Sunday, April 30, 2006

Revisionist history

You have to hope Jack Schuessler is blaring the “Rocky” theme and leaving a voice-mail message for every Wendy’s director: “Who’s looking wrong now?”

Dissident shareholders blasted him. Franchisees all but threatened a lynching. The media served up indictments like the failure of Wendy’s fruit salad, the wholesale closing of Baja Fresh units and a Joe DiMaggio streak of bad quarters. It’s kind of surprising he wasn’t denounced by neighbors and forced to resettle somewhere under a false identity.

Schuessler’s stewardship of Wendy’s was faulted by everyone, except the party that mattered most. And that entity, the mighty McDonald’s, has just paid its now-retired competitor the ultimate compliment. According to Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal reporter Dick Gibson, who said he saw the words himself on a document from McDonald’s headquarters, Schuessler left Wendy’s in a condition that makes it the rival that McD’s dreads—“the face of the enemy over the next 18 months,” according to the Gibson-captured communiqué to McDonald’s franchisees. (More of the memo's contents is reported in the Daily Specials of our website.)

Of course, the document came to light after Schuessler had resigned (at age 55). But the programs he left in place were the ones that McDonald’s cited as the most worrisome: A move by Wendy’s into breakfast service. Its emphasis on chicken sandwiches. Broadening its market focus to include young people. Each of those has triggered considerable tsk-tsk’ing by other parties. But McDonald’s has acknowledged that Schuessler’s aim was true.

I have to confess I’ve been one of Schuessler’s critics, though I’m proud to say my comments bore an asterisk. What bothered me wasn’t what he decided to do, but his lack of fortitude in the follow-through. He allowed the company to bend too readily to dissident shareholders and internal critics, instead of staying the course.

Now his strategy has been validated, by no less than the Beatles of the field. Shareholders can only hope the new regime carefully considers Schuessler’s programs, instead of changing them for the sake of departure. And at least the 30-year veteran of Wendy’s can enjoy his early retirement, knowing he played a game that definitely had the attention and respect of his opponent.

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