Paul Willoughby: McDonald’s franchisee speaks at UNCP


Life is pretty good for a man like Paul Willoughby, who owns five thriving McDonald’s restaurants in the Triangle area.


It wasn’t always so, Willoughby told an audience of more than 100 students and faculty of the School of Business at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

A 1974 UNCP graduate, Willoughby spoke on October 18 at the Regional Center for Economic, Community and Professional Development at COMtech as part of the Distinguished Executive Speaker Series.

“My wife Pat was my biscuit maker for nine months at our first store,” Willoughby said. “I remember getting to bed around 4 a.m. one night and getting a call at 5 a.m. that the biscuit oven wasn’t working.”

From high school football coach to corporate executive, Willoughby worked his way up the McDonald’s food chain from grill man to CEO of PPR Foods in Chapel Hill, N.C.  He appeared with his wife Pat, a 1976 UNCP graduate and son Rex, a 2004 UNCP graduate.

“If you want to be home with your wife and children and live in that cozy cottage on the corner, this is not for you,” Willoughby said. “Success does not happen by accident. I still unload trucks.

“You have to have a passion for what you’re doing,” he said. “You’ll have to drive yourself, sometimes on very little sleep.”

After a successful run in coaching football that included a stop as head coach at Lumberton Senior High School, Willoughby had a less-than-successful four-year run in corporate life.

“After four years, my boss at WestPoint Pepperell – a guy who I learned so much from – called me in one day and fired me,” he said.

 That may have been the turning point in the young entrepreneur’s life.

“Thank God for those four years because I learned so much,” he said. “I never could have done what I do now if I hadn’t had that job.

“You take what you learn to the next level,” he said. “You young people probably don’t realize it, but it’s a growing experience.”

Willoughby took his bittersweet experience and his life savings to McDonald’s, where it has been happily ever after, almost.


Willoughby Family - From left: Rex Willoughby ’04, Kelli (Rex’s wife), Paul, Dr. Carmen Calabrese, director of UNCP’s MBA program, and Pat.

Without pay, he worked for most of a year at several restaurants and attended “Hamburger U” in Chicago, Ill., to gain experience, and then leased his first restaurant in Durham, N.C. It was a turnaround project of a corporate-owned restaurant.

“The store was not doing well, but we liked what we saw and decided to go forward,” Willoughby said. “When I wrote them a check, I had $800 left.”

It was long days, and Rex, who was two years old, slept on a desk until his daycare center opened.

“Pat and I used to ride together to our accountant’s office in case one of us fell asleep,” he said. “Things like this don’t happen by accident.”

Willoughby said McDonald’s restaurants sell for up to $3.4 million in today’s market, and his company is looking for additional acquisitions. He is a McDonald’s man through and through.

“I have been asked ‘why McDonald’s?’” he said. “I’m going to associate with the best, and I’m going to be the best, or I’m not going to do it.”

Willoughby advised students to go with their “passion” or don’t go.

“You’ve got to decide where you want to place your bets,” he said. “Quality is why McDonald’s is number one.”

Willoughby discussed franchising and raffled off some of his favorite motivational books, including “Grind it Out” by McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc.

For more information about UNCP’s Distinguished Executive Speaker Series, please contact Dr. Carmen Calabrese at 910.521.5712 or email