Beyond Fast Food By Jasmine Ako and Photo Provided by IW Group
How Victor Lim, one of McDonald’s most successful franchise owners, makes an impact beyond his restaurants
As a fresh-faced business student attending the University of Hawai’i in 1973, Victor Lim was on the hunt for a job. A number of companies turned him down, telling him to come back later due to his full-time MBA course load.
Undeterred, Lim continued to interview in search of the right opportunity. One company, which also happens to be one of the world’s most recognizable brands, recognized his entrepreneurial potential and offered him a management trainee position: McDonald’s.
“McDonald’s said, ‘We’ll take you now; we’ll work around your school schedule,” remembers Lim. “I thought that was nuts! No one in their right mind would give a career job to a full-time student, but [due to] the fact that McDonald’s was willing to gamble with me, I thought that I should join them.”
Four decades later, Lim is now one of McDonald’s most decorated employees and also a respected figure in the restaurant industry. After starting out as a manager in training, he eventually rose to lead Asia-Pacific operations for McDonald’s. In 1987, he bought the restaurant where he had initially started his career and found his niche as a franchise owner, a position he still holds today.
Lim recently received the Al Golin Brand Trust Award, which is awarded to one franchisee owner of 2,500 across the country. In addition to currently running six McDonald’s restaurants in Hawai’i, Lim serves as a franchisee representative, co-chairs government relations work for McDonald’s USA, and serves on its national leadership council.
Pursuing the Dream
A first-generation Asian American, who was born in Burma (now Myanmar) and grew up in Thailand, Lim immigrated with his family to the U.S. in order to attend college.
“We were really in pursuit of the American dream,” reflects Lim. “We knew how hard it was, and we knew the opportunities were abound here if you were willing to pursue them.”
Lim is quick to point out that while many opportunities lay before him as a young student in a new country, it was essential for him to seize those opportunities through perseverance.
“It’s good to have lofty dreams, but most people do not expend enough energy to pursue them, then they wonder why they don’t get it,” he says. “To me, you’ve got to equate efforts and dedication to the goals that you have for yourself.”
Prior to landing his job at McDonald’s, Lim held a variety of different jobs to pay his way through college, including stints repairing cars as a mechanic, performing yard work for people’s homes and working as a bus boy in Waikiki. His determination and willingness to take on unglamorous work in order to make ends meet were traits that would help him throughout his career.
“I’m a perfect example that it can happen to you if you expend the energy,” says Lim.
The Importance of Ownership
Besides having a strong work ethic, he says feeling ownership was crucial to his approach to work and running his restaurants.
In terms of whether ownership can be cultivated or taught, Lim believes it is a combination of both. Besides gaining diverse work experiences before he started at McDonald’s, Lim was also influenced by a member of his own family.
“I was very fortunate that I had great role models growing up, starting with my grandfather, who up to today, I will say is my hero,” says Lim. “He immigrated from China to Burma with nothing, yet was able to start his own business and be really successful not only in the business world, but also with his family. It is a very, very balanced thing.”
Treating Employees as Family
Having a sense of ownership caused Lim to feel the weight of responsibility when he first started as a franchise owner.
“Even though I had 14 years plus of experience with McDonald’s corporate and opening restaurants all over the world, I was really scared because now the responsibility was all on me,” says Lim of when he first started his franchise business.
This concept of ownership largely influenced his selfless, giving approach to management. Lim identified a direct relationship between the success of his business and the well-being of his own employees. If his employees were happy, his businesses could only thrive.
“I try to make sure that my staff are like my family, because I’m responsible for their livelihood and their extended families,” says Lim.
With this supportive and flexible environment, his employees also began to feel ownership in their positions. Many of Lim’s employees have worked with him for years. Lim cites the two people closest to him, his operations manager and administrative assistant, as examples.
“The beautiful part about both of these people is that whenever they talk to the rest of our staff or to outside people, they take the position that it’s their company,” says Lim. “So even though I’m not here all the time with all my travels, I can sleep well knowing that somebody is going to make the right decision.”
Investing in the Community
Besides viewing his own employees as family, Lim also acknowledges the importance of getting to know his customers.
“You learn from everybody in life, especially in our business,” explains Lim. “At McDonald’s, where it’s a service business, you have to be able to deal with all walks of life, because your customer base comes from all walks of life.”
On the weekends, one of his favorite activities is to drive and visit each of his restaurants, chat with the customers and get a feel for what’s happening in the community. In doing so, he gets acquainted with his customers on a personal level and also feels the pulse of the community.
“The more you invest in the community, the more your customers will come and reward you,” advises Lim.
Lim’s impact spreads beyond the doors of his restaurants and serving his customers. A recognized leader in the Asian American community, Lim was formerly the president of the Hawai’i chapter of OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates (formerly known as the Organization of Chinese Americans), where he helped to raise money to fund the OCA National Center in Washington D.C.
Using his knack for rallying people combined with his infectious energy, Lim galvanized the community during a time of need. After a devastating cyclone hit Myanmar in 2008, Lim rallied the top restaurant leaders in Hawai’i to organize a gala event that ultimately raised $100,000 toward the relief effort in just over two weeks.
“I don’t think the California or D.C. community came close to what we did,” Lim reflects proudly.
Still Lovin’ It
Today, Lim enjoys the thought of molding the next generation –two of his children have followed in his footsteps and currently work for McDonald’s – as well as teaching, as he enjoys guest lecturing at the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific University.
However, retirement is not in his near future. Forty years after his lucky start at McDonald’s, to quote the fast food chain’s infamous tagline, Lim is still “lovin’ it” and remains refreshingly exuberant about his work.
“Because of what I do, I enjoy what I do, and I’m having so much fun.”