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Book Review

To Russia With Fries
George Cohon
reviewed by Marco den Ouden

Originally published at About.com - 12/16/97

On January 31, 1990, a McDonald's Restaurant opened at Pushkin Square in Moscow. As often happens at a McDonald's launch, the entire first day's proceeds was pledged to charity, this time the Soviet Children's Fund. The lineups snaked around the square all day and throughout the evening until midnight. 30,567 customers were served that day. Over $1 million was raised for Moscow's children. A record was set for the most customers served on opening day at any McDonald's anywhere in the world.

The mastermind behind this event was George Cohon, senior chairman of McDonald's Restaurants of Canada and of McDonald's Russia. To Russia With Fries is his autobiography and its a helluva story.

With the able assistance of ghost writer David McFarlane, Cohon interweaves two stories throughout the book in alternating chapters. One is the tale of how that grand opening event of January 1990 came to be, the story of McDonald's in Russia. The second is Cohon's story, how he accidentally stumbled into McDonald's, how he left a promising law career and moved to a new country with a wife, two kids and no money to start McDonald's here, how he turned down $1 million dollars for the company one year after starting, and how he became a leading citizen of his adopted country and became an Officer of the Order of Canada.

If there is a theme to the book, it is this: Press On! It is more important than intelligence, talent or education. Cohon's story epitomizes the principle of pressing on. It was a favorite saying of McDonald's owner Ray Kroc and he had the anonymous thoughts in the box hanging in McDonald's Restaurant manager's offices and staff rooms across the continent.

The most telling incarnation of the principle is, of course, Cohon's account of bringing McDonald's to Russia. He developed the idea in 1976, the year Montreal hosted the Olympics. Canada's Department of External Affairs had heard that McDonald's had a bus, a well equipped coach used for charity events. They asked to borrow it to tour the Russian delegation around in. Cohon felt obliged to agree and did.

Press On!

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.

Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. 

Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

During the games, Cohon and his wife and sons were leaving the stadium one afternoon and spotted the bus. They decided to go meet the Russians. Some pointy headed bureaucrat told them they needed to go through protocol, get permission from External Affairs and so on. "My friend," Cohon said, staring him down, "the protocol is, I own the bus!" The rest, as they say, is history.

Cohon took the Russians to McDonald's for lunch. He watched the wide-eyed fascination they had for the place. They had never experienced friendly, fast service before. They had never experienced food so tasty, or premises so clean. We take these things for granted. To the Russians they were a revelation. Cohon saw immediately the potential of the Russian market.

He worked for the next three years to get McDonald's the concession for the 1980 Olympics to be held in Moscow. At the eleventh hour, with all the T's crossed and I's dotted, the rug was pulled out from under him by orders from the Kremlin.

But Cohon persisted. Ten more years of interminable meetings with bureaucrats for this, agencies for that, commissariats of such and such. The bureaucracy of the Soviet system was simply incredible. But still Cohon persisted.

He persisted through Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. Naysayers told him he'd never cut a deal. And if he did, he'd never get the Russians to build to McDonald's standards. And if they did, they wouldn't be able to train Soviet staff. And if they did, they wouldn't get suppliers. And if they did, they wouldn't make money. Cohon ignored them and persisted.

Finally a new wind blew through the Soviet body politic. A wind called glasnost, perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev. And finally, on January 31, 1990, fourteen long years after he conceived the idea, the first McDonald's opened in Moscow. Talk about an inspiring story!

But that's just half the fun of this incredible book. It is rich in anecdote, full of good humor and long on the warmth, compassion and dedication of a genuine down-to-earth guy. Cohon comes across as someone anyone can strike up a conversation with. Indeed, the book is filled with stories of Cohon striking up conversations with ordinary people. Customers in the restaurant, crew behind the counters, the man in the street.

Cohon was trained as a lawyer, but enlisted in the army after graduation. He decided to enlist as a private rather than go to officer training as most lawyers did as the tour of duty was only six months for enlisted men, much longer for officers. One day, while still in basic training, the commanding officer called him into his office. A sergeant had been charged with being drunk on duty and leaving his post. The sergeant did not want to be defended by an officer, who he felt would not have his interest at heart. He faced being drummed out of the army in disgrace, losing his pension and everything. He was only a year or two away from retirement.

Cohon was the only lawyer in camp who wasn't an officer. With no court room experience, still wet behind the ears as a lawyer, Cohon not only took on the entire military establishment. He won! (I won't tell you how. It is deliciously delightful and I leave it for you to enjoy when you read the book yourself.)

After leaving the army, Cohon represented a man who wanted to get the McDonald's franchise for Hawaii. Ray Kroc, McDonald's owner, told him Hawaii had already been taken but offered him Eastern Canada instead. Cohon's client turned it down. But Kroc recognized a certain quality in Cohon and asked him, "You don't really want to be a lawyer all your life, do you?" Cohon had to agree and was persuaded to take the Eastern Canada franchise.

He got the exclusive and perpetual rights to Eastern Canada for $10,000 a restaurant, but had to come up with $70,000 for the first seven up front. He only had $10,000 and had to borrow the rest. With nothing, he packed up his wife and two young children and moved from Chicago to a new country. It was 1967. The only McDonald's in Canada were two restaurants in the West.

A year later the first McDonald's in Eastern Canada opened in London, Ontario. Ray Kroc himself came up for the grand opening. He recognized instantly his mistake, and that evening at a celebration party, he offered Cohon a million dollars cash, then and there, to buy the rights back. Cohon said no.

Cohon opened nine restaurants the second year, fourteen the third and ten more the fourth year. Then, in 1971, he did sell the rights back to McDonald's, for stock. Cohon became the second largest shareholder in McDonald's after Kroc himself. Eastern and Western Canada were consolidated under one banner with Cohon at the helm. By 1989 McDonald's stock had split for the tenth time. McDonald's became one of the thirty stocks making up the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

There are so many great stories in this book, I can't begin to tell them all. How a snub by the chairman of Pepsi-Cola was avenged in a Jaguar showroom years later. How Cohon handled a neighbour when he overheard the man's wife say, "The dirty Jew is home." How he handled the cold shoulder given him by Prince Philip who icily told him "You are destroying the rainforests of the world by grazing your cheap cattle." (Which is simply untrue.)

He tells of his encounters with the famous, Gorbachev, Kroc, Trudeau, Rick Hansen, etc) and the not so famous, like the fifteen year old boy he spotted wolfing down his food in the Moscow McDonald's and introduced to Boris Yeltsin as his top advisor.

McDonald's sometimes gets bad press from complaints by environmentalists, labour unionists and other assorted folks on the left. But Cohon handles all these critics in his book. McDonald's is based on teamwork, dedication to customer service, equality of opportunity, community involvement, concern with the environment and an overriding sense of camaraderie. McDonald's is, in many ways, a culture.

And McDonald's, in many ways, was instrumental in bringing capitalism to the Soviet Union. It brought infrastructure and improved agricultural methods (McDonald's spent over five times more building a huge food processing plant than they did on the restaurant itself). It brought opportunity for many, many Russians. (By the year 2000 there will be over one hundred McDonald's in Russia.) What McDonald's brought to Russia is well stated by Khamzat Kasbulatov, manager of McDonald's in Russia who told a television crew, "Many people talk about perestroika, but for them perestroika is an abstraction. Now, me - I can touch my perestroika. I can taste my perestroika. Big Mac is perestroika."

A telling account of the opportunity McDonald's offered Russians as an employer is the story of Boris Yeltsin's visit to the Pushkin Square McDonald's. After meeting the twenty-five year old female manager, Karina, Yeltsin asked how much she earned. Cohon wanted to convey to Yeltsin that she had started by washing floors, making hamburgers and so on and worked her way up and earned her position.

"I didn't ask for her history. I asked you how much she earns," Yeltsin insisted.

Cohon finally replied that she earned one million, two hundred thousand rubles a month. (About $1200 US).

Astounded, Yeltsin said, "I am the President of the country. And she earns more than I do!" Ah, the joy of capitalism. You gotta love it!

Read this book! It will amuse and inspire you. And all proceeds go to Ronald McDonald Children's Charities of Canada. Joan Kroc, Ray's widow, has promised to kick in a million dollars if Cohon can sell a million dollars worth of books.


Contents copyright Marco den Ouden       All Rights reserved
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