Success on a Sesame Seed Bun

Max Cooper, chief executive officer of McDonald’s franchisee organization CLP Corp. in Homewood, has never been one to ignore a good business opportunity. After joining the Army in 1941, he started a newspaper at the first U.S. Army base where he was stationed and a radio station at the next. “They had a need, and I filled it, ” Cooper says.

Following his military service, Cooper founded an ad agency in the 1950s, Max Cooper and Associates, which over the years evolved to become Golin Harris International, a global public relations firm. Cooper became McDonald’s first marketing manager in 1964, popularized the slogan “two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun, ” and helped turn Ronald McDonald into the company’s beloved icon.

“I didn’t give birth to Ronald McDonald, but for sure I was the midwife, ” Cooper says.

After becoming a McDonald’s franchisee in Alabama, Cooper created and tested the Extra Value Meal, which was later adopted nationally.

“I’m always thinking of new things to try. That’s what keeps me going, ” says Cooper, who, in his 90s, is still coming up with innovative ideas for his 43 McDonald’s restaurants. His latest idea: packaging a McChicken sandwich, side salad and medium diet coke for $3.29.

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“Don’t order it because it’s low calorie. Order it because it tastes good and it just happens to be lower in calories than some things on the menu, ” he says with a chuckle.

The most senior active member of the McDonald’s organizations doesn’t like to tell his exact age, but when directly asked if he is 94, he admits to being “around that.”

“The reason I try not to make a big deal about my age is that people may have a tendency to say ‘That’s a good idea for a 94 year old’ versus ‘That’s a good idea.’ There’s ageism out there, you know, ” he says.

No average nonagenarian, Cooper plans never to retire. He and his partner, Jim Black, operate and own the largest McDonald’s franchisee operation in Alabama and one of the top operations in the nation. CLP (Cooper Levins Pastko, named for Cooper and two former partners) includes 37 restaurants in Birmingham, four in Gadsden and five in Anniston, with a total of 1, 800 employees. The franchisee operation has been tearing down and rebuilding several of its McDonald’s restaurants in recent months as part of its ongoing modernization program. “You have to keep things fresh to remain competive, ” Cooper says.

Cooper works regularly, visiting one or two of his restaurants every day. He also continues to chair Ronald McDonald House Charities of Alabama, which he helped found. The original Birmingham Ronald McDonald House was the fifth built in the nation, and, thanks in part to Cooper’s support and fund-raising skills, opened debt-free in 1979, as did the new Birmingham Ronald McDonald House.

“In addition to serving as an affordable place to live for families with children at local hospitals, the Ronald McDonald House is a place where parents can help support each other, ” Cooper says. “In a way, that’s the most valuable thing the house offers.”

The house has a new butterfly garden dedicated to Lorayne, Cooper’s wife of 56 years, now deceased. Cooper keeps a photo of her on his desk. Among the many photos on his office wall are shots of the couple and various actors featured in his Broadway shows.

Cooper has produced 20 shows since 1990, including Tony winners “Spring Awakening, ” best musical in 2007, and “Long Day’s Journey into Night, ” best revival of a play in 2003. Two of his shows, “La Bête” and “Time Stands Still, ” are currently running on Broadway. As one of 700 Tony voters, Cooper frequently travels to New York City to attend shows.

“They want you to see as many of the shows as possible so you’ll know what you’re voting on, ” Cooper says.

His office wall also sports a photo of Cooper with Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guavara. Outfitted in a baseball uniform, Fidel Castro is holding a baseball. Cooper explains the picture was taken in 1959 while Cooper was in Cuba producing a TV show on Cuban baseball to be shown in the United States. Cooper had invested in the first video recorder to be able to record the series.

“It was right after the revolution and Castro was still considered a hero. He loved baseball and asked to pitch an inning. Who was going to say ‘no’ to that?” Cooper says.

That TV series was just one of numerous ventures Cooper pursued during the 25 years he owned his ad agency. Cooper ran the agency with a partner even after becoming McDonald’s first marketing manager, and later a franchisee. Finally in 1975, Cooper left Cooper Golin to focus on his growing franchisee operation.

“I’ve never been afraid of working long hours. Work energizes me. The body may fail, but the mind keeps going. When I’m at work, I forget my pains, ” Cooper says. “Never retiring may not be for everyone, but it sure works for me.”

Kathy Hagood is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

By Kathy Hagood

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