Despite calls to give Ronald McDonald the pink slip, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook assured shareholders on Thursday that the hamburger chain’s famed spokesclown isn’t going anywhere.
The statement was met by thunderous applause at the McDonald’s annual shareholders meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois, after several in attendance raised concerns about how Ronald’s appeal directly markets fast-food fare to children.
But saving Ronald was a rare note of consensus at an unusually contentious time for the world’s No. 1 burger chain, which was holding its annual meeting amid a continuing slump in per-store profits and public protests by labor activists demanding the company and its franchisees boost minimum pay to $15 an hour
The meeting also came just weeks after Mr. Easterbrook announced, in response to lagging sales and fierce competition from upstart rivals such as Chipotle’s, a much-anticipated turnaround plan to boost business across the globe revamp McDonald’s into a “modern, progressive burger chain.”
The fate of Ronald McDonald, a symbol of the fast-food chain since the 1960s, came into question after the chain recently revived a revamped version of its Hamburglar character. Some shareholders criticized the burger chain’s leadership for “sending Ronald into schools to promote everything from reading to healthy eating,” according to one shareholder’s question from the floor.
“What kind of modern, progressive company sends a clown into schools? Or gives out coupons with report cards, like at my sons’ school?” asked a self-identified mother of two and professional blogger.
Mr. Easterbrook replied that, “in every market in which we do business, we’re a responsible advertiser.”
“When it comes to children, the moves we have made with our Happy Meals have been substantial, both in the way we’ve instituted new items and also the way we’ve helped parents encourage their kids to eat more fruit and low-fat dairy.”
While the board faced some criticisms, the majority of shareholders appeared to be on board with the corporation’s current direction. Three proxy proposals, including one calling for tougher annual audits, failed, each receiving less than 10 percent of shares voted.
Mr. Easterbrook, who stepped into his role in March, faced protests this week from labor activists targeting McDonald’s over the wages paid to base employees.
The CEO said Thursday said he was proud of the decision announced last month to raise pay for workers at company-owned stores to $1 above the local minimum wage, as well as offer help with college tuition to workers at all stores.
But critics have dismissed the move on pay in part because they say it leaves so many workers out in the cold. The vast majority of the more than 14,300 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. are owned by franchisees.
On Thursday, protesters delivered a petition of support to McDonald’s that organizers said had 1.4 million signatures.
Investors appeared to take the eventful annual gathering in stride: McDonald’s stock fell a slight 83 cents, or 0.83 percent, to $99.28 on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.