Movie Review – The Founder (2016)

Recently I had the opportunity to see The Founder, a biographical drama focusing on Ray Kroc and the development of the McDonald’s fast food chain of restaurants.  Although the film premiered on December 7, 2016, it wasn’t released to the theaters until January 20, 2017.

Directed by John Lee HancockThe Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the salesman who used persistence and sly tactics to build McDonald’s into a major corporation.  Co-starring in the film are Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald.  Laura Dern plays the role of Ray’s wife, Ethel Kroc, and B. J. Novak is Harry J. Sonneborn, a financial consultant who shows Ray the true path to wealth and control of the restaurant chain.

The Founder (2016) – movie poster

The Founder begins in 1954 and Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a traveling salesman living in Illinois and selling milkshake makers.  It’s an expensive product and he has difficulty convincing diners to purchase them.  While he’s on the road, Ray frequently encounters problems at diners including incredibly slow service as well as orders being incorrect.

When Ray learns that a restaurant in San Bernadino, California, ordered six of his milkshake machines, he thinks that it’s an error.  He calls the company to verify the order, and he’s blown away when the manager increases the order to eight milkshake machines.  This peaks Ray’s curiosity and he quickly drives across the country to see this fascinating restaurant.

Ray’s journey leads him to McDonald’s, a small diner where people actually have to get out of their cars (the horror!) and order their meal from a counter.  The menu is simple, and the orders are processed with lightning fast service.  On top of that, the food is served in disposable containers, eliminating the need for plates and utensils.

After enjoying his revolutionary lunch, Ray meets with the restaurant’s owners, brothers Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Richard “Dick” McDonald (Nick Offerman).  The McDonald brothers show Ray how their restaurant works.  When Ray takes them out to dinner that evening, the brothers tell them about how they developed McDonald’s and streamlined its efficiency, creating the popular burger restaurant that the locals know and love.

The following day, Ray tries to convince the brothers to franchise their restaurant.  The problem is that the brothers already tried that, and it failed.  The execution did not work because of a lack of quality control as the franchise owners were basically doing whatever they wanted.  The brothers couldn’t personally control the franchise locations, nor could they find the right people to run them.  The franchises failed and all of the stress caused Mac to suffer from serious health problems.  As far as the brothers were concerned, the dream of franchising the restaurant was dead.

Ray is persistent with his arguments on trying to franchise again, and eventually the brothers agree to let Ray build them new locations across the country.  The main part of the agreement is that the brothers have final say to *any* changes that might occur, from new products to any design changes with the restaurants.

Ray uses Dick’s concept artwork of the “golden arches” as the basis for the design of the exterior of the new franchise restaurants.  He believes that it’s a powerful symbol that’ll help attract customers and establish the branding of the business.  When Ray cannot convince bankers to finance his first location, Ray acquires the money by mortgaging his home, a move that he keeps secret from his wife, Ethel Kroc (Laura Dern).

The first McDonald’s franchise opens in Des Plains, Illinois, and it’s a success under Ray’s watchful eye.  One of the better workers at that location, Fred Turner (Justin Randell Brooke), catches his attention as a future leader of the company.  The restaurant is successful, and Ray sells his rich friends the concept of owning franchise locations as well.  They do so, but they’re not interested in following Ray’s rules.  His rich friends do things on their own and those locations all appear to be as doomed as the McDonald brothers’ original franchises.

Ray quickly changes direction and finds young husband and wife couples who are willing to invest and run their own franchise.  This technique works as these younger owners are more interested in putting in the effort to run the restaurants correctly, keeping with the McDonald brothers’ high standards.  In no time more and more locations open across the upper Midwest.

Although Ray is successful in building new locations, he’s making very little money from it.  When the bank calls and threatens to take away his home because of lack of payments, Ray goes to the bank to try to work a deal.  That fails, but his conversation is overheard by Harry Sonneborn (B. J. Novak), a financial consultant.  Sonneborn agrees to look at Ray’s financial records, and he quickly points out that Ray is going about his business all wrong.  He informs Ray that he needs to be looking at his situation as that as a realtor and NOT a restaurant manager.  By purchasing property, Ray can then lease the land to the new franchises.  Ray can then collect a monthly rent from the lease, and he can threaten to pull the lease and close the restaurant if it fails to maintain his quality standards.  Ray incorporates a new company, Franchise Realty Corporation, and then runs with Sonneborn’s idea.

The idea works beautifully and Ray quickly builds tremendous wealth.  His steady inflow of money allows him to continue purchasing property in cities across the country, greatly expanding the fast food company.  As he grows in power, Ray pushes his ideas against those of the McDonald brothers, becoming more and more defiant against them and their contract.  Since Ray now owns the land, he has leverage against the brothers.  The brothers practically go into shock one day when they see that Ray has renamed his company The McDonald’s Corporation, complete with the “golden arches” as the company’s trademarked logo.

This news, and the fact that Ray wants out of their contract, sends Mac into a diabetic shock.  Ray rushes across the country and visits the brothers in Mac’s hospital room.  He offers them a blank check so they can write any amount that they see fit so that Ray can buy himself out of the contract.  Dick threatens to sue Ray, but Ray points out that he’s the leader of a major national company and can easily hire the best lawyers to tie up the case in court for a long time, something neither brother can afford to do.  It’s over for them, and the easiest solution is to take Ray’s offer to break up the contract.

The brothers agree to end the contract for a total of $2.7 million, ownership of their original location in San Bernadino, and a 1% annual royalty.  When the agreement is written, the royalty is left out of it.  Instead, Ray offers his hand and verbally promises to honor the 1% annual royalty, and both brothers shake on it.  The deal is signed and Ray officially owns the McDonald’s name and business.

When Dick asks Ray why he took the franchise route that he did, instead of simply stealing the business concept, Ray tells him that he was after the name McDonald’s.  He saw it as an all-American name and could easily attract customers.

Afterwards, the brothers are forced to remove the name “McDonald’s” from their restaurant as it was now the intellectual property of The McDonald’s Corporation.  They rename their restaurant as M, but it doesn’t survive that long as a McDonald’s location opens right across the street.  M only lasts a few years until it’s forced to close from a lack of business.

The Founder ends in 1970 as an older Ray Kroc is now living in an extravagant mansion and married to Joan (Linda Cardellini), the former wife of a McDonald’s franchise owner in Minnesota.  Ray divorced Ethel before he bought the McDonald brothers out of their contract, giving her possession of everything except for his company.

The end of the film shows footage of the real Ray Kroc, and we learn what happened to several of the people in the film.  It’s revealed that the brothers tried to get their 1% annual royalty, but their efforts failed since it wasn’t in the contract.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Is 2016’s The Founder any good?

Yes.  I found this film to be quite fascinating and very interesting.  The Founder moves at a fairly fast pace, and you’re left wondering just how much of this story is true.

The main topic of discussion is whether or not Ray Kroc is a villain for basically creating the incredibly powerful fast food company that we know today.  It’s safe to say that he was greedy (not that greed is wrong as it’s a very motivational factor), but I wouldn’t consider him to be a villain, per say.

Basically, Ray merely made the franchise concept work for the McDonald brothers, something that the brothers dreamed at doing but failed because of poor execution.  Earlier in the film we learned that the brothers learned from their mistakes, but their franchise failure was simply too hard on Mac’s health, so they didn’t try it again.  They were set with running their one restaurant until the end of time.

So along comes Ray Kroc, and he convinces the brothers to give their franchise dream one more chance, this time with him in charge at building and overseeing the new locations.  It works, Ray is successful at finding good owner/operators, and he still runs new ideas past the brothers for their approval.  The whole time the brothers are collecting royalty fees from the franchises.  When the brothers are too sluggish at making decisions, and too stingy with giving Ray more money for his work, Ray is forced to find another way to success, and that comes through real estate.

If anything, Ray appears to be a villain when A) divorcing his wife of many years, and B) he alters the buyout contract and removes the 1% annual royalty.  Otherwise, Ray simply does what many successful businessmen have done for the past thousand years —- find a good idea and capitalize on it.  Had the brothers been more open-minded and generous to Ray, then the outcome might have been completely different.

It’s because of Ray Kroc that McDonald’s became the global business that it is today, employing tens of thousands of people around the world.  What would have happened if it was just the McDonald brothers running that one location for the rest of their lives?

You can look at The Founder and feel anger at how Ray Kroc stole an idea, used it to make millions, and then pushed out the original owners.

You can also look at The Founder and be inspired at how a traveling salesman recognized a concept that was solid gold, and how he used his persistence and selling techniques to create a massive corporation and tremendous personal wealth.


FUN FACT — Salaried managers at McDonald’s restaurants are often sent to “Hamburger University” (a.k.a. H. U.) in Chicago, Illinois, to complete classes and learn how to become better managers.  The top student of each graduating class receives the Fred L. Turner award.

My wife attended H. U. six years ago while she was working for McDonald’s.  She aced her exams, finished at the top of her class, and earned the prestigious Fred L. Turner award.

Nine months later, the franchise owner made up a bogus claim and fired her, simply because he felt that she was making too much money as an assistant manager.  My wife won her unemployment after easily proving the franchise owner to be a liar.  The franchise owner appealed the ruling, and she won her case a second time.


The Founder (2016) – movie trailer

Anyway, The Founder is a fascinating movie.  You’ll probably get more out of it if you’ve worked for McDonald’s at some point in life.  Now if only the McDonald’s of today can match the friendliness, cleanliness, speed of service, and simple menus from those earlier days . . .

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