Being a fast-food chef isn’t exactly the most glamorous profession in the world. After all, the wages are far from life-changing, the uniform is more functional than beautiful, and smelling of grease at all times is a given. Flipping burgers, though, doesn’t have to be a dead-end job by any means. Indeed, working the grill can stand driven and ambitious individuals in good stead; for example, it can teach budding entrepreneurs valuable lessons in accountability and would-be execs that hard graft precedes a promotion. And this experience could very well have helped out the following ten highly successful businesspeople, who all began their glittering careers broiling burgers, preparing fries or taking fast-food orders. These people all went on to bigger, better and more lucrative things – in some cases, remarkably quickly.
10. Janice Fields
Janice Fields’ career has seen her go all the way from cooking fries at McDonald’s in the late 1970s to becoming head of the chain’s U.S. operations. This incredible business success can, perhaps, be partly attributed to her people skills; as Fields has related to author Cody Teets, she had “a knack” for reading customers’ expressions during her time behind the counter. “A person who had waited too long to be served and was wearing a frown inspired me to try to turn it into a smile,” she explained. “It felt great to be helping others, especially parents with kids.” Fields was named one of the 100 most powerful women on the planet by Forbes in 2008, when she was COO and executive vice president of the fast-food chain’s American operations. Fields was also McDonald’s USA’s president from January 2010 until November 2012.
9. Carla Harris
In the late 1970s Morgan Stanley vice chair of wealth management Carla Harris was eager to work at McDonald’s; her father allowed her to apply for a job there on the proviso that should her grades suffer she’d give it up immediately. “Getting my first paycheck made me even more determined to keep my job, so I made sure to keep my grades up,” Harris has said of her dad’s ultimatum. She went on to work for the company from 1978 to 1980 – when Harris went to study at Harvard – and also took on a summer stint at McDonald’s after her first year at college. And despite just having the fast-food firm on her resume at the time of her graduation, Harris has gone on to enjoy a glittering 28-year career on Wall Street. She has additionally been named among the “50 Most Powerful Black Executives in Corporate America” by Fortune.
8. Edward Rensi
Edward Rensi began flipping burgers for McDonald’s in the early 1960s, progressing to managing a branch in Columbus, Ohio by 1967. And Rensi continued to climb the ladder thereafter, becoming the fast-food giant’s president and CEO, a post he filled from 1991 to 1997. Along the way, he played a part in making McDonald’s the planet’s biggest fast-food company; in 1985 he even returned to those early grilling days by serving the company’s 50 billionth hamburger. Rensi stepped out of the limelight in the late ‘90s in order to spend more time with his family; nevertheless, he returned to the food business in early 2014 when he was appointed CEO at barbecue joint Famous Dave’s of America.
7. Lynsi Snyder
Lynsi Snyder inherited In-N-Out Burger in 2006 after the death of her mother, but she does, in fact, have practical fast-food experience. In fact, Snyder chopped onions and peeled potatoes during a part-time stint while in her teens at the In-N-Out branch in Redding, California in 1999. Snyder assumed the In-N-Out presidency in 2010, and perhaps getting to know how the family business worked from the ground up stood her in good stead in the role. After all, business has since boomed, with the chain opening its 300th store in January 2015. Furthermore, in 2013 Snyder was estimated by Forbes to have a $500 million fortune, making her, as the publication stated at the time, “one of the richest 30-year-olds in the world.”
6. Hank Thomas
In the 1960s Hank Thomas was a member of Freedom Riders, a civil rights protest group. He also served in the Vietnam War and was awarded a Purple Heart for his effort. Toward the end of the decade, however, Thomas landed a $1.30-per-hour position at McDonald’s. “Back in those days, you toasted the buns on the grill, so that was my first job,” he explained to The Louisiana Weekly. Inspired by the career progression of his African-American manager at the time, Thomas went from bun toaster to owner of multiple McDonald’s restaurants within just two decades. “I guess you could say that’s called moving up the ladder,” he added to the newspaper. Thomas has additionally owned Dairy Queen and Burger King franchises and has become both the president of Marriott Branded Hotels operator Victoria Hospitality Properties, Inc. and Hayon, Inc. Group’s vice president – a company, fittingly, in charge of three McDonald’s restaurants in Atlanta.
5. Fred Turner
The late Fred Turner is best known for being the founder of McDonald’s’ Hamburger University and serving as the company’s CEO between 1974 and 1987, a period that coincided with the Golden Arches branching out into France, England and Japan. When Turner became senior chairman in 1990, the number of McDonald’s outlets totaled 11,000 – more than three times as many as when he first assumed the position of CEO. Indeed, when Turner retired in 2004, McDonald’s had established a presence in 118 nations worldwide. Turner’s interest in burgers and business began in 1956, however, when the total McDonald’s workforce numbered just 34. Before moving up the corporate ladder, Turner trained on the grills – an experience that may have inspired him to write the McDonald’s “Bible,” which specified that burger patties should be grilled in half a dozen orderly lines, while fries should be precisely 0.28 inches thick.
4. Pam Farber
As the eldest daughter of Dave Thomas – the legendary late founder of Wendy’s – Pam Farber perhaps inevitably started her own career grilling burgers at the fast-food business created by her father. Paul Gronbach, her manager in those early days, told Capital Style magazine, “Pam would get down on the floor and scrub the tiles till they shined.” He added, “I know few people with more passion for love, learning and life than Pam.” Since then, however, Farber has had a varied and successful career, dabbling in businesses such as running a shoe shop in Ireland, but she continues to have a stake in Wendy’s today. Indeed, along with close family members, Farber has gone on to become responsible for 33 Wendy’s outlets across Ohio.
3. Anne Toth
As a teenager, Anne Toth was so keen to launch her career that she applied to a Roy Rogers restaurant in Virginia aged 14 – landing a job two years before it was even legal to do so. The year was 1985, and Toth earned $3.35 an hour – a far cry from the salaries she would later undoubtedly command during her time as Yahoo!’s chief trust officer and Google+’s head of privacy and policy. In September 2014, she would also become Slack Technologies, Inc.’s vice president of policy and compliance strategy. However, in a LinkedIn blog post, Toth wrote that she learned something crucial during her time at the fast-food chain: that good work is compensated “with a harder job.” “By the end of my first week, having mastered the front line in record time, I was being trained to do the drive-thru window,” she explained. “I was a fast-food prodigy, and everyone there knew it.”
2. Jim Skinner
Jim Skinner started grilling burgers and flavoring fries at a Davenport, Iowa McDonald’s in the early ’60s, when he was working toward his high school diploma. After graduating in 1962, Skinner joined the U.S. Navy – but evidently McDonald’s still held some allure, as in 1971 he went on to become a trainee restaurant manager for the company in Carpentersville, Illinois. And indeed, over the next 30 years Skinner rose through the ranks, developing the brand internationally and becoming the company’s president and COO, then vice chairman, and finally, CEO. After announcing his retirement in 2012, Skinner was asked by Fortune whether he’d miss being part of McDonald’s. “I don’t know the answer to that question, because I haven’t let go yet. But I don’t think so,” he replied. “You have to go when the time is right.” Today, the former boss is a board member for a number of organizations, including Walgreen Co. and Ronald McDonald House Charities.
1. Jeff Bezos
As CEO of one of the planet’s biggest web-based retailers and a man worth more than $34 billion, Jeff Bezos has come a long way from his time at McDonald’s. But indeed, this was how the Amazon founder got his foot on the business ladder – in a Miami branch of the fast-food chain, cleaning up spilled ketchup. As he explained to Golden Opportunity: Remarkable Careers That Began at McDonald’s author Cody Teets, “Since I was the new guy, they handed me the cleaning solution and said, ‘Get going!’” The future billionaire soon progressed to overseeing the grill, a task that he has since described as “challenging” at times – but the overall experience was also evidently rewarding. “You can learn responsibility in any job, if you take it seriously,” he added. “You learn a lot as a teenager working at McDonald’s.”
From flipping burgers to making millions and even billions of dollars, these businesspeople prove that you can definitely move from minimum wage to mansion living, sometimes in just a few short years.