Charlie Bell, who died eight weeks after stepping down as McDonald's chief executive, was remembered yesterday for his key role in the fast-food chain's resurgence and his push...

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CHICAGO — Charlie Bell, who died eight weeks after stepping down as McDonald’s chief executive, was remembered yesterday for his key role in the fast-food chain’s resurgence and his push to give it an edgier brand image.

Bell’s seven-month stint as CEO last year was cut short by his battle against colorectal cancer, which ended early yesterday with his death at age 44 in his native Sydney, Australia.

Besides Bell being the company’s first non-American CEO, analysts say his legacy will be the turnaround strategy he helped put in place in 2003 as president and chief operating officer under Jim Cantalupo. The strategy remains in place today.

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New restaurant openings were cut back, and McDonald’s overhauled its U.S. restaurant operations. Sales climbed through a combination of menu changes, service improvements, extended hours and building renovations.

Bell also oversaw the acclaimed “I’m lovin’ it” global marketing campaign, drawing on his experience running McDonald’s operations in Australia, Asia and Europe to insist on hipper, more relevant ads that have resonated with young adults.

At the same time, the company moved to promote more healthful food options such as new salads, bottled water, low-fat milk and fruit slices with Happy Meals.

A timeline of McDonald’s recent CEO changes

December 2002: Jack Greenberg retires after four years as chairman and CEO as the company struggles to emerge from a deep, two-year slump.

January 2003:
Jim Cantalupo, a former McDonald’s president who retired in 2002, returns to take over as CEO in a management shakeup after the fast-food giant struggled through two-plus years of sagging U.S. sales and reported its first-ever quarterly loss, for the last three months of 2002.

April 19, 2004: Cantalupo dies of an apparent heart attack while in Orlando, Fla., where McDonald’s was holding its international franchisees’ convention. Charlie Bell, McDonald’s president and chief operating officer, is named to replace Cantalupo.

May 5, 2004: Company announces Bell has colorectal cancer and has undergone surgery. McDonald’s says Bell was unaware of the cancer when he was named CEO.

July 15, 2004: Bell announces new titles and expanded responsibilities for four top managers, including Jim Skinner and Mike Roberts. The announcement marked his first major executive moves since taking over as CEO.

Aug. 20, 2004:
Bell undergoes a second procedure to correct blockage caused by scar tissue.

Sept. 28, 2004: Bell returns to hospital for additional treatment.

Nov. 22, 2004: Bell steps down and is replaced by Skinner as CEO and Roberts as president.

Jan. 17, 2005: Bell dies at age 44 in Sydney, Australia.

Irwin Kruger, a franchisee for 36 years who has known all seven McDonald’s CEOs, said Bell had an unusually strong sense of restaurant operations coupled with a flair for marketing. He called him a driving force in the decision to pin the company’s hopes on increasing then-stagnant U.S. sales.

“He wasn’t afraid to take chances,” said Kruger, who owns seven McDonald’s in New York City. “Scaling back growth was a very bold move. All the predecessors before him had bet heavily that the way for McDonald’s to be more successful was by adding more outlets.”

Bell’s outspoken salesmanship was unusual for a McDonald’s CEO in recent years and more akin to that of Dave Thomas at Wendy’s International, still a force three years after his death.

Bell’s immediate predecessors were two accountants — Cantalupo and Jack Greenberg — and another CEO, Michael Quinlan, who shunned publicity.

Kruger said the gregarious, straight-talking Australian loved the limelight and captivated audiences and restaurant crews alike.

Bell began with McDonald’s as a part-time restaurant worker at age 15 in the working-class Sydney suburb of Kingsford and became Australia’s youngest store manager at 19. In 1993, he introduced the idea for the McCafe coffee shop in Australia, which McDonald’s exported elsewhere.

After rising through the ranks, he was promoted to the top job April 19 following Cantalupo’s death from a heart attack. Within days, he was diagnosed with cancer. He resigned Nov. 22, succeeded as CEO by Jim Skinner.

The Australian, a Sydney newspaper, praised Bell in an editorial today for an inspirational career and “great Australian achievement” in becoming one of only a handful of people from that country to run a top U.S. corporation.

“He was the sort of bloke who would probably have succeeded whatever he chose, not from any innate ability, but because he was willing to work, and work hard, and was prepared to persevere,” the newspaper said. “In the world of work, an accurate epitaph for Charlie Bell is that he was game to have a go — and for any Australian there are few greater compliments.”