Every time John Betts finds himself in Southampton, he can’t help but stop by the North Sea Road McDonald’s.

And he never tells anyone who he is.

With the exception of the dining room and drive-thru window, the restaurant — with its signature yellow double arch, retro interior and familiar scent of salty French fries — remains virtually unchanged, a step back in time to 1970, when Mr. Betts first got his start there toasting burger buns, not far from his family home in North Sea.

“I remember the first day, I burned 24 buns twice in a row. I thought that was it,” he said. “But I survived, they looked past it. I think I got 24 of them out of the way before they saw it.”

He laughed at the memory, overlooking the bay behind his cottage about two hours north of Toronto, where he now helms McDonald’s Canada as its president and chief executive officer.

“You know, I stood in the same spot as those kids on the front counter when they’re taking care of somebody’s order, or the grill area, when I started on those buns,” he continued, “when I started this whole journey.”

In less than six months, Mr. Betts will return home to the East End, following a five-decade-long career with McDonald’s, culminating in the most significant restaurant brand transformation in the company’s Canadian history.

Under his leadership, McDonald’s Canada modernized the look, feel and function of the majority of its 1,400 restaurants across the country — which is ironic only in that, initially, 18-year-old Mr. Betts didn’t make the cut at the brand new Southampton location.

“I went down, applied and they didn’t hire me,” he said. “I got hired after they weeded out some kids — they go through the training process and some kids didn’t show up or something — and so, before the place was opened, I did get the job there.”

The Southampton High School graduate started at $1.85 per hour, quickly working his way up from crewmember to shift manager to assistant manager to the restaurant manager of, what was then, a budding icon. Unfortunately, his grades at Southampton College, where he was studying marine biology, paid the price.

“I was gonna be a great marine biologist and Southampton College was one of the preeminent programs at the time in the country, so I went in, I signed up, I was there,” he said. “Six months after McDonald’s, I switched to business. There was so much interaction and so many things I was learning, and I loved the dynamics, the things going on, the restaurant, the pace, the teamwork, and it was just a lot of fun.”

As the McDonald’s expression goes, he had “ketchup in his veins,” and his professional trajectory would take him to numerous roles of increasing responsibility — from operations and field service to training and purchasing — across the United States for the next 38 years.

“I just like the challenge of it, and for me, the thing that’s kept me around is really the people,” he said. “You meet great people all along the way, people that are important to achieving the business results, people that you helped train, and even the ones that you helped train, you learn things from them. It’s a dynamic, it’s an experience, it’s something you feel really good about.”

John Betts, president and CEO of McDonald’s Canada, will retire at the end of 2020 and return to his family home in North Sea. Photos courtesy CNW Group/McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada

In 2008, Mr. Betts and his family moved to Canada, where he launched and, subsequently, expanded the McCafé brand, introduced All-Day Breakfast, became a founding member of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, and spearheaded the company’s ongoing commitment to sustainability.

He also pushed the brand into the digital age with McDelivery and the “My McD’s” mobile app, and established Canada as the number-one coffee market within the McDonald’s global system — a particular point of pride for Mr. Betts.

“One of the takeaways from that is that every country in the world today has to have a coffee strategy,” he said. “In the early years, we talked about it and people looked at me like, ‘He’s nuts.’ My peers running the other countries, they’d smile, ‘Oh, there he goes again.’ But obviously, it’s worked! And it’s been incredibly successful, but it takes passion, it takes engagement and it takes people who really care about what they do.”

Following a brief transition starting next month, Mr. Betts will pass the proverbial torch to his longtime coworker and successor, Jacques Mignault, the current managing director of McDonald’s Switzerland.

“I am not gonna get in his way and mess up what he wants to get done when he gets here,” he said. “We’ve got a great relationship, and we’ll make it focused and let him carry on the Canadian tradition.”

A piece of Canada will always stay with Mr. Betts, too, who will ultimately divide his time between Canada and North Sea, “which I’ve always considered home,” he said.

“I love Canada, it’s a fantastic place. I’m not selling this cottage,” he said. “I’m looking out at my boat, the water, the blue sky. It actually feels a little bit like Fish Cove, except I’m right on a bay, as opposed to a little cove that leads into a bay. It’s got lots of woods and the dogs like it because they love Southampton and they love this place. It’s been pretty cool.”

First on the agenda for Mr. Betts when he returns to the family property in North Sea, which dates back to his great grandparents, is to finish restoring the four houses there, built in 1927, ’35, ’52 and ’60.

“I’m not retiring, I can’t even say that word,” he said. “It’s time for me to do something else. Fifty years is a long time. As much as I love this business, any business, if you’re a high performing team … it takes a certain focus and energy.

“I’m so proud of what Jacques has done in Switzerland, that for me, 50,” he interrupted himself with a clap, “nice, even number. And you know what? Let’s get 10 or 15 years of good life after McDonald’s. I’ve got that project in North Sea I’ve gotta finish, I’m probably gonna write a book or two — I’ve learned a lot of things over years — but in a way that tells a story and provides some value to people.”

And, of course, he will now be a regular frequenter of McDonald’s on North Sea Road.

“I’ll have some fun visiting with them when I get back,” he said.

As published in the Southampton Press

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