to when he signed onto the job, Christer says he first took the time to understand the business. The more he researched it, the more interested he became in taking on the challenge. “If you consider it, what do the different CEO roles that I have had, have in common? It is change. The owners all wanted to drive a change agenda and that’s something that gives me energy,” he says.
“The Nordic markets have been a bit lower on the priority list when McDonald’s was managing them the past few years, because, naturally, other markers had greater priority. Now, with a new owner who is willing to invest in these markets, the opportunities are fantastic. We are not as good as we can be, so I think taking the business to that level is something that motivates me.”
Having agreed to take the position in late 2017, Christer was very optimistic about where he could drive the business. “I have seen so many things that, if we do them right, will give us the chance to embark on a fantastic growth journey,” he continues.
“I wake up every morning thinking that we have a lot of opportunities.”
“I wake up every morning thinking that we have a lot of opportunities. We just need to make sure we pick them in the right order. But we must not forget the fundamentals about running great restaurants. We have around 90 franchisees in the Nordic markets so it’s about engaging them and making sure we have the suppliers onboard as well.”
Reaching its goals
The plan for McDonald’s Nordic now is to open more than 100 new restaurants and reach 200 million customers. It currently has 150 million customers – a slight increase from 2017 – and Christer believes it will take five years to reach its ultimate customer target. To get there, the business will implement a combination of measures including upgrading its existing restaurants, running them as well as it can, and accelerating the opening of its new restaurants.
“We also want to make sure we open our restaurants in locations we believe will last for a long time,” Christer explains. “It is a pretty significant investment, so we want to get it right.”
Over the past few months, the company has conducted a significant mapping of its Nordic markets. It used sophisticated mapping tools to analyse and identify the right place to open a restaurant. The next phase is to find pieces of land or locations in these areas to do so. Christer says the way different countries change their road system is predictable, so McDonald’s Nordic already has a good idea of what’s going to happen in advance, when considering where to put its restaurants.
“Primarily we’re looking for drive-through restaurants – they are, generally, performing better than our other locations,” Christer continues. “We see that this is where we can get the maximum out of our potential.”
Handling four markets
In order to take care of such a large team, Christer makes sure he keeps an eye on every part of the business. “We’re never better than the last customer we served,” he says. “It’s so much about the day-to-day things and asking, ‘How was yesterday? What did we do right? What do we need to improve?’
“I have a digital board in my office where I see how we did the previous day in terms of sales as well as customer feedback, friendliness, speed of service and cleanliness. This is what I start my morning with.”
From there, Christer identifies whether there are any alarm bells he needs to look into, then he reaches out to his managing directors to find out what’s going on. However, Christer emphasises that in doing so, you must not micromanage the business. And that means ensuring you have the right managing directors in the first place.
“I need to make sure they are both responsible and accountable for running those markets,” he says. “Knowing what’s going on helps me ask the right questions of them and get a view of their plans, which we review constantly. It’s about having a finger on the pulse and if the pulse beat is not strong enough then I’ll spend my energy on it.”
Christer particularly enjoys the operational side of the business but this can present a challenge when dealing with four different countries. Therefore, Christer says he needs to spend a lot of attention on striking the right balance between achieving results on a broader Nordic scale, while at the same time having local execution power. “It’s all too easy to think we can do everything as one in these four markets,” Christer says, “but we’re are in different stages and there are quite a few differences between them.”
The plan is to expand
McDonald’s is very operations focused, especially when it comes to people development. But Christer warns you need to think both short-term and long-term. “Developing talent is not a quick fix,” he says. “It’s about making sure we have the right balance between building on a strong existing team that knows a lot about McDonald’s systems and feeding that with some new blood and inspiration from the outside. If you don’t earn the right to grow through running good enough restaurants here and now, the expansion itself will never solve that problem.”
He further explains that you need the right balance between generalists and specialists to grow the business. “We have a history of people who have worked in several areas of the business but we are short of specialists in some key areas, so we’re bringing in more specialists to make sure we have more of an edge. For example, it could be in real estate or in digital.”
With this expansion plan in mind, Christer gives a nod to one of the former global CEOs of McDonald’s, Fred Turner, who said, “We are a people business and we never forget it”. This is another main factor the company will use to reach its 200-million-customer goal. “If we’re going to embark on this growth journey, we need the right people for it,” Christer says.
“That’s something I spend a lot of time on as CEO; making sure we have the right team in place. The people side of the business is just going to get more demanding in all four of our markets, as well as in other markets. So attracting, retaining and developing the right people is going to be absolutely vital, whether it’s at the restaurant level or the headquarters level.”
The Nordic countries have around 435 McDonald’s restaurants, of which, more than 95 per cent are franchised. Thus, Christer also wants to make sure the company supports its franchisees as part of its growth strategy. He says there are a lot of local entrepreneurs who run their franchises successfully. “Our best restaurants are run by franchisees,” he says.
“They are extremely engaged in their business. They tend to be family businesses where more than one family member is engaged. So, if we are to expand to the magnitude we aspire to, it’s critical for us to have the right franchisees to expand with. We’re probably going to bring some new franchisees in as well and expand with the successful ones we already have.
Christer explains that when the company upgrades a restaurant, it co-invests with the franchisees. “The growth journey we are embarking on means that we’ll have franchisees that invest a significant amount of money in their restaurants because they believe in the growth story,” he says. “I would say we have the best franchise system in the world. And rightly managed, it presents a fantastic opportunity for us and will help us grow as fast as we want to.”
One of Christer’s priorities is to spend time with the franchisees and understand their day-to-day operations. He recalls one of the franchisees he visited whose restaurant was the first to roll out table service. “He has a restaurant he bought from us a year-and-a-half ago, and the way he’s transformed it is impressive,” he says. “And it started with making sure he had the right people. When you meet him and his team, there’s so much energy in that group.
“He has a restaurant that is on three levels. It has two entrances; one from the street and the other from the shopping mall. Previously, if you came in from the shopping mall and had, say, a baby stroller, you would have had to take two elevators, or the stairs, to get your meal. But now, you can just order your meal from the digital menu board and have it delivered.
“It makes such a difference to his customers. He’s got an enormous jump in sales because of that. He’s getting customers who didn’t go in previously because it was too complicated to bring the kids down the stairs. So, he’s done a fantastic job.”
Christer also spent a week with another of the franchisees, which he found very useful. “You get into these teams where the average age is early 20s. And what you see is this well-run team with very engaged staff,” he says. “It made me feel slightly younger. It’s rewarding to stand there on a Friday evening handing out food in the drive-thru. The franchisee and I even had one cash register each and a little competition to see who could give faster service with help from the young team. It was really good fun.”
- Born in London, UK.
- Received a master’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Mansfield College, University of Oxford.
- Worked at Goldman Sachs during his early career.
- Established Principal Finance Group in 1994.
- Formed Terra Firma in 2002.
- Purchased McDonald’s Nordics in 2017.
- Was once chairman of music label EMI.
- Named the 20th most influential figure in Private Equity International’s ‘100 Most Influential of the Decade’.
- His wife, Julia Hands, is chairman and CEO of Hand Picked Hotels Group, a collection of country house hotels in the UK and Channel Islands.
What makes a good leader?
For Christer, being an excellent leader requires four main attributes, the first of which is energy. “One of the most important aspects for a leader is to make sure you energise your people,” he says. “Obviously, that starts with your own energy because, if you don’t have energy, it’s very difficult to energise others.”
But Christer signals that different people get energised by different things. “People don’t necessarily get the same energy from the same things,” he continues. “So you have to make sure you try to understand what makes people tick and what makes them bring 100% of themselves to the office or the restaurant every day.”
The next aspect Christer identifies is presence. “People need to feel you care about the business,” he says. “So think about how you become visible as a leader so the staff feel you’re engaged.” He adds that this is more about the mental presence because, as in his case, you cannot be physically present in all the markets at once. Rather, leaders must send signals that they care about the business, and that they know what’s going on, which can be done through effective communication.
“When I started this role, I was touring all four markets; meeting the staff and franchisees, and making sure I was being very transparent about who I was and what I wanted to represent,” Christer says. “I was sitting down having one-to-ones with about 50–60 people around the business and asking them what the best thing was about our business and if there was anything they would like to change. That gave me a good understanding about the culture, what works, and how the other relationships in the different markets are working.”
After energy and presence, comes customer focus; something Christer says can be easily overlooked if you’re not careful. “In general, McDonald’s is very customer focused; it comes quite naturally to us,” he says. “But it’s important to remind yourself not to spend 100% of your time on internal operations without engaging with the people on the frontline.”
Last but not least, leaders need to be proactive and always looking at where they need to be two or three years down the line. “That could be by asking what type of restaurants do we need, where do we need to be? Do we have the people who can take us on that journey? Are we doing the right things for the brand to make sure it stays contemporary three years down the road?” he says. “Sometimes, it could be easy to run for quick fixes and populistic solutions but we can never be the best at that. A company of our size can only be better by making sure we make the right long-term decisions.”
McDonald’s Nordic recently rolled out the McVegan burger in Finland and Sweden, which Christer says was important for two reasons. “The first is that consumers want that type of product and can now get it with us,” he says. “The other is that vegan consumers tend to be strong influencers in the groups they belong to; either in a family or in a group of teenagers. They tend to have the casting vote if they are going somewhere for lunch or dinner. So we need to be there for everyone.”
McDonald’s Nordic partnered with Swedish vegan food producer Anamma to create a soy-based burger that has proved a hit. “So far, it’s doing well but we want to see how it performs over a longer period before we make the call on whether we are going to have the same offer across the board or whether we will continue to differentiate it for the different markets,” he says.
But this doesn’t mean McDonald’s will ignore its core product range. “The bulk of our business will always be beef burgers,” Christer maintains. “But this is about giving a choice to everyone. We have certain parts of Sweden and other countries where we have a high proportion of fish or chicken. And so we have to take a step forward on the vegan side as well.”
Where to next?
By the end of 2019, McDonald’s Nordic plans to upgrade all its restaurants to its ‘Made For You’ system. That means fitting its kitchens with digital menu boards and kiosks so that when customers place their order, staff can start cooking straightaway.
Plus, it will continue rolling out table service across its restaurants. “It’s not something that everyone wants all the time, but imagine coming in when you’re very busy with kids and shopping. It is nice to be able to just place your order, sit down, and get it delivered.”
Speaking of delivery, McDonald’s has also partnered with Uber Eats in Sweden to deliver its products, and plans to roll it out to the other Nordic countries soon. “What we see with that is we’re reaching consumers who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily go to McDonald’s,” Christer says.
“They tend to be quite a lot of evening customers and weekend customers, on average – a younger target group. We’ve been a bit slow on delivery, to be honest; we have competitors that are already there. But the good news is that, when we move, we tend to do it pretty significantly. And that’s what we intend to do here as well.”
And with all these plans in place, McDonald’s Nordic is well on track to get its 200 million customers.