Behind the Arches

Our writer takes a sneak peek into the training grounds of McDonald's franchisees: Hamburger University.

Miomir Ivanovic, 43, likes sizing up the odds-not because he is a gambler, but because he isn't. When it became apparent that his native country, Bosnia, was collapsing into civil war, he decided to stay in America, where he was going to school. If he returned to Bosnia, he felt that odds were, his life would be in danger. When he chose a career, he picked a stable one-civil engineering. And when he decided that he wanted to own a business, he decided on a franchise with a track record of success. In 2004, he set his sights on McDonald's. Odds are, Ivanovic is going to do OK.

Of course, McDonald's likes reducing its odds of failure, too. The most successful quick-service restaurant chain in the world doesn't let just anybody buy a McDonald's restaurant and open for business. Their secret weapon to success isn't the Big Mac's secret sauce. It lies in the training that the company provides to every single franchise owner. McDonald's is McDonald's because of Hamburger University.

That said, driving onto the premises, I was at first a little disappointed. Oh, sure, Hamburger University is a stunning campus, nestled in lush oak forests and situated next to a sunlight-dappled lake full of bass and carp, where Canada geese, mallards and teal ducks make their homes.

It's just that I was half-expecting some of the students to channel their inner Ronald McDonalds or even don polyester uniforms, like in those 1970s TV commercials. I imagined that golden arches might hang over a Hamburger University football stadium.

All kidding aside, Hamburger University's grounds are more picturesque than many actual private and public universities. Acres of trees-walnut, hickory, ash-along with flowers and native shrubs are strewn throughout the 80-acre campus, and white-tailed deer wander near the nature trail and bike path, which are open to the public. Inside the university lobby is a replica of founder Ray Kroc's office, and a mini-museum with a timeline of McDonald's history and its significant role in popular culture. And there is so much artwork at the university and throughout the corporation that McDonald's has its own art curator.

The name "Hamburger University" may suggest a light touch, but the school's ambience and its intensive educational training--many classes are actually college-accredited--indicate a very serious endeavor.

It began with 14 students in the basement of a McDonald's restaurant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, in 1961, and now the university, which has moved twice since then, educates an average of 5,000 students a year. Most of them are managers or executives at McDonald's, but since franchisees must undergo some of their training at the University, many students are like Ivanovic--dreaming of owning their own businesses.

Hamburger University is located on the grounds of the McDonald's headquarters in the affluent and peaceful suburb of Oak Brook, Illinois. Around the country, there are 22 regional training teams that are considered an extension of Hamburger University, and around the world, McDonald's has six additional Hamburger Universities, in Hong Kong; London; Munich, Germany; São Paulo, Brazil; Sydney, Australia; and Tokyo.

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the January 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Behind the Arches.

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