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McDonald’s Holdings Co. (Japan) said Thursday it returned to profit in 2004 for the first time in three years.

The hamburger chain said its refurbished stores and revamped menu successfully lured back customers.

It forecasts net profit will grow 41 percent this year due to an expected increase in customers after offering longer business hours and speedy service.

The company also said Pat Donahue will step down as chairman and Eiko Harada, president and chief executive officer, will take on the role in addition to his current positions.

McDonald’s Japan posted 3.68 billion yen in net profit in 2004, against a 7.12 billion yen net loss a year earlier. Sales rose 2.8 percent to 308.08 billion yen.

Sales at outlets open at least 13 months rose 3.3 percent, the first full-year positive growth since 1996.

After posting its first loss in nearly 30 years in 2002, the chain had been struggling to reverse its flagging sales.

2004 was the first full-year result under the leadership of Harada, former head of Apple Japan Inc. who assumed the top post a year ago.

He has been trying to rejuvenate the chain by stressing basics, including quality and service.

One of the chain’s main strategies in luring back customers is to focus on revamping old stores, a shift from aggressive store openings.

During 2004, the chain refurbished 1,946 outlets and closed 40. As the result, a net store growth came to only one store, bringing the tally to 3,774.

Harada said the chain will continue to focus on existing eateries this year before resuming active store openings from 2006.

Harada said the chain would also open its most of its outlets at 6:30 a.m.

Donahue told a news conference that his role as chairman is “nearing completion” as he had seen through the successful installation of new leadership.

Last year marked the end of one chapter in the firm’s history. In April, Den Fujita, the charismatic founder of McDonald’s franchise in Japan, died at age 78.

Fujita, who opened the chain’s first outlet in Tokyo in 1971, made the hamburger restaurant business one of the biggest success stories in postwar Japan. Thank’s to its success, McDonald’s Japan had been enjoying relative independence from its U.S. parent.

But Fujita’s legendary business acumen waned during his last years at the helm. In 2002, the company tried a cut-rate price strategy that quickly lost its luster. It then struggled to lure back customers.

Fujita stepped down as chairman in 2003, making way for Donahue in a move seen as the U.S. parent tightening its leash. Under the new boss, the chain severed its ties with the past, ending a “management service agreement” with Fujita & Co.

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