Harry J. Sonneborn

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Harry J. Sonneborn
Born Harold J. Sonneborn
(1916-06-12)June 12, 1916
Indiana, U.S.
Died September 21, 1992(1992-09-21) (aged 76)
Mobile County, Alabama, U.S.
Nationality American
Occupation Business executive, President of Finances, Tastee Freeze, President McDonald's (1955–1967)
Years active 1939–1992
Spouse(s) June (divorced, 2 children)
Aloyis Keister (?–1992, his death)

Harry J. Sonneborn (June 12, 1916 – September 21, 1992) was an American businessman, best known for being the first president and chief executive of McDonald's Corporation.

Life and career[edit]

Sonneborn was born in Indiana, the son of Minnie (Greenbaum) and Mark Harry Joseph.[1][2] He was adopted and raised by his father's sister, Jeanette (Joseph), and her husband, Louis Sonneborn, in New York City.[3]

Work with McDonald's Corp.[edit]

A former vice president of finances at Tastee Freeze, Sonneborn approached Ray Kroc with the concept of Kroc owning the land that McDonald outlets were to be built on and then leasing that land to the franchisee. Sonneborn rose to be McDonald's president until he resigned in 1967 due to a dispute with Kroc, who as CEO was able to overrule him. Convinced that Kroc was leading the company into trouble, Sonneborn sold his sizable block of McDonald's stock for three million dollars and left the company, refusing ever to eat at a McDonald’s again. Selling off his stock was a financial mistake: had Sonneborn waited to sell, he would have made over $100 million by 1977, and by the time of his death in 1993, his stock would have been worth over $1 billion.

Other business interests[edit]

After leaving McDonald’s, Sonneborn continued to be heavily involved in the business world through the stock market, capital investments, and banking. He and his wife Aloyis founded several philanthropic foundations, and were to a great extent involved in charitable organizations and fundraisers. During his final years, Harry J. Sonneborn devoted himself to entertaining close friends, travel, and his hobby of photography. He was posthumously vindicated by Ray Kroc several years after his death, and just months before Kroc himself died.:

In the book, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, Love (1995) the secret was revealed: “What converted McDonald’s into a money machine had nothing to do with Ray Kroc, or the McDonald brothers, or even the popularity of McDonald’s hamburgers, french fries, and milk shakes. It was Harry J. Sonneborn.”

“McDonald’s real moneymaking engine was its little-known real estate business, Franchise Realty Corporation; envisioned and created by Harry Sonneborn. The obscure McDonald’s alter ego company was based on Sonneborn’s unique even lesser known financial formula.”

Highly important as McDonald's CFO, Sonneborn was less successful in his role as CEO. The same book McDonald’s: Behind the Arches also reveals how, due to Sonneborn's conservative management style after McDonald's IPO, the company quickly lost ground to competitors like Burger King and Burger Chef. Only when Fred Turner took over did the company get back its innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

"Instead of increasing new store openings each year as McDonald's financial base expanded, Sonneborn did the exact opposite.(..) He decreased the number of new stores built in each of the next three years. (...) At precisely the time when most companies shift to high gear, Sonnborn put McDonald's into neutral.(p. 254). Observed Gerry Newman, who as the company's chief accountant was well placed to witness the growing mounds of red tape: "In the Sonneborn era, everything was controlled. Everything had to have a purchase order, initialed and counterinitialed.(...) And paperwork sat on desks sometimes for weeks, because people could only handle so much.(p. 257)"

Further reading[edit]

  • Love, John F. (1995). McDonald's: Behind the Arches. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-34759-4. 


External links[edit]