Two days after his 16th birthday, James Harper got his first job.
He was hired to clear tables, sweep the floor, and clean the parking areas at a McDonald’s on Portage Avenue in his hometown of Winnipeg. “Lot and lobby,” he says.
It was 1975, and landing a job at the world’s biggest, best-known fast-food chain was a big deal; like getting a job at Google today.
“It was the job to have,” he says. “They had literally hundreds and hundreds of applicants and somehow I got it.”
Wednesday, (April 15), marked his 40th anniversary with McDonald’s, where he’s built a successful career and carved out a family business.
Things have changed a lot since that first shift – it was pre-Egg McMuffin, for one thing. The breakfast menu wasn’t introduced until 1977, so he didn’t start until 10 a.m. Perfect for a teenager.
He got front counter experience, too, and in those days, you had to know math to ring up an order.
The menu has also expanded in four decades, from mostly burgers to Happy Meals, McCafe mochas and salads to his frequent breakfast go-to, a parfait and oatmeal.
“We’ve probably sold as many salads as burgers,” notes Harper, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese fan whose teenaged ‘McJob’ has been anything but.
Harper may have started out sweeping floors, but within two years (at 19) was promoted to restaurant manager, launching a career that’s taken him west to B.C., stateside in 1999 to McDonald’s Chicago headquarters – where he re-wrote curriculum for crew and senior managers – and eventually around the world for McDonald’s, an empire that at the time encompassed 121 countries, 28 languages and seven Burger Universities.
He became a franchisee in 2004 and now owns seven McDonald’s restaurants in the Lower Mainland, with three in Surrey, including the one in Cloverdale, where he lives.
His wife, Tracy, is a co-owner and operator. (They met in Winnipeg, where she worked at McDonald’s, too.) Cortney, one of their three daughters, is a swing manager in Cloverdale. And his son-in-law Ivan Krcmar is operations manager, overseeing the Surrey restaurants.
Harper says a good relationship with the community is critical; his restaurants support scholarships, school fun days, and minor hockey team sponsorships, along with helping out with larger community events like Surrey’s Santa Parade of Lights and civic events.
He also supports the Challenger Baseball Program for children with physical and cognitive disabilities.
Among his proudest accomplishments is earning the company’s People Award, an honour he shares with Tracy.
“It’s a big deal to me,” he says.
That’s because he considers people the most important part of the business, and counsels his staff to treat every customer like their own grandmother.
Harper’s 40th anniversary date also happens to be national hiring day, a one-day hiring blitz where job-seekers are invited to apply and learn more about working at McDonald’s.
He takes pride in providing opportunities in his restaurants for young people.
He tells new employees if they want to be successful, the most important thing is to treat others with dignity and respect, and to work hard.
“That sounds so simple, but it’s not.”
To this day, he runs to open the door when he sees a customer waiting and he isn’t above picking up stray French fries off the floor, even if his custodial days are long over.
“I tell my crew people, if you think you’re above it, you’re never above it.”
Looking back, he realizes that particular Winnipeg McDonald’s was a rich training ground; Harper lists at least six former colleagues who are still working today as owner/operators in B.C., Alberta and NWT.
“We were all crew people together – except for one manager. It just shows the opportunity it gave for young people.”
They used to play baseball and hockey after work, all team sports, he notes. McDonald’s, he said, “was a another team. We had some good people leading us within that restaurant.”
He doesn’t know exactly what the future holds, but evolution is key.
“[McDonald’s founder] Ray Kroc said, ‘I don’t know what I will be selling in the year 2000, but I want to be selling more of it than anyone else.’ You’ve got to change with the consumer. That’s the king in our business.”