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There’s no doubt about it. Bahrainis love McDonald’s.
The small island nation, sandwiched in the Arabian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has a population of 1.6 million spread across a territory half the size of London. At last count, it also had 32 branches of the world-famous Golden Arches. Or, put another way, one store for every 50,000 people.
“We are considered one of the highest saturations in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] in terms of the number of McDonald’s restaurants,” McDonald’s Bahrain General Manager Ahmad Jaser tells The CEO Magazine.
In the past two years alone, the brand has celebrated the opening of nine new stores, a feat he calls “a great achievement”.
With his operational hat on, he can clearly see the significance of this expansion. “With the opening of new restaurants comes more revenue, better profitability and a stronger structure,” he says.
Yet he is also keenly aware of other areas of impact. “In terms of training and developing our employees, I’ve seen many of our staff who started as crew now be department heads or leading restaurants.”
Jaser himself is the poster child for the career pathway opportunities that exist in the iconic quick service restaurant (QSR) business.
“I started working in the industry the minute I graduated college,” he explains.
A year later, he joined McDonald’s in his native Jordan as a trainee manager in charge of Drive Thru at the first restaurant to open in the country. He soon graduated to Restaurant Manager and, in his own words, “moved upwards from there”.
Opportunities followed at other QSR companies. He was Operations Director for Burger King and Texas Fried Chicken across the region when the opportunity to join McDonald’s in Bahrain as General Manager presented itself in 2013. For Jaser, it was an easy yes.
In accepting the role, he inherited the reins of a brand that made its first foray into the country in 1994. In the 20 years that followed, 14 more branches had opened.
Increasing the brand’s brick-and-mortar presence has been his goal from day one.
Discussing the potential he spotted when he joined, he says that he could clearly see the room for growth in terms of market share.
“There was also the opportunity to strengthen the brand, brand awareness and brand presence in Bahrain through more locations and through increasing average restaurant sales per location.”
And what he has achieved in the decade since is, he says, nothing short of memorable.
“We have really accelerated,” he explains. “Whatever was opened in the first 20 years, we have managed to open the same in just 10 years.”
What has played no small role is the ownership structure is that all restaurants are 100 percent locally owned and operated by Fakhro Restaurants Company. Decisions are made in the best interest of the Bahrain market and earnings are reinvested in the country.
Instead of resting on all that has been achieved, Jaser is showing no signs of wanting to slow down. “We definitely want to grab more market share through building more restaurants,” he says.
The target is to build a minimum of two restaurants a year. “That is considered big for Bahrain.”
And even though the brand currently enjoys the highest share of the local QSR market, with local specialties such as the Chicken McArabia flatbread sandwich, he is keen to increase even further the distance between McDonald’s and its closest competitor. To do so, he is turning to technology.
“We are investing in improving the customer journey and customer service through engaging technology, whether that’s a self-ordering kiosk, the mobile app or the mobile order-and-pay systems of the future,” he says.
“The main focus for the coming period is to build more restaurants, but also increasingly invest in technology that makes the customer journey more seamless.”
The business has a strong base to start from; already the majority of the total addressable market has the McDonald’s app downloaded on their mobile phones. “That’s one of the highest percentages across the GCC and Middle East region,” he says.
Jaser doesn’t hesitate to mention technology as one of the areas that sets McDonald’s Bahrain apart from the competition, along with fast and friendly service.
“Our people development and state-of-the-art training program can take someone from crew to restaurant manager in less than two years, and sometimes faster if they work really hard for it,” he says.
When did the Golden Arches make their first appearance in the GCC?
Bahrain – 1994
Kuwait – 1994
Oman – 1994
Qatar – 1995
Saudi Arabia – 1993
United Arab Emirates – 1994
The other primary area of opportunity that appealed to him when accepting the role of General Manager was people.
“The chance to build a stronger team was something that really excited me about the position,” he explains.
Now, reflecting on the decade that has passed, he knows he has achieved the talent structure that he set out to create. Today, most department heads have been working for the company for over 10 years.
“I’m lucky enough that I have built a very strong team,” he says.
More than luck, it’s taken hard work, but Jaser also describes it as a lot of fun. “Building a strong team has always been a priority for me, but at the same time it’s something I enjoyed doing,” he explains. “Building teams is always rewarding once you get to see the team become functional, active and efficient.”
Along the way, he’s succeeded in creating one of the most inclusive teams in the region.
“We are considered one of the highest in the GCC countries in terms of female representation in our workforce, both in the restaurant and in leadership positions,” he explains. “We are a leader in this part of the world.”
In March this year, McDonald’s Bahrain unveiled its ‘Women in Operations’ pledge. As the business looks to grow female representation in operations to at least 20 percent, it has rolled out a series of policies including menstrual leave, modest uniforms (for the conservative members of society), amended maternity leave, extended paternity leave and introduced flexible hours for working mothers.
Under consideration is the provision of enhanced medical insurance for the whole family, back-to-school time-off for parents and providing feminine care products on-site for employees.
Inclusion, Jaser says, is one of two core values and strategies for McDonald’s Bahrain. The other is localization, or hiring Bahraini talent.
Currently, its level of localization sits at 32 percent and the company has been recognized by the Ministry of Labour as having the highest localization in the restaurant industry (and one of the top three companies in Bahrain).
Jaser has his sights set on a localization level of 40 percent and then would like it to steadily increase by 10 percent every year.
“As they always say in this – and most – hospitality industries, ‘hire your consumers’,” he says. “Your employee demographic should be a reflection of your consumers, and this is what we are trying to do.”
He names employee movement as the main roadblock to achieving this. “The biggest challenge in localization in any country I have worked in is always high turnover,” he says. “The more local employees you have, the likelihood of high turnover becomes more.”
The business is looking to mitigate the risk by bolstering training programs and improving career growth opportunities for every employee. “I’m a strong believer that proper communication and training reduces turnover, and that is what we are trying to do, especially with locals,” he acknowledges.
Like all of McDonald’s operations across the world, McDonald’s Bahrain takes what is known as a three-legged-stool approach to supply chain.
Ray Kroc, the American businessperson who bought the company in 1961 from the McDonald’s brothers (and was its CEO from 1967–1973) is generally credited with introducing the philosophy that each leg – the company, the franchisees and the suppliers – have to be of equal strength to keep the stool from falling over.
“He always said that no company can be successful without these three main pillars to the organization and without having clear, open communication,” Jaser explains.
In line with this approach, McDonald’s Bahrain deals with all its suppliers as part of the organization. “We call them to our meetings, we are very transparent,” he continues. “This is what I believe is the biggest differentiating point between us and the competition.”
The business works hand in hand with suppliers such as Del Monte Saudi Arabia for fresh produce; Shuaiba Industrial Company, Al-Khat Packaging and Arabian Paper Products Company for packaging; and Mohebi Martin Brower Logistics as a supply chain provider.
“We audit them, they audit us,” he says. “We even have suppliers coming to the counter and ordering food just to see how well we serve the food that they are supplying to us. We take their feedback very seriously and we always try to improve.”
And if the supplier is ever faced with any challenges or logistical obstacles to delivering their product, McDonald’s Bahrain is always there to support them, and vice versa. “We understand this. We sit around one table and we communicate. It’s almost an open-book relationship,” he says.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Jaser says the business was there for the suppliers who came to him with price increases to cover the logistical disruptions they were facing. “We accepted that,” he explains. “I don’t believe in trying to squeeze suppliers to get the best price.”
Instead, he looks to cultivate balanced relationships based on trust, respect and credibility, “I want them to succeed, I want them to have a logical margin. Otherwise, there will be a compromise in quality or service,” he explains.
Quality is exactly what Jaser says is the foremost benefit of these strategic supplier relationships.
“When you have a strong relationship with your suppliers, you get the best possible quality out of these suppliers,” he says. “They make sure that, when they give you a product, it is the top product, exactly to your standards.”
The other benefit is price. “Not only because of the volumes and commitments but because you are working together to make sure you have the most efficient ordering, the most efficient logistics solutions, the most efficient packaging, for instance, to ensure you both achieve the best pricing possible,” he explains.
Then there are the opportunities for reciprocal training.
“We work closely together to make sure that our suppliers come and train our people, and we send people to train our suppliers on McDonald’s products. It is as if we are one business, not two different companies,” he says.
For Jaser, professional success is not just achieving the KPIs that have been set for him, but exceeding them – a goal he has a proven track record of achieving, as McDonald’s Bahrain punches above its weight in McDonald’s global rankings.
“Success is coming from the smallest GCC country in size and population, and the smallest Arab country in size, and putting Bahrain on the map,” he says. “When you are such a small market, it brings huge pride to see the McDonald’s Bahrain name as one of the best achievers.”
Exceeding the personal KPIs he has set himself alongside the professional ones is also a key measurement of success.
“First of all, that’s taking care of my family, making sure they are provided for, that they are happy and that I’m there for them,” he explains.
After that comes the accomplishment of career milestones. “I still remember when I was an area manager at 29 years old and I vowed to become a general manager before I reached 40,” he recalls. “Luckily enough, I became a general manager at 40.
“How do I define success? Setting very specific goals for yourself, making sure that you take all the right steps to achieve those goals, then celebrating success when you achieve them, while keeping that personal and professional balance.”
McDonald’s has a global training academy called – you guessed it – the Hamburger University. Students come to develop their expertise and knowledge in restaurant operations and leadership skills as they work towards a degree called Hamburgerology. According to Insider, over 40 percent of the company’s senior leaders are graduates of Hamburger University.
The first academy classes took place in 1961, in the basement of a McDonald’s restaurant in Illinois, United States. Just 14 students were in that inaugural graduating class.
Today, the brand has opened classrooms around around the world; in addition to Chicago, where the Academy is housed inside its ‘MHQ’ global headquarters in the West Loop, there are campuses in Hong Kong, Sydney, Hamburg, Tokyo, China, Singapore and Dubai. More than 275,000 students have passed through.
In 2015, it was reported that it was easier to get into Harvard University than the Hamburger Academy in Shanghai, where just one percent of applications were admitted.