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Beyond Big Macs

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In 1970 he began helping minority small-business owners develop business plans, secure sources of financing, and identify opportunities through the NEDA (National Economic Development Association) in Phoenix. A year later, he joined what was then called the Southwest Council of La Raza, which eventually became the National Council of La Raza. In his eight years with the organization, Mr. Lopez founded and ran Southwest Investors Inc., a minority small-business investment company.

"We started financing Latino businesses all over the country. As a result of that, I financed some people in McDonald's, and that opened my eyes," he says. "I realized I had all the attributes that McDonald's was looking for, and I realized that my real goal in life was to become an entrepreneur."

In 1978, Mr. Lopez and his family pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, where he opened his first McDonald's franchise. By 1992, Mr. Lopez had four family-run restaurants, with annual sales of about $8 million and 175 employees. His passion for business turned into a passion for the McDonald's corporate philosophy, and he became involved in the company's leadership programs.

"In that realm I was introduced to McDonald's head people the president, chairman, marketing people, supply people," he says. "I think my passion showed."

That led to the day in 1990 when McDonald's came to him with a life-changing opportunity.

"Because of his excellent reputation in our business, he was very much sought out by McDonald's to become a supplier," says John Hayes of Oakbrook, Illinois, senior director of the company's U.S. supply chain. "John [Lopez] really rose to the occasion. He threw himself into that role 100 percent. At first he said no, that he wasn't interested, but it's very much like John to get excited about a new challenge, and in essence walk away from a very successful business and take on something entirely new. He needs challenges."

After all the papers were signed and the finances settled, Mr. Lopez once again moved his family, this time to Oklahoma City, where he took over Normac Foods. The plant, whose primary function was manufacturing beef patties for McDonald's, had been built in 1971 and operated as a subsidiary of Wilson Foods before being sold and renamed Normac Foods in 1989. Wanting to preserve the corporate character of the company that had supplied them for so long, McDonald's went looking for someone to take over who shared the company's ideals.

"They needed to get someone in there to carry it on into the 21st century," Mr. Lopez says. "In this case, McDonald's wanted to bring a Latino into their supply chain. That was when they approached me."

The company, renamed Lopez Foods in 1995, grew steadily. First-year sales in 1992 were just under $143 million. By 2000, sales were just over $173 million. Then the company took off. In 2001, a year in which many companies were struggling, Lopez Foods posted sales of more than $347 million. (Lopez Foods was ranked 13th on this year's Hispanic Business 500 list on the basis of tentative 2001 revenues of $342 million.) The company, which employs about 300 people, recently expanded plant capacity in Oklahoma City by 28 percent to 180,000 square feet.

Mr. Lopez says expansion and diversification have enabled the company to prosper in hard economic times. As McDonald's sales cooled in the new century, Lopez Foods sought new clients.

"Our goal for the first five years was to solidify our company. Although we were very happy with McDonald's, and still are, we wanted to diversify. We knew we had to go out and get some additional customers," he says. "That's where the Wal-Mart Supercenters come in. They have very positive feelings toward the Latino community. They know who their customers are and they respect them."

With the new business, Lopez Foods added a new 500,000-square-foot plant, Carneco Foods in Columbus, Nebraska, which is run through a partnership with IBP, one of the world's largest producers of beef and pork. Lopez Foods has also started operating a plant in Guatemala City.

"I think McDonald's played a role in helping him think bigger than he had been at the time," says Mr. Hayes. "But John's a self-made man. He started with little and has made much, and it's not because of McDonald's or because of anyone other than John."

"We have given him some opportunities, but it was John who reached out and grabbed them and did more with them than the original opportunity seemed to offer."

Despite his success, Mr. Lopez hasn't forgotten the movimiento. Just as he did in Phoenix and Los Angeles, he continues to help and inspire Hispanics in Oklahoma City.

Ernie Gomez, fund development director for the Latino Community Development Agency in Oklahoma City, says Mr. Lopez has given the city's relatively small Hispanic population, especially its business owners, a say in local affairs.

"He is always willing to be a voice and be there for Hispanic business owners. He hasn't forgotten them," Mr. Gomez says. "He's always had a hand behind him reaching back to help others."

2002 EOY Finalists -- "Elite Company"


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