Just the McJob: Christoph Hammer, McDonalds

After 15 years with global fast food giant McDonald’s, international general counsel Christoph Hammer is still lovin’ it, he tells Tom Phillips

Just the McJob: Christoph Hammer, McDonalds Everybody has a view about McDonald’s – not all positive, though. And so ­having undergone a marketing overhaul over the past five years, the fast food chain is seeing profits rise again and European customers coming back for more.

New decor and a new, healthier menu appears to have had the desired effect, but whatever the merits of the food, the health of the company’s legal team cannot be doubted.

Christoph Hammer, the Austrian-born senior vice president and ­general counsel of McDonald’s ­international operations, oversees 70 lawyers across Europe and the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa (Apmea) region.

The UK operation, with just three lawyers and a paralegal, looks tiny by comparison, but the UK team has been voted the number one department by franchisees and McDonald’s insiders for the past two years.

It is a success that echoes the company’s own recent turnaround, as Hammer acknowledges. “If you change the decor you don’t immediately achieve credibility,” he says. “We have had some difficult times. In 2003 we changed management and identified some core principles – to be better, not bigger.”

Since then, the law teams have grown to form an integrated part of the company. “I tell the lawyers we hire that the aim of the legal team is to provide a different perspective,” says Hammer. “There are plenty of good lawyers out there, but to be ­successful they have to understand the brand. We say they have to have ketchup in the blood.

“If they act only as a lawyer then they won’t get a seat at the executive table. To ask unpopular, naïve and commonsense questions must be a skill that complements their others – we aren’t selling law, we’re selling hamburgers.”

The teams that Hammer oversees range in size from one lawyer to 16 in Germany – the biggest market in Europe. The UK sits behind France in terms of revenue, making up the last of the big three that account for 65 per cent of the company’s European operation.

The UK team consisted of just two lawyers until a revamp that began with the hire of Della Burnside in June 2007 – previously the head of legal at mobile phone operators’ trade group the GSM Association.

Hammer charged his new UK legal director with building a larger team and Burnside has since brought in one lawyer and a paralegal. Very much in keeping with his masterplan of integration, Hammer thinks the team will need to spend time getting to know the business and its clients before growing further, although a three- to five-lawyer team would be the right size for the UK market.

“McDonald’s is one of the most decentralised businesses in the world,” says Hammer. “The regions have a lot of control over their ­direction and lawyers need a lot of contact with the company’s clients to understand who they work for.”

Hammer insists that preconceptions and “myths” surrounding the McDonald’s Corporation obscure the facts and deny the company the ­plaudits it deserves.

“People assume we have a lot of litigation – we have very little in Europe,” he says. “Most of our time is spent on proactive counselling, ­commercial development, ­marketing and creativity. There isn’t a secret ­formula that’s bringing 56 ­million customers a day into our restaurants. We’re successful because of the ­people you don’t see, working behind the scenes.”

McDonald’s lawyers are, in fact, very well versed in compliance, ­presumably because if there is a one-in-a-million chance of something happening then it could, in theory, happen 50 times a day in a ­McDonald’s restaurant.
Contrary to the “McJob” tag beloved of critics, the company’s approach to career progression is ­typified by Hammer, who started work at the golden arches in 1993 as a lawyer, before going on to head up the human resources team.

His current role, in which he ­operates as European and Apmea general counsel while acting as part of the European management team, reflects what he describes as the “complex relationship between ­acting as a guardian of the company and an integrated business partner.”

Hammer believes every lawyer must carry their own business case with them, and that simply providing legal advice is “not enough”.

“It’s not about your background, it’s about whether you’re a leader and whether you make good decisions,” says Hammer. “You do good things and it gets recognised. We retain more people like this because they know there’s a way up – a lawyer is not only restricted to his mandate.”

Name: Christoph Hammer
Organisation: McDonald’s Corporation
Industry: Restaurant services
Position: Senior vice president and international ­general counsel
Reporting to: Corporate general counsel Gloria Santona
Company turnover: $23bn (£13.63bn)
Number of employees: 285,000 (Europe); 1.6m (global)
Total legal capability: 44 in Europe; 26 in Apmea
Main law firms: UK: Forsters, Wragges & Co, ­BrookStreet des Roches (franchising, real estate); ­Shoosmiths ­(commercial and licensing); Trowers & ­Hamlins (marketing and advertising); Reed Smith ­(corporate); LG (commercial)

Christoph Hammer’s CV
1982: University of Innsbruck
1988: College of Law, University of Illinois
Work history: 1982-83: Clerkship, State Court of Tyrol
1984-90: Private practice, Austria
1990-91: Foreign associate, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, New York
1991-93: Head of legal, World Fair (Expo), Vienna/Budapest
1993-present: Lawyer, then HR director, then senior vice president and international ­general counsel, McDonald’s Corporation, Vienna and London