Former McDonald's CEO Charlie Bell Dies

McDonald's Corp. (MCD) said Charlie Bell (search), who worked his way up to become its charismatic chief executive last year, died Monday of cancer in his hometown of Sydney, Australia.

It was at a McDonald's restaurant in Sydney that Bell, whose personal motto was "Life is not a rehearsal," began his career with the chain at the age of 15.

Bell, 44, stepped down as the fast-food chain's chief executive in November to focus on his battle with cancer. Bell was diagnosed with cancer last May, only a month after ascending to the top job. He left the fast food giant in November, after several rounds of treatment.

"It is with great sadness that I pass on the news that our dear friend Charlie Bell passed away peacefully ... surrounded by his family," Guy Russo, McDonald's Australia Ltd. chief executive, said in a statement.

Bell is survived by his wife, Leonie, and daughter, Alex.

Bell was replaced as CEO by Jim Skinner (search), the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company's third CEO in a year. Bell was chosen to follow former chief James Cantalupo (search), who died of a heart attack in April 2004.

Early last month, Bell and his family returned to Sydney where he was continuing his cancer therapy. McDonald's spokesman Walt Riker declined to comment on whether Bell was in the hospital or at home. No funeral arrangements have yet been made, he said.

"Charlie Bell gave his all to McDonald's," said Andrew J. McKenna, chairman of the company's board. "Even during his hospitalization and chemotherapy, Charlie led this company with pride and determination."

The company's first non-American CEO, Bell had succeeded Cantalupo, who died suddenly of a heart attack after a little more than a year on the job. He was the company's first CEO to have worked behind the counter since Fred Turner, who retired in 1987.

During his nearly 30-year tenure with McDonald's, Bell introduced ideas such as McCafe, now the largest coffee shop brand in Australia and New Zealand.

A brash go-getter, Bell once told industry analysts that, like McDonald's founder Ray Kroc (search), he would ram a fire hose down any competitor's throat if he saw him drowning.

He was also known for being blunt, and once vowed not to let McDonald's get "fat, dumb and happy," saying the biggest threat to the company was complacency.

After beginning in 1976 as a part-timer at a McDonald's restaurant in Sydney's working-class suburb of Kingsford, Bell quickly rose through the ranks to become Australia's youngest store manager at age 19, a vice president at 27, and a member of McDonald's Australia's board of directors at 29.

From his earliest days with the company, the fast-talking Bell was known for telling his superiors how to run the business, friends and former colleagues have said.

After serving as head of the company's Australian business in the 1990s, Bell moved to the United States in 1999 to lead the company's operations in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Two years later, he became chief of McDonald's No. 2 market, Europe, where he was credited with fixing operations after the region was hurt by declining demand for beef following outbreaks of mad cow disease.

Considered Cantalupo's favorite, Bell became the company's president and chief operating officer in 2002 when Cantalupo was wooed out of retirement to take over the top job. At the time, Bell was a relative unknown to many at McDonald's Oak Brook, Ill. headquarters.

As Cantalupo's right-hand man, Bell was instrumental in implementing his predecessor's plan to revitalize sales at McDonald's flagship U.S. unit with new menu items like McGriddles breakfast sandwiches and entree-sized salads, improved service, and later restaurant hours.

Bell also oversaw the introduction of McDonald's popular "I'm Lovin' It" global advertising campaign, which has also been credited with helping reverse lagging sales.

"Charlie grew up with McDonald's," Fred Turner, the company's former chairman and CEO, said in a statement. "He always put the system first. His natural love of people, his energy and passion for life and the business were contagious to all who came in contact with him."

Concerns about Bell's worsening health surfaced when he was unable to travel to Athens for the Olympics, which McDonald's sponsored, in August. He was also absent from the company's second-quarter earnings conference call in October and a meeting of top managers in his native Sydney in November.

On a conference call with reporters shortly after taking over from Bell, Skinner said Bell had left the United States and was with his friends and family in Australia. He declined to comment on the condition of Bell's health.

McDonald's paid about $300,000 to fly Bell and his family back to Australia in a special medically equipped aircraft, the company said in a regulatory filing in December. McDonald's also agreed to buy Bell's U.S. home, ship the family's belongings to Australia, and cover any tax liability resulting from the arrangement.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.