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The Inside View

One year later: McDonald's supply chain, sustainability chief Francesca DeBiase

This is part 1 of a 2-part interview. Find part 2 here.

I couldn’t wait to chat with Francesca DeBiase, one year after I retired from McDonald’s. DeBiase assumed her lead sustainability role one year ago today.

A Chicago native from an immigrant family, and first in her family to get a college degree, she works now in the C-suite of the iconic brand, overseeing its beef, chicken lettuce and buns — as well as its 2020 Sustainability Framework focused on balanced menu choices, verified sustainable food and packaging, and climate change reduction.

DeBiase is also senior vice president of global supply chain sustainability.

Bob LangertSo I know when I decided to retire from McDonald's, I remember we were gabbing in D.C., and I could see your eyes light up, that this is something you wanted to do, and take on the additional sustainability responsibility for the company. Tell me, why did you want to add this on to your already packed life? 

Francesca DeBiase: Well, you're definitely right about that. This combination of supply chain and sustainability is a job I really did pursue. Went out of my way to meet with different leaders in the company and explain why I thought I would do well in the role. I had a huge passion for it, and I feel like I have my dream job.

I worked in Europe for several years, 11 total. Back in 2006 is when you and I first started working very closely together, when Greenpeace issued a report, "Eating up the Amazon." That really opened our eyes in Europe to issues we impacted as a global brand. 

We were alerted to the issue. We reacted quickly. And seriously. It showed to me how we could change a market by working together with suppliers, with NGOs and other leaders. (A soy moratorium was put in place.) So that got me really ignited. 

That got me started. I've been excited about it ever since. And I think being able to have the accountability for supply chain … can help internally with the credibility to get things done in all five of the pillars across the business (food, sourcing, planet, people and community).

LangertWhat's in your personal and family upbringing that sparked this sustainability passion?

DeBiase: My dad's family comes from Italy; my mom's family comes from Germany. Coming to America, and making a better life for themselves, this democratic process, and coming here poor and feeling like everyone should get a fair chance, this all has shaped me.

And I think the opportunity to do that in a big way, to make a difference at a company like McDonald's, and to mainstream and democratize sustainability for everybody  that’s the very core to who I am.

LangertWhat did you learn from your parents that applies to your work and leadership today?

DeBiase: The first thing my parents told me was you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it and you work hard. That was always in my mind. I feel like I've had always a lot of confidence to be able to get things done because of that. Again, that probably comes back to their parents, and the immigrant spirit.

The other big thing is the sense of fairness. The sense of treating everybody equally, feeling like everybody has something they can contribute I think also came from them. I try to have that same leadership style with my team. 

LangertYou've been elevated to an even higher level since I left. You're in the C-suite, and we've talked over the years about how important it is for sustainability to have a "seat at the table." So my goodness, you have a front row seat.

How is that going? And how do you bring sustainability into discussions with senior management on whatever weekly, biweekly, monthly basis that you do? Is there an example you can maybe provide? 

DeBiase: First I want to say I'm really honored that I have this role, and I do have a seat at the table. Just being in all the meetings — it's really expected of me when whatever topic comes up I'm going to be talking about sustainability.

So I certainly use this opportunity to talk about it in every occasion in those meetings. I think the big thing we're working on right now that's got me really excited is we, as a company, are working on a brand purpose. What I get to do in my role is really figure out how we can fully integrate our sustainability vision and framework into our new brand purpose work. 

This means that in the future there won't be any difference between what we talk about when we say what we stand for as a brand, and what we talk about when we say our sustainability framework. It'll be one and the same. I think that truly means we'll have mainstreamed sustainability into our company in the highest level possible. So to me that's super exciting. 

Langert: I do remember us talking about you taking on this role, and I was like thinking that you couldn't deal with it, because you can't do both at once. And I'm so glad you still wanted it. So my question is  how is it going with this balancing act? Is it hard? How do you balance something you know global supply chain  most people will have that as their sole role. So how do you fit sustainability in? 

DeBiase: I think the most important thing is I have a really great team. In both supply chain and sustainability  you set up a great team in sustainability, which is doing really well.

If you just look at some of the things we accomplished in 2015, it will attest to the fact that the team has been doing a great job. We are continuing to make progress to achieve our vision of sourcing all of our food and packaging sustainable.

So we're on track to meet our 2020 goals for all five of our priority products in sourcing. That's beef, fish, coffee, palm oil and fiber. And in Planet, which to me was a newer area, obviously — so I hadn't had direct responsibility for [it] in the past  we are on track to meet our waste and recycling goals there.

With the work we've done just on those two pillars, I think that helped us be able to communicate bolder actions on climate change overall. So as you know, we were part of the White House American Business Act on Climate Pledge

And then … last year we also started to try to make more progress on areas that our customers care about. We had some pretty big announcements related to our commitments on chickens raised without antibiotics important to human health, on cage free eggs and our overall commitment to deforestation (PDF).

So a lot of progress has been made. And it's really because we've got great teams working on it. On the supply chain side, a lot of the foundation had already been built. It's just really how do we continue to evolve it and continue to show leadership.

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