SURREY – After he landed his first job, James Harper thought he’d eventually move on to another career. But four decades later, he’s still working under the golden arches.
The restaurateur this month marked his fourth decade with McDonald’s, a run that began for Harper as a fresh-faced teen in Winnipeg and now has him busy as a franchisee of seven of the eateries, including three in Surrey.
"I always tell everyone that I’ve been with McDonald’s for 40 years but that I’ve never done the same job for more than five years at a time, except for this owneroperator thing, which has been just over 10 years," Harper, a South Surrey resident, told the Now.
Along with his wife Tracy, Harper controls the McDonald’s locations in Cloverdale (the "log cabin" one on Highway 10), Panorama Ridge and also Tynehead, on 160th Street across from North Surrey Secondary.
"All the other (McDonald’s) restaurants
in Surrey are all corporately-owned, so I’m the only owner-operator here," said Harper, who also controls "stores" in Burnaby and Coquitlam. In all, nearly 425 employees call him boss.
Fittingly, Harper’s 40th anniversary with McDonald’s coincided with the company’s annual National Hiring Day on April 15.
In the spring of 1975, Harper was two days beyond his 16th birthday when he was hired at one of the burger-serving restaurants in Winnipeg. His first job was known as "lot and lobby," which involves cleaning tables, sweeping and mopping floors, and greeting customers.
"I was very nervous, and it was a big deal," he recalled. "Back then, maybe a bit more than now, if you got a job there, it’d be like a kid today getting a job with Google. It was the thing to get, so I was very lucky to land that job…. They kept on promoting me, so I stuck around and kept at the gig, which is now 40 years old."
Some things were different for employees in those days.
"When I learned front counter, we had to take the orders and then add up the dollar amount," Harper said. "Nowadays, they have calculators to do that job (on the
registers), but back then we had to count back the change in our heads."
Some things never change, however. "My favourite thing on the menu is a Quarter cheese, no onions, and it’s done pretty much the same way as when I was 16," he said. "Same with French fries – same way, same method as back then. So
I can help the kids out with that today, if needed."
For several years, after moving his way up through the ranks, Harper was head of McDonald’s worldwide training, learning and development program, based in Illinois, where he oversaw the implementation of a core management curriculum in more than 100 countries in 28 languages. He also helped develop programs for the seven Hamburger Universities, located worldwide.
Today, a decade after he moved "home" with his family and became a franchisee here, Harper has his daughter Cortney working as a swing manager of his Cloverdale restaurant and a son-in-law, Ivan, overseeing the operations of the Surrey locations.
"My other two daughters aren’t involved, and it’s completely up to them if they (his children) want to get involved in the business," Harper said. "They have to want to do it.
"With any of our young employees, we try to fit their schedule," he added. "We say home and school is first, and we’ll take third place."