The Big Mac Himself Is Stepping Down

Today, collectively, every McDonald's (NYS: MCD) shareholder is dealing with the uneasy feeling of knowing that Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald's, is retiring after spending 41 years with the company.

Skinner has been CEO since 2004 and is largely credited with turning around what was an ailing franchise in the mid-2000s. Since taking over as CEO, McDonald's global sales have grown every year and its stock price has nearly tripled. Even more impressively, its dividend, which has increased for 35 straight years, grew at an annual rate of 22.6% while under Skinner's leadership.

For Skinner the plan was simple: Expand internationally, focus on brand recognition, and offer consumers cheaper and healthier menu options than its competitors. Based on the data from Technomic just the other day, we can see just how far McDonald's has come to stave off its competition.

Wendy's (NYS: WEN) , which just surpassed Burger King to become the No. 2 burger chain in the U.S., totaled $8.5 billion in sales with 5,900 stores. McDonald's tallied just over $34 billion in sales with less than three times as many stores (14,098). Even the smaller Jack in the Box (NYS: JACK) has seen a revival from remodeling its stores and introducing healthier menu options, and it has McDonald's to thank for leading that revolution.

The big question now on shareholders' minds: Where does McDonald's go from here now that the Big Mac himself is stepping down?

Skinner has laid the groundwork for continued growth (at least in the near term) and his choice to put the company in the hands of current chief operating officer Don Thompson seems like a stable move. My concern is whether or not the company will be able to maintain its already rich valuation if growth simply moderates without Skinner at the helm.

I have come out as markedly bearish on McDonald's on a few occasions. The company itself is trading well above its historical averages when it comes to price-to-cash-flow and price-to-book. It also derives a significant amount of its revenue from Europe, which leaves it vulnerable to unfavorable currency translations and overall weakness in the eurozone as austerity measures continue to be passed in many EU nations. Last night's news of Skinner's imminent departure may be the straw that breaks this stock's unbelievable multiyear run.

Despite my dislike for McDonald's current stock price, I have to give Skinner credit for turning the company around, returning billions of dollars to shareholders in the form of a rapidly growing dividend, and -- most of all -- for being a class act and sticking with the company for 41 years.

This isn't a quality you see very often, but when you do, it's usually in top-tier companies. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks (NAS: SBUX) and partial competitor to McDonald's, is another name that comes to mind as a leader who revitalized a struggling business and has stuck with the company through thick and thin.

If anything, CEOs like Jim Skinner and Howard Schultz have proven the overall value of having a proactive and dedicated leader. McDonald's shareholders should be thankful for his nearly eight years as CEO. But in the meantime, let the collective breath-holding commence! Don Thompson, you're up... good luck!

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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. He has long felt McDonald's has the best french fries. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool owns shares of Starbucks. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of McDonald's and Starbucks, as well as writing covered calls on Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that believes in leading by example.

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