Four women on building successful businesses with McDonald’s.
Written by Rosalind Fournier
Photography by Billy Brown
Of the 102 stores in the McDonald’s of Central Alabama Co-op, 21 are owned by women. Four of these are owner/operators—women who have put themselves through the rigorous training process, made substantial investments of both time and money, and dedicate themselves 24/7 to managing the day-to-day operations of a demanding, competitive business. They have several things in common, including a dedication to their employees and a passion for giving back to the communities they serve. But each of the four women profiled brings a unique background, motivation, and set of life and career experiences to the job.
The first female Latina owner of a McDonald’s in the Birmingham area, Lorraine DeGonzague started her career with the company in 1983. Originally from San Antonio, Texas, she moved to Columbus, Georgia, as a 19-year-old Red Cross volunteer to help at Martin Army Community Hospital in Fort Benning. It was DeGonzague’s sister who suggested they both go apply for paying jobs at McDonald’s. “I got the job, and she didn’t,” DeGonzague says with a laugh. “But she was hired two weeks later.”
After only six months, her manager recognized DeGonzague’s work ethic and offered her a position as crew trainer to help new employees coming in. Not long after, she met her future husband, Barry DeGonzague, by chance when he entered the restaurant one Fourth of July weekend. He later came to join her in working at McDonald’s, and two years later, they were married. Their next step helped solidify what has become a successful, lifelong career with McDonald’s. The couple both took jobs in LaGrange, Georgia, working for a franchisee who had five restaurants there. Barry was made head supervisor for all five while Lorraine was in charge of the stores’ training departments. They ultimately spent 20 years in LaGrange, raising their three children there.
Then, about 11 years ago, McDonald’s Corporation approved them to become owner/operators on their own. The DeGonzagues purchased two stores in the Birmingham/Fultondale area, followed later by two more in Jasper. (Two restaurants are in Barry’s name, and two in Lorraine’s.) One of DeGonzague’s favorite aspects of the business is the ability to give employees the same opportunities she’s had by teaching them everything she’s learned. “I tell my husband [that] a million-dollar mind isn’t worth anything if you can’t teach somebody what you know,” she says.
As a Latina herself, she’s particularly proud of the other Latina women she’s mentored in their Fultondale restaurant. “These ladies have been here for about nine years,” she explains. “At first, they didn’t know any English. Now five are managers, and I’m very proud of them.” She says she can’t imagine being an absentee owner, because she loves the daily interaction with her employees and customers—a community spirit she’s tried to instill in her children, two of whom (daughter Stephanie and son Zack) now help run the business. “If you’re not there getting to know the people you work with and the community around you, you miss out,” she says. “I’ve always loved meeting people, and to this day, I still do.”
For Merry Neisler, who with her husband, David, operates a total of nine McDonald’s throughout Central Alabama (the first four owned in her name), it’s easy to pinpoint the source of her strong worth ethic: the farm where she grew up in Scriven County, Georgia. “Dad always said he could pay a child to do farm labor as well as he could pay someone else,” Neisler remembers. “I’m the youngest of six, and we all grew up baling hay, driving tractors, and just working hard.”
She met David in college, and they married in 1984. David was in sales, and “with each promotion he got, it typically meant a move for our family,” Neisler recalls. For a family with four young children, it was tough. Eventually, while living in Orlando, Florida, they met a couple who owned two McDonald’s and were intrigued. “David and I wanted to do something together, and we wanted to be our own bosses,” she explains.
Once their youngest child was in kindergarten, Neisler began training with McDonald’s, working her way up from dishwasher to manager. In 2003, the corporation approved her to become an owner/operator, and the family moved to Jacksonville, Alabama, where Neisler bought her first McDonald’s, along with a second in nearby Piedmont. In 2006, she bought two more, in Roanoke, Alabama, and Ashland, Alabama. Though these restaurants were in Neisler’s name, she and David were working side-by-side in the business, and the next five they purchased—including a brand-new one they built Heflin, Alabama—are owned in David’s.
The Neislers have come a long way from their early days as McDonald’s franchisees, when “Call Merry and David” was the only contingency plan when problems cropped up. “If an overnight person didn’t show up that first year, we went and worked an overnight shift,” Neisler recalls. “If the maintenance man wasn’t there to unload a delivery truck, we got the call. So your success depends on how much you’re willing to put into it. You stay involved, and that has been our secret.”
Neisler believes they’ve also thrived because of their small-town locales. “We would not trade that for the world,” she says. “It has provided a great opportunity to get to know people on a personal basis. McDonald’s sells hamburgers, but I truly believe we are very much a people business dedicated to building relationships. And small towns have given us that awesome opportunity.”
Growing up, Ashley Kaple knew her parents had the best job on earth: Her dad, Charles Spann, was owner/operator of the first McDonald’s in Oneonta, Alabama. “I thought my parents were so cool, because they worked at McDonald’s,” she remembers. “As a kid, you can’t beat a McDonald’s Happy Meal, getting the toy and playing on the Playland.” Kaple was happy to help out from an early age, working her way up to bona-fide wage earner.
She later graduated from Samford University and considered going into medicine before deciding her heart was really in the family business. At 24, she completed the intensive interview process McDonald’s requires to make sure prospective owners are up to the task of meeting corporate standards and turning a healthy profit. Kaple’s parents by then owned eight restaurants, and she bought into them all. She’s since purchased four more and built a fifth from the ground up—making her the owner/operator of 13 stores today, still shy of her 35th birthday.
Married to Trevor Kaple, an endodontist in Birmingham, where they live, she also has three children under the age of five. It’s a juggling act. If getting it all done means returning to the restaurants at night to check on things and tie up loose ends, she does it. “I believe whatever your passion is, you should go after it as hard as you can,” says Kaple, who also serves on the McDonald’s Regional Operations Leadership Team. “People ask how I manage, and I joke, ‘I drink coffee and pray a lot.’”
She also credits her strong team, as well as her dad, who is her greatest mentor. “We’re always talking about how we can run the stores better, get more involved in the community, and take care of our people behind the counter as well as the customers.”
Another of Kaple’s passions is serving on the board of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which provides families a place to stay while their children undergo treatment at local hospitals. Aside from her professional involvement, her family brings care packages to families staying in the house over the holidays. “I want to teach my kids the importance of thinking about others first, and they feel good about doing it,” she says.
Kaple says her biggest challenge is the same that many parents face—giving her all to her family as well as her business. But she adds that if there’s anything different about her story, it’s that she grew up learning from her parents and fell in love with the brand at an early age. “Working to make my grill team faster and happier, wowing our customers, building a community…all of those things are attractive to me, because it’s always challenging,” she says. “It really is a perfect fit.”
Content Hamilton started dating her future husband, Rusty, when they were 16, and he was already a die-hard McDonald’s enthusiast. “His first job was at McDonald’s in Talladega, where we both grew up,” Hamilton explains. “He went all the way through high school working with McDonald’s, and after we got married, he said, ‘One day, we’re going to own one of these.’”
True to his word, Rusty worked his way up to supervisor of several locations in the Talladega area until both of them seized an opportunity to enter into a partnership in 2000 with a franchisee who had several McDonald’s in Augusta, Georgia. Eventually, Rusty became approved as an owner/operator himself, and in 2007, the couple purchased two restaurants of their own in Gadsden, Alabama, and Lincoln, Alabama. Hamilton quickly started the approval process to become an official owner/operator as well, and three years ago, they built a new McDonald’s in Attala, Alabama.
To call theirs a family business is an understatement. Not only do the Hamiltons work together as hands-on partners—working in the office as well as interacting with customers every day—but their oldest son, Andrew, 26, changed course after earning his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, coming back instead to pursue becoming a McDonald’s owner himself. In the meantime, he has already bought into partnership with his parents and currently works as supervisor at their stores. “Everybody knows us through McDonald’s,” Hamilton says. “It’s being part of the community. Everybody knows us; they call us McMom and McDad. That has a way of holding you accountable to provide the best service you can.”
Meanwhile, Andrew’s dedication helps demonstrate what the couple already knew—that working with McDonald’s can be a lifelong opportunity. “A lot of people only think of it as, ‘I’m going to go work at McDonald’s while I’m in school, or as a part-time job, or a get-me-by job,’” says Hamilton, who was awarded the McDonald’s Brand Ambassador Award in 2005, Person of the Year Award for Employees in 2011, and Profit Award in 2009. “A lot of people don’t realize it can also be a lifetime career opportunity. You can take McDonald’s and go anywhere you want with it. We got married at 19 without a dime to our name, and we built this business because it’s what we wanted to do. And we hope to keep growing.”