03/21/2012 11:46 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

McDonald's says CEO Jim Skinner retiring, to be succeeded by Don Thompson, company's president

OAK BROOK, Ill. - McDonald's Corp. said Wednesday that Chief Executive Officer Jim Skinner will retire later this year, handing over the responsibility of running the world's largest burger chain to the company's president.

Skinner, who has been CEO since 2004, will step down on June 30 after 41 years with McDonald's. Donald Thompson, a 22-year McDonald's veteran who is responsible for global strategy and operations for its more than 33,000 McDonald's restaurants in 119 countries, will take over the helm the next day, the company said.

Thompson, who has long been considered among the top candidates in line to succeed Skinner, will be the first African American to head McDonald's since it was founded in 1955.

Andy McKenna, chairman of McDonald's board, said in a statement that Thompson's track record and experience "speak to his qualifications to further drive the company's momentum."

The challenge for Thompson, 48, will be to continue the momentum that Skinner, 67, started with the company.

Skinner was among the group of executives that designed the "Plan to Win," which was rolled out in 2003. The plan is credited with turning around the company, which had seen its stock drop after years of corporate expansion. Under the plan, the company scaled back on new stores openings, got rid of unprofitable businesses and expanded its menu items.

The chain has since been a standout in the fast-food industry. It has been able to post strong results despite a brutal U.S. economic downturn by keeping prices low with its popular "Dollar Menu" items, remodeling its stores and upgrading its menu with premium coffees and healthier alternatives like oatmeal and smoothies.

McDonald's global sales at stores open at least a year have gone up every month for more than eight years. Its stock price, now trading around $96, dwarves the sub-$13 it traded at in 2003, when" Plan to Win" was introduced.

McDonald's faces some big challenges going forward, though. One of them is the economic turmoil in Europe, which is McDonald's largest market by revenue.

Like other companies of all stripes, McDonald's also has been troubled by rising costs for its ingredients and labour. And because McDonald's has done so well for so long, it faces unusually intense pressure to post higher sales every month and higher numbers every quarter.