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McDonald's is loving it in Asia

February 05, 2007 09:03 IST

Make that a Big Mac, fries, and a quart of motor oil, please. If executives at McDonald's and China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., better known as Sinopec, get their way, mainland consumers may be able to fill up their cars and their stomachs in the years ahead thanks to a long-term alliance clinched last year to combine fast-food outlets with gas stations.

In mid-January, McDonald's opened up its first drive-through restaurant at a site owned by Sinopec outside of Beijing as part of the tieup the world's biggest restaurant operator hopes will power its expansion in China. McDonald's already has about 785 outlets up and running in China, and plans to have 1,000 restaurants selling its fabled brand of American food by the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The deal with Sinopec, China's biggest operator of gas stations, will give McDonald's a number of choice locations to expand going forward. "They have in excess of 31,000 locations across China, and are opening up 700 new ones a year," says Tim Fenton, the Hong Kong-based president of McDonald's Asia Pacific, Middle East, and Africa regions that span some 34 countries. "We have the right of first refusal on current and future locations for the next 30 years," he says.

Tailoring to Taste

McDonald's Chief Executive Officer Jim Skinner, who is leading a revival of the global restaurant chain, is counting on Fenton and his team to drive revenue and profit growth across the nearly 8,000 restaurants he oversees-from Turkey to Tasmania. Consumers in this part of the world spend $580 billion on meal purchases away from home, a figure about $170 million bigger than the U.S. and double the size of such spending in Europe.

Well over half of that potential market is represented by the dominant economies of Asia-Japan, China, and India-where the prospects for McDonald's look especially strong in the decade ahead. And to tap that growth, the company is tailoring its restaurant design to local lifestyles, experimenting with new menu items and delivery service, and setting up Asia supply networks to boost profitability.

These markets, plus the Middle East and Africa, generate about 17% of McDonald's $20 billion-plus global revenues. And Fenton, who began his career with McDonald's in 1973 as a crew member at an outlet in Utica, N.Y., thinks that figure will grow if the company can come up with smash-hit menu items and execute its expansion plans.

Not Without Rivals

In car-crazy China, McDonald's clearly sees quick growth is to be had by rolling out more drive-through restaurant concepts. China is the world's fastest-growth vehicle market, and 40% to 50% of the 100-odd McDonald's restaurants expected to open in 2007 will cater to motorists. McDonald's drive-through outlets already up and running "average 25% to 50% higher than our country average [elsewhere]," says Fenton.

Of course, McDonald's rival Yum! Brands -- owner of the KFC, Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell brands -- has the same idea. The KFC chicken chain is a fast-food leader with roughly 1,700 outlets in China and is also expanding its drive-through restaurant formats. And Pizza Hut claims to have all but introduced pizza as a fast-food item to China back in 1990. So McDonald's does have some catching up to do in China.

One big plus for the company's fortunes in Asia has been the revival of McDonald's Japan, where earnings collapsed back in 2005. In 2006, the unit's sales are expected to come in around $3 billion on strong profit growth thanks in large part to the hit Ebi Filet-O, a shrimp burger, and new salad plates called Salad Macs that have clicked with Japanese consumers.

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    A more dynamic menu, plus investments in store renovations, has driven store traffic back to strong levels and improved brand awareness in Japan. "Their menu used to be just a beef patty with a slice of cheese or something," says Seiichiro Samejima, analyst with the Ichiyoshi Research Institute in Tokyo. "Now, there is chicken, shrimp, and more variety than before."

    India is a more challenging market, given local dietary preferences for non-meat dishes. Fenton points out that India's eat-out market is about $128 billion a year (compared to $132 billion in China) but is actually growing faster than China's. McDonald's currently has about 110 restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi, and plans to open 25 new outlets a year going forward.

    And while beef burgers are something of a taboo for most Indian consumers, McDonald's thinks it has strong enough credentials in fish, chicken, and pork dishes to succeed there. Its outlets in India have developed some popular vegetarian dishes such as McCurry Pan.

    Food Styling

    One critical task for McDonald's is finding new menu items that not only thrive in one market, but can be exported to others around the company's global system. For instance, the McArabia-a flatbread, spicy chicken fillet, onion and garlic mayonnaise sandwich that debuted in the Middle East a few years back-is now popular in Malaysia and South Africa.

    To help make that happen, McDonald's last year opened a food studio in Hong Kong run by a chef and a team of nutritionists to dream up new products.

    In the first quarter of 2007, McDonald's is launching a menu item in Australia aimed at kids called Pasta Zoo, in which the pasta is shaped like little animals. And the Hong Kong food lab is working on pasta dishes targeted at adults. Whether it's new menu items such as these in Australia, or gas station-and-restaurant combinations in China, Mickey D's is pulling out all the stops to keep its momentum going in Asia.

    Brian Bremner, BusinessWeek