MCDONALD’S: Toledo Franchise Owner Leaves an Inspiring Legacy

I never met James Cobham, Jr., or even heard of him until today. I imagine you didn’t, either.  mcdonalds_164x82

Too bad for us.

According to his obituary in the Toledo Blade, James Cobham, Jr., 65, was a successful McDonald’s franchise owner who died this past Sunday.  I found it striking that Cobham’s family and friends did not focus on his financial success or his accomplishments as one of the early black McDonald’s franchise owners.  Instead, they recounted James Cobham’s passion for enriching the lives of those who worked for him:

“He always treated people with dignity,” said his wife, Barbara, the firm’s bookkeeper. “That love was like a bond, and [employees] were willing to do their very best.”

He inspired loyalty because he was loyal to employees, said Glenn E. Johnson, who was 15 in 1976 when he went to work at a restaurant Mr. Cobham managed in St. Louis. When Mr. Cobham bought a Toledo McDonald’s franchise in 1984, Mr. Johnson came too as an assistant manager.

Mr. Cobham’s protege became a manager and eventually owned five McDonald’s in Toledo.

“He inspired you. He allowed me to operate his business as if it was my own, which allowed me the opportunity to have the experience,” Mr. Johnson said. “He had a real sense of wanting to help people and seeing people prosper.”

Mr. Cobham had that sense from a young age. He told The Blade in 1991 that all he could do growing up black in segregated Savannah, Ga., was deliver newspapers and cut yards.

“I always hoped for the day where I would be able to give jobs to people,” Mr. Cobham said then.

The eldest of seven, he went to Knoxville College and received a bachelor’s degree from the District of Columbia Teachers College. His first McDonald’s job, part time, was in Washington. He climbed the managerial ladder in Chicago and St. Louis.

Mr. Cobham of West Toledo was a former treasurer of the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association. He was on the boards of Toledo area charitable and community organizations, including as a founding board member of the Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union and the then-Northwest Ohio Black Chamber of Commerce.

In 1993, the City League Hall of Fame inducted him as a distinguished citizen. In 1995, the Business Owners and Professionals Club of Toledo honored him for being the largest Toledo employer of inner-city youth.

Some business owners see their mission as flipping burgers or creating profit & loss statements;  others, like James Cobham, Jr., recognize that they’ve got the opportunity – and responsibility – to change the world.

My condolences to his widow, Barbara, who mourns the loss of her husband and her 38-year old son in the same month.  At least she knows that her husband’s memory and spirit lives on in the hundreds, if not thousands, of lives that he touched.

James Cobham, Jr. clearly shared Martin Luther King’s streetsweeper philosophy, and elevated franchise ownership to its full potential.

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