Climbing the Golden Arches Chief: McDonald's senior manager Willis T. Smart calls himself "the luckiest man in the world to do the job I do."

February 05, 1997|By Beth Reinhard | Beth Reinhard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Willis T. Smart likes to talk about dabbling in fiction writing, stand-up comedy and rock 'n' roll, but he is first and foremost a company man, from the Golden Arches pin on his lapel to the McDonald's soda he sips during a meeting.

The tall, athletic redhead from Long Island, N.Y., made $1.55 an hour when he started serving Big Macs at 17. Now, the 42-year-old is one of 40 McDonald's senior regional managers in the country, relishing a new home on 3 acres in affluent Glenwood in western Howard County, a Lincoln Town Car, and membership in the Cattail Creek Country Club.

His corporate climb has primed him to lead the 240 McDonald's in the Baltimore region, central Pennsylvania and the Delmarva Peninsula (200 are owned by licensees) at an auspicious time. The restaurant chain is on the verge of taking over 184 Roy Rogers in the Baltimore-Washington area, about half of which are in Smart's region. And by March, the regional office will move from its no-frills location in a Columbia business park with a view of a water tower to a Baltimore skyscraper near Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"I feel terrific," Smart said at the get-go of an interview in the conference room next to his office. "I am the luckiest man in the world to do the job I do and live the life I live. It took me a long time to get here, so I'll never complain."

William Thomas Smart was born on Aug. 12, 1954, in Malverne, Long Island. He got decent grades in Catholic school (his last name was fodder for jokes then), played guitar in a band called Stage Fright, and dreamed of being a writer or a comedian. But when he got his driver's license, McDonald's seemed like a good place to earn cash and meet people.

"After one year there, I felt like I belonged," Smart said. "After 18 months, I became a No. 1 club member, which meant I got to wear a regular shirt, tie and polished shoes."

He spent just one semester at Nassau Community College, waiting two months after dropping out to tell his father, a department head at Pfizer Inc. pharmaceutical company, and his mother, a registered nurse. His two older sisters were pursuing careers in teaching and nursing.

"My parents asked me if I was going to flip burgers my whole life, and I said, 'I think so,' " he recalled. "After I worked my way up to restaurant manager, my parents started to come around because I was talking about cash flow and earning $20,000 a year."

"I wasn't rebellious," he added. "I was fairly willing to take on responsibility."

In fact, Smart believes his plunge into the working world was partly fueled by a maturity gained from 10 years in the Boy Scouts.

"As corny as it sounds, it really made a difference," he said. "I learned more about life and leadership from the Boy Scouts than from anything else."

At age 21, Smart made his first of several relocations, this one to South Florida. He continued rising through the ranks for 12 years until he was plucked to move to McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. He spent six years there before winning the reins of the Baltimore region.

At one point in his career, Smart decided to take advantage of a two-month sabbatical offered to longtime McDonald's employees. He wrote some short stories, "some mystery, some humor and a little adventure," but couldn't interest a publisher. He also went on stage during a New York comedy club's amateur night.

"The people in the audience were very kind," Smart said of his performing debut. "It gave me an opportunity to say that I gave it a shot."

Since he took over the Baltimore region McDonald's in September 1995, Smart has focused on improving drive-through operations, opening 25 new locations, and service, service, service.

Last year, Smart said his region topped the nation in "comparable sales increases," the percentage by which sales improve from the previous year. Nationwide, McDonald's suffered a 3 percent drop in domestic sales in 1996 and is trying to combat the decline through rapid expansion.

"Many of our competitors exist because of mistakes we've made," Smart said. "We have to be the most convenient and serve the best food possible."

Smart has also been busy visiting the 89 Roy Rogers locations in his territory in anticipation of the chain's sale to McDonald's by Hardee's Food Systems Inc. for $74 million. He will recommend whether they should be converted to McDonald's, remain Roy Rogers restaurants, or close. Smart said he wouldn't indicate what proportion of the Roy Rogers outlets might shut down until the deal closes.

Hardee's representatives referred questions about the sale to McDonald's.

Officials at competitors Burger King and Wendy's, who trail McDonald's in market share, also declined to comment on the Roy Rogers purchase.

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