Yousif Abdulghani is a confident man. As the vice president of McDonald’s Middle East - the region that provides the U.S. burger giant with its second highest revenue stream - he has helped the chain’s aggressive regional expansion for the past 21 years.
Yet the 59-year-old Bahraini, an engineer by trade, is eager to stress that he has little time to relax under the shade of the Golden Arches.
Around 5 years ago, sandwich chain Subway overtook McDonalds as the world’s largest fast food franchise, and back home in America, the brand is seen as struggling to adapt to changing consumer tastes and fierce competition.
Sandwiches and speculation
In the Middle East and Africa, however, where 1,200 outlets - 500 of them in the Gulf - and 46,000 staff help rake in roughly $6 million a day, the future seems brighter.
The chain has recently rolled out the “Create your taste” screen-based ordering system, which allow customers to order meals and customize their burgers. Since the first regional rollout in Kuwait in May, around 23 restaurants in the Gulf have been equipped with the screens.
Abdulghani calls the new system an “an evolution to answering customer needs.”
When the screens were launched in the U.S. at around the same time, some industry heads speculated that they were help the chain save on rising labor costs.
Abdulghani denies this. “The main factor or reason behind doing that [installing the screens] wasn’t because we wanted to save labor.”
“Technology has become part of our daily life, so offering the different touch points that we have today is natural. Is it going to save labor? I would say it’s going to optimize labor.” He adds that the kiosks will free up the front counter staff and instead allow a focus on hospitality and table service.
Our interview takes place at a McDonald’s branch on Dubai’s skyscraper-lined thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road, just next to one of the company’s offices.
On the advice of Abdulghani’s PR man - who was also present at the interview - this reporter opts for one of their limited-time specials: a ‘Portuguese’ burger with fries. The burger’s thick, well-seasoned puck-sized slab of chicken is a satisfying contrast to the chain’s usual offerings of over-browned centimeter-thin patties.
Saudis gather by a McDonalds fast food restaurant in a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Abdulghani, who wears a charcoal suit, a white shirt with no tie and slip-on loafers, picks a Filet-O-Fish with a large fries and orange juice.
Rather than relying exclusively on high-end lunches enjoyed by many Dubai executives, Abdulghani says he eats McDonald’s “two to three times a week.”
McDonald’s competitors are ever looming large. Over the past few years, Dubai has seen a raft of gourmet burger chains – such as Shake Shake and Five Guys – which could threaten to steal market share.
“Everybody is fighting for a share of the stomach,” says Abdulghani, who during the interview refers euphemistically to issues and threats as “headwinds.”
“I think time will tell who’s going to be and who’s not [going to be successful] but regardless of the multitude of players in the market, [this] uplifts also consumption of beef, and uplifts customer needs… so for us it’s a good thing.”
Hot on the heels of McDonalds is the chain’s arch-rival, Yum Brands, which owns Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC.
Faced with slowing sales of Pizza Hut, Yum’s boss recently took a drastic, Stalin-style step: to shut the chain’s top managers in a room and forbid them to emerge before coming up with a “clear brand identity.”
Sometime later, the team asked to leave the room, with the apparent revelation that “easy” beats “better.” In other words, the chain needed to work on speed and convenience rather than a new focus on quality.
The McDonald’s executive partially agrees – but says that balance is needed. He cites the new screen-based ordering system and home delivery services, a practice not traditionally found in most McDonald’s markets, as a step the chain has taken to increase convenience.
“Is it that silver bullet by itself that will save any business? I don’t think so,” he says. “I mean it’s a combination of things that you do, so between offering more convenience, you stay true to your core business,” he says, adding that fast food chains must be careful to stick to a low price point.
A Big Mac, Coke and fries are shown at a McDonald's (File photo AP)
“Whatever you do has to have value, or else you can’t charge for a $15 burger when [the customer] only has $10 in his pocket. So how do you strike that balance between affordability, variety, convenience, all together?”
A labor of lunch
Then there’s the labor issue. In most Gulf markets, where lower-end jobs are commonly handled by expatriate workers, local staff are rarely seen behind the counter.
“[In the Gulf,] we have no choice but to also go after an expatriate work force,” he says, adding that in the UAE, where most citizens prefer government jobs, the chain relies “100 percent” on expats.
But Abdulghani says progress has been made.
“Some markets may be faster than other markets, but I don’t think the UAE is completely immune [to locally-sourced labor]... It might not happen now, maybe not in 5 years’ time, but it eventually will.”
In Saudi Arabia, the biggest Gulf market, the chain employs more than 1,700 nationals, with plans to hire more. There’s been similar success in Oman and Bahrain, although foreign workers still make up a vast majority of front counter staff.
“Who would ever think that Bahrain, [that] you have locals working at restaurants and gas stations. But today it’s a reality,” he says.
In his spare time, Abdulghani enjoys reading. Business books by Jim Collins are a particular favorite.
He also maintains a collection of Islamic artwork. However, 13 to 14 hour work days tend to put a damper on his hobby.
Conference calls at odd times of the day also keep him occupied. “Because we sit here in the Middle East between Asia and the West we are on conference calls I would say almost every week,” he says.
And for when conference calls just aren’t enough, he regularly travels to one of the 16 countries under his control.
“I have to be honest with you, it is taxing no doubt on the body, and taxing mentally.”
As the burger wrappers pile up, Abdulghani seems thoughtful. “But you know, if you enjoy what you’re doing, it comes with the job.”