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Here's what activist investors want from McDonald's new CEO

McDonald's (MCD) new CEO Steve Easterbrook officially starts work in a week, and already investors want to know what his plans are to turn around the embattled fast food giant.

The press, former managers, investment firms, industry analysts and McDonald's customers all have ideas for how to "repair" the Golden Arches and get the shares out of their narrow band in the $90s. The company has its own thoughts, such as reworking the kitchens, remodeling restaurants, customizing burgers, simplifying the menu and improving service times. Not surprisingly, big shareholders have some suggestions, as well. These tend to be less about the Big Macs and more of the type Wall Street really likes: Bringing in new directors, parting ways with restaurants and selling real estate.

Activism-inclined investors may well press for any or all of these. That doesn't mean any of them actually happen, but these concepts have been in the discussion lately and are all but certain to remain in it. Only recently, a hedge fund said it had purchased shares and was offering recommendations on what the company needs. Another large investor group said the board is the place to start. Recent regulatory filings indicate that several firms known for agitation, including Southeastern Asset Management, have been adding to their holdings.

Easterbrook, who is taking over for Don Thompson, will hear from these voices, and not entirely about the fries. So in advance of his first day, here's a summary of three notable activist options. (And maybe they'll want to talk about the fries, too.)

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--The CEO change was fine. Now maybe new directors? Easterbrook will be joining the board, and Margo Georgiadis of Google (GOOGL) also was recently appointed. However, some investors are of the mind that a new vision is required. CtW Investment Group, an adviser to pension funds invested in McDonald's, says it's time for "a robust refreshment of the board's membership and leadership" in order to deal with "long-term challenges that require a more systemic solution."

CtW says it's worried about the long term -- and that it's worried the wrong kind of influencers are going to make noise. "With speculation that activist hedge funds may exert pressure to pursue short-term financial engineering, it is vital that this rejuvenation takes place in dialogue with long-term shareholders and with the assistance of an outside recruitment firm."

--And speaking of financial engineering, why not spin off that real estate? This has been brought up in previous years. Recently, the idea arose anew with rumors, now known to be incorrect, that former shareholder Bill Ackman had bought into McDonald's again. Glenview Capital, a McDonald's shareholder, talked about it this month, with details in The Wall Street Journal.

Bankers who support such moves argue that separating real estate is a smart way to increase the value of the corporate components. With McDonald's, at least one analyst has offered skeptical comments about whether this could work, and it's dificult to see the company agreeing to it anytime soon. A few numbers to know: McDonald's owned about 45% of the land and 70% of the buildings for its restaurants at the end of 2013. The net value of its property and equipment was $25.7 billion. That same year, revenue was $28.1 billion. Of that, rent accounted for $6.1 billion.

--Franchise even more. Maybe a lot more. McDonald's has 36,000 stores, and it opens hundreds more every year. About 81% already are operated by franchisees. In the U.S., it's around 90%. Last year it did mention transferring some 1,500 of its currently owned stores, mainly overseas, to franchise operators. But is that enough?

Clearly, McDonald's is a giant franchising operation today, although it firmly stands by store ownership. From the 10-K: "We view ourselves primarily as a franchisor and believe franchising is important to both delivering great, locally-relevant customer experiences and driving profitability. However, directly operating restaurants is paramount to being a credible franchisor and is essential to providing Company personnel with restaurant operations experience." Fair enough. It still might be asked to pick up the pace, and the WSJ's article on Glenview did address the possibility.

Activist action

And who might be calling Oak Brook, Ill., this year? The names here are worth knowing, as they're rated "very high" or "high" for activism on the FactSet SharkWatch list. Institutions do have a few weeks after a quarter ends to report their holdings, so the caveat is these numbers are actually fairly old, representing McDonald's ownership as of Dec. 31, and should be a guide only (and they don't cover every activist).

--Southeastern Asset Management, which held 11.9 million shares, added 4.7 million shares in the fourth quarter after initiating its position in the third quarter. Southeastern made headlines a couple of years ago when it opposed the buyout of Dell.

--Citadel Advisors, a long-time shareholder, added almost 973,000 shares in the quarter, for a total of 2.3 million, the most it's owned in almost two years.

--Millennium Management bought 1.8 million shares, boosting its total to 2.6 million. It has held shares for more than a decade, but this was its biggest addition in one quarter.

--Highfields Capital bought 518,508 shares, for a total of 768,508 shares. Only two quarters before, it had sold 1.7 million shares, leaving it with 250,000. It's started rebuilding.

--First Eagle Investment Management bought more than 5.8 million shares last year, including 337,966 in the fourth quarter. Prior to its buys, it had only 51,000 shares, a number that hadn't changed since 2011.

--Not every firm bought: Jana Partners, which got considerable coverage last year when it built its position, has sold all 842,268 shares it had owned. Corvex Management joined Jana in dropping out, selling its 200,000 shares.

--CalPERS sold a few shares -- 162,160 -- but it still owns 2.7 million shares.

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