Ray Kroc was a magnificent businessman. As a milkshake machine salesman in 1955, he saw in the McDonald brothers' San Bernardino restaurant the seeds for something much greater - greater than the brothers could ever imagine and even greater than his ambitions for coast to coast expansion. Through bloody-minded perseverance, the quinquagenarian Kroc finally started to live up to the superhuman ambitions he had for himself.
Without the McDonald brothers there would be no McDonald's. Their unique assembly line approach made food fast. But without Kroc those golden arches wouldn't grace the world's highways and byways. He drove through the automation and standardisation that makes the franchise model such a success. And, crucially, he invested in people, specifically franchisees who shared his passion and drive. Fred Turner, who went on to become head of McDonald's, started off flipping burgers in Kroc's first restaurant, and Hamburger University - the 130,000-square-foot training facility in Oak Brook, Illinois - is testament to the company's commitment to training. In his own words: "None of us is as good as all of us."
Though he wasn't born a McDonald, Kroc eventually owned the name - not just figuratively. He bought the brothers out for $2.7m after an increasingly fractious relationship and then built a McDonald's right next to the original restaurant to drive it out of business. Michael Keaton's portrayal of him in The Founder will leave many people with a nasty taste in their mouth. A taste that Kroc might well wash out with a hose. "If any of my competitors were drowning, I'd put a hose in their mouth and turn on the water," says Keaton in particularly powerful scene.
Kroc's business acumen is beyond question, but the film's tension lies in the audience's judgement of the man. It's not easily done as there are different ways of thinking about right and wrong. Virtue ethicists and deontologists will weigh up Kroc's actions - particularly contrasting the way unpleasant ways he appears to have treated his first wife and the McDonald brothers with his largely fair treatment of employees and franchisees. That's no easy balancing act.
Utilitarians might take a couple steps back, judging Kroc on whether his actions resulted in greater happiness for a greater number. But that's not a straightforward calculation either. Hundreds of thousands of employees have benefited from Kroc's expansion of McDonald's. Of course, without McDonald's many of these people would be working elsewhere, but at the margin it would be hard to deny that the company trains and employees people who would otherwise be in lesser jobs or unemployed.
Nutritionists might counter that McDonald's and the spread of fastfood in general has resulted in obesity and health problems that outweigh the benefits of employment, but it doesn't have to stop there. When the economic writer Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame suggested that the McDonald's McDouble cheeseburger might be "the cheapest, most nutritious and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history" he caused a backlash from many who instinctively dislike the company. But Dubner and others have a point - compared to viable alternatives, McDonald's gives poor people satisfactory nutrition at a good price.
Kroc probably would have found all this pretentious and unnecessary. He was a man of his generation with an ambition beyond the empathy of most. For better or worse, men (and it was mostly men) like Kroc made the world we live in. Anecdotally, the new generation of entrepreneurs appears to be more conflicted by these meta questions of the impact of what they do, but how many of them actually do more good in this world than Kroc is a matter for healthy debate.
The Founder is out in UK cinemas 17 February.
Philip Salter, Founder, The Entrepreneurs Network: http://tenentrepreneurs.org/Suggest a correction