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Catriona Noble

06 May 2011

Make the observation to Catriona Noble, McDonald’s Australia’s CEO, that her career is fascinating and she underplays the moment by saying: “you mean the fact that I have stayed with the one company.”
It’s a comment that could drain her journey of colour but there’s nothing mundane in this woman’s trek through the Golden Arches.

At 14, Catriona had an after school job at her local McDonald’s. Building burgers following the instructions of a well-known advertising jingle (Two all beef patties…), she also made fries and friends (many of whom she is still in contact with), some money and “really enjoyed the social aspect of the job”. She even went on to meet her husband, Simon, while working in the business. They married when she was 21, a shock to Catriona who had not planned an early marriage.

At 41, Catriona has now run McDonald’s for a year as its local CEO. When she was only 19 she’d realized this was indeed a possibility.
“I wasn’t,” she says, “arrogant. I was naïve, but I think that is helpful when you have aspirations. The fact that I thought, ‘I could run the place’, is a statement about the organisation rather than one about myself. I could see it was an organisation where if I put in the hours and effort, learned and grew, then I could do a great deal with that.”
And there were role models and mentors for Catriona that exemplified those possibilities. The late McDonald’s boss Charlie Bell, who died in 2005 from cancer, began his career in the organization at 15, eventually becoming its worldwide CEO. He mentored Catriona. In fact, each of the past CEOs of McDonald’s Australia has been and is still a mentor.

Never get trapped
“There were ways of getting to the top,” explains Catriona. “You could see them, but that didn’t mean it was something I planned. I took the attitude that if opportunities came my way then I would take them, always making sure if I was staying it was because I was choosing to stay.”
She goes on to explain that this wasn’t ever about staying long enough to outlast everybody because, to her, that reeks of lost passion – something from which she will not suffer.
“There are always choices,” says Catriona. “They might mean working for less or more money, or adjusting your lifestyle. I’ve seen the sadness in people when they are trapped in doing something and that’s a psychologically negative place I never want to be.
“I have a plan for how I could liquidate and pay back my debt if I wanted to go and do something else and for me that is important. I have to be passionate about what I do.”

Name calling
McDonald’s Australia has been called many things, including category leader. At $3.5billion in turnover, with more than 830 owned and franchised eating establishments and growing, it is just over 40 per cent of the quick service market. However, Catriona points out with such alacrity you get the feeling she might be signaling a business opportunity ripe for the picking, “If you look at the broader informal eating out market it’s [McDonald’s] like two per cent”.
That’s a dizzying 98 per cent room for improvement and if anyone is going to find a way to secure more of that market share, Australia has the potential. One of the unique things about the business in Australia, according to Catriona, is its ability to innovate.
McCafes were first begun here in Melbourne, although as Catriona points out the Germans have taken them up with gusto and now have more than Australia.
And there is a perception in the larger global McDonald’s community that, along with the French, Australia is arrogant. It’s something Catriona has come across recently working for her American boss but she thinks what they see as arrogance “translates to always thinking of new ideas and pushing the envelope, which is a good thing”.
Certainly, she notes, we are an island a long way from anywhere with our own peculiar sets of circumstances with which to deal and, “sometimes you ask for forgiveness not permission. We do things without always thinking about the wider implications.”
It’s messing with the brand there’s no denying that but, along with France, Catriona explains, we are the markets pushing the whole notion of moving away from the plastic neon light deco of old to installing something more contemporary and modern in style.
And what that means, points out Catriona, is that “we attract people to consider us for more occasions”. By offering customers more, by making McDonald’s attractive on more levels, we grab more of people’s dining out choice.
Increasing McDonald’s share of that informal eating out market is no fry in the sky.

But there are consumer confidence hurdles to overcome and the conversion of the rather staggering figure of 40 percent of its 1.5 million customers daily who are what the company term ‘non-preferers’ – people who are at best neutral and at worst negative about the brand. Bringing them to the Golden side is one of Catriona’s challenges and it’s where the question of whether the business has done enough to address nutrition concerns could help.
“We are such a strong brand. It is why we are category leader but with that comes the price you pay for leadership and you have to be prepared to step up to the plate and say yes, we can do things differently. We can’t solve the problems overnight but we can be part of the solution and I think we have shown that we are willing to do that. I don’t know how many places you can go to eat where you know the exact kilojoule content, the hygiene standards and the provenance of the food,” says Catriona, who also acknowledges there is more to be done.

Growing up
Catriona Noble began school in Baulkham Hills at 4 years of age. The area was newly established. The schools needed the numbers to get off the ground and parents were encouraged to start their children early. At 17, having finished her high schooling at James Ruse, Catriona enrolled in Business at UTS majoring in marketing, which she says she found “exceptionally boring, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was young”.
A little overseas backpacking followed and she then returned to a part time management role at McDonald’s as well as enrolling in Economics Law at Macquarie University. She remained in her part time job, where she could see she was developing leadership and management skills, while studying.
It was at about this time that Catriona came to the realization that she was studying things she did not aspire to do as a career, while realising there was a lot more ‘to do’ with McDonald’s.
“I wasn’t looking forward to my parent’s reaction to me leaving Uni. But they were good, and my father said he could see I’d thought it through. So, when I said was he worried about what people might think, he said, ‘Why worry about that, just back yourself and do it’.”
It’s been sound advice and something she keeps in mind as she approaches another looming marker point in her career: where to next?
She has been considering this and it won’t be a matter of just leaving. She believes it will come when she either stops adding enough value or getting enough satisfaction.
“One of my priorities is on building the talent in the business both for a direct successor and in the management team so that everyone can move up. There will be a day when I decide do I leave McDonald’s or stay and move overseas. Both are reasonable options but life’s not that simple, other things will come into play that will influence the final outcome. Building my skills and networks beyond McDonald’s, regardless of the final decision, is what makes sense in my role now and beyond.”
Whichever way she jumps, Catriona’s aim is to increase the pool of talented women at the top. The more diverse that pool is, the more it allows women to see that being female at the top is not just one model and you can only get there if you replicate that model. Instead, diversity indicates success can come in various packages and what is important is to be yourself, while taking learnings from those at the top and applying them to your own style.

Snow skiing
Saturday school sport

I’m really happy with my kids. They are well-balanced and that’s what it’s all about. It’s all that matters.

“Sometimes you ask for forgiveness not permission. We do things without always thinking about the wider implications.”



  • Natasha Sullivan

    Natasha Sullivan 8 years ago

    Leadership is a study of consequence!

  • Lauren Burns

    Lauren Burns 9 years ago

    Great article - perfect quote!

  • Deborah Burdack

    Deborah Burdack 10 years ago

    great article and very inspriational. The following comment particularly resonated with me 'Building my skills and networks beyond McDonald’s, regardless of the final decision, is what makes sense in my role now and beyond.”I am finding this to be the sense in my current working life at the moment.

  • Mabel Laidlaw

    Mabel Laidlaw 10 years ago

    Great article. It is so important to have positive role models and mentors to help develop our own potential and inspire women around us. Congratulations to Catriona for her leadership and her aim to increase the pool of talented women at the top.

  • Heather Smith

    Heather Smith 10 years ago

    This is a great article.Like Catriona, I got married young too (he was also called Simon). I did not plan to get married young, but it did mean I was able to focus my attention on the future.

  • Jennifer Bailey

    Jennifer Bailey 10 years ago

    So down to earth and so inspiring!