McDonald’s Philippines’ chairman talks “employee-first”

Many Filipinos have uttered the famous catchphrase: “I’m lovin’ it”!
They should also give thanks to Dr George T. Yang, founder/Chairman and master franchise holder of fast-food giant McDonald’s in the Philippines, for bringing the American chain into the country, way back in 1981. From 10 branches that have since ballooned to 670, and now with a 40,000-strong workforce, the restaurant does not just dish out its signature burgers to a loyal customer base.
Its real specialty centres on its staff and crew, with Yang, believing that treating people right and helping them to grow, ultimately helps the business to succeed as well.
In this exclusive interview with Chief of Staff Asia, Yang notes that each staff has consistently been regularised, with all benefits, ever since the start of the very first McDonald’s outlet in Manila. Even today, this can be an uncommon business practice in the local fast-food industry, where workers are more often employed on less secure contractual bases.
McDonald’s employees are also able to rise through the ranks. Over the last 40 years, many have gone on to leadership and corporate positions, both within the McDonald’s organisation in the Philippines, and also internationally.
To truly understand the food business from the onset, Yang noted that he and his eldest son served as crew members during his first days as a franchisee. This humble act paved the way for him to grasp the needs of employees and relate to their aspirations.
Indulge in the rest of our exclusive interview with the brand leader that moved and shook the fast-food scene in the Philippines when it was in its infancy.
McDonald’s Philippines: Game-changers in the restaurant world
COS Asia: What made you bring McDonald’s to the Philippines, and how was the process? Did you face any setbacks in those early years?
Yang: When I first learned about McDonald’s, I was impressed by its systems and its people. I knew I had to bring it to the Philippines. It was sustainable, created jobs, and gave Filipinos quality food and fast service.
Back then, McDonald’s Corporation did not have the Philippines on its expansion radar, as the focus was on Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong. I was competing against established corporations and many Philippine investors who wanted to bring it to the country. I probably had the least amount of assets to show, but they chose me because I assured them I would be very hands-on and run it myself.
I immersed myself in the store and spent time with the crew. I also brought my eldest son, Kenneth, to Hong Kong where we worked as a crew and learned the ropes: from cooking to cleaning, and from systems to benchmark standards — that gave me an edge.
I was then asked how many stores I planned to open. I would be happy with just a few. I said I could build 10. They were surprised. The McDonald’s US executives thought 10 was a lot at that time.
There were many hurdles in the early years, including getting things approved. At that time, McDonald’s Corporation didn’t understand the Filipino market, so part of my strategy was to cater to the unique Filipino palate and lifestyle.
More importantly, we also wanted the company to contribute to society through employment and corporate social responsibility.
When the first McDonald’s in the Philippines finally opened on the busy street of Morayta in Manila in 1981, I can still remember the long lines of excited customers. With 670 stores today, I am glad that Filipinos continue to love and make McDonald’s a part of their lives.
COS Asia: On staffing strategy, what has worked in the manpower success of McDonald’s in the Philippine setting?
Yang: One of the things I am most proud of is how we changed the restaurant landscape. Before, a restaurant job was considered lowly, without room for growth.
At McDonald’s, we made working at a restaurant a fun, learning experience. We invested in training. I believe we set the tone and the standards of restaurant service. More companies now see the value of good and continuous training.
We pioneered employing students for part-time work and continue doing so. They learn and earn, at the same time, to support their college education and provide for their families.
Being a crew member has become a good, respectable job. We teach them the value of hard work. They have fun working with other young people, and they enjoy the food, too!
I am also proud of our hiring practices. We are one of the few, if not the only (fast food operator) that has done direct hiring since Day One. We never did contractual hiring. Our crews were regularised, with all government-mandated benefits, and more. Many of those employees have risen through the ranks, starting as crew and now leading teams in the support office or the head office. Some employees have been assigned to foreign posts.
If you treat your people right and help them grow, they will help your business succeed.
Dr George Yang’s trade secrets at McDonald’s Philippines
Having founded the McDonald’s brand in the Philippines, and forever changed the local restaurant scene, Yang remains the local Chairman of the iconic brand. He shares some of the secrets behind his success and longevity, including finding a pathway through the impacts of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic in the Philippines.
COS Asia: What has been the impact of the pandemic on McDonald’s businesses in the Philippines?
Yang: When news of it started, we had already begun planning, guided by our principle of protecting people, the business, and the brand. The team focused on two things: safety, and accessibility.
Safety has always been integral to our culture, so it was not difficult to pivot in this space. We had our existing employees’ and store operations’ safety playbooks. The whole system had to be agile and resilient to the virus, and the changing restrictions.
We survived the worst of the pandemic because of strategic investments we made, pre-pandemic. We committed to digital transformation by investing in e-commerce platforms, namely, the McDelivery website and app, McDonald’s app, and a strong partnership with food aggregators. Drive-through service and delivery became the main customer touchpoints that we will continue to grow.
COS Asia: How did McDonald’s assist its crew workers and corporate staff in cushioning the impact of the pandemic?
Yang: Protecting our people and their jobs was paramount. We prioritised their health. We provided care kits, free testing, vaccination, and financial help to all of our crew in need.
COS Asia: Can you divulge the secret to business longevity, amidst the stiff competition in such a fast food-centric country?
Yang: An important secret to success is our people. I champion and live by the “people-first” mindset. Take care of your people, and they will take care of your customers and your business.
Another secret is the customer. Always focus on their rapidly changing needs, and that entails innovations and investments. Keep evolving.
Lastly, give back, no matter how small. It is everyone’s responsibility to contribute and make a difference in the community, for the country. The goodwill comes back to you.
McDonald’s Philippines’ chairman lives an ageless dream
Managing a global fast-food brand while also performing in classical concerts and on TV ads: what else does Yang want to do? The Chairman of McDonald’s in the Philippines has achieved much of his ambitions, but he still harbours goals for his employees.
COS Asia: Are there still some things that you have not accomplished to enhance McDonald’s Philippines as a top employer, and as a brand?
Yang: We stick to fair labour practices and will consistently advocate training and development. We will always look after our 40,000 workforce members as this is our contribution to society – to be a responsible employer.
In our 40th year in the Philippines, we always have new opportunities to be a more relevant brand. Making feel-good moments easy for our customers will always be our North Star. I look forward to customers enjoying the exciting things coming.
COS Asia: What are your aspirations for your employees?
Yang: Our goal is to always grow with our employees, so they can support themselves and their families. I want them to have honest, meaningful work to become better professionals and people. I always tell them that hard work, focus, persistence, and determination are irreplaceable, especially during hard times. Success has no easy way.
COS Asia: You were in musicals and even a TV commercial once. Are there any other talents that the Philippine public does not yet know of?
Yang: Singing came accidentally and late in life. It’s never too late to live your dreams. You can start something new regardless of your age. I hope you saw that video (a local TV profile)!
My newfound passion for classical music and performing led me to form the Klassikal Music Foundation, which trains Philippine classical singers. I look forward to holding more benefit concerts featuring the scholars to showcase their talents and hopefully inspire more young Filipinos to keep classical music alive.
COS Asia: Do you have any leadership idols?
Yang: I look up to Ray Kroc, McDonald’s global founder. He invited me for lunch one time. The guy was down to earth, not the bookish type, and even played the piano. He founded McDonald’s, his calling, at 56 years old while selling a milkshake machine. He visualised McDonald’s presence in the US. I admire him for his focus on quick service, cleanliness, and humility. He stuck to his principles and values.
COS Asia: What are your favourite McDonald’s products?
Yang: I always get Chicken McDo (a unique item on the local menu), Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and the world-famous fries!
Getting to know: Dr George T. Yang
What is left to share about the man behind the boom of McDonald’s in the Philippines, and whose success has been anchored on his “people-first” mindset? Read on to find out even more, including:

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Chief of Staff Asia