TORONTO — Wallace McCain, the mogul and philanthropist who helped turn a small New Brunswick french fry plant into the McCain Foods multibillion-dollar frozen foods empire and later went on to control meat processor Maple Leaf Foods, has died. He was 81.
McCain, co-founder of McCain Foods and chairman of Maple Leaf Foods, died Friday night in Toronto after a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
The death was announced by the board of directors of Maple Leaf Foods on Saturday.
“Wallace made an indelible impact on Maple Leaf Foods, our country and the food industry globally,” said Purdy Crawford, lead director of the board of directors.
McCain’s closest friends described him as a spry and charismatic man whose generosity matched his ambition, and whose zest for life never dimmed.
“Wallace has been my best friend almost all my adult life,” said former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, deputy chairman of TD Bank Group.
“He was 80 going on 60. He kept himself in superb shape — he had the heart of a 40-year-old,” said McKenna, adding McCain loved to ski, boat and jet ski.
“He’s fun to be with, he was full of life, he just lived life right to the maximum. He was just a wonderful person to be around.”
Gordon Ritchie, who grew close to McCain after joining Maple Leaf’s board, called him a warm and gracious friend who knew how to throw a party and went out of his way to make everyone feel welcome.
“You don’t achieve what he achieved without being a very incisive and clear-headed and tough-minded businessman, but as a person, he was just the most charming man you could ever meet,” he said Saturday.
Industrialist James Irving, whose family businesses competed with McCain’s enterprises on more than one front in Atlantic Canada, said he was “truly saddened” by McCain’s death.
“Our relationship goes back a great number of years and I have many wonderful memories.”
The secret to McCain’s corporate success? Always look forward.
“No matter how good (brother) Harrison and I, and our people, were in our day, it should never be the same,” Wallace McCain once said. “Great companies renew themselves.”
McCain and Harrison founded the New Brunswick-based McCain Foods Ltd. in 1956, building it into one of the globe’s largest frozen food companies which now operates in 44 countries and produces more frozen french fries than any other company in the world.
The two were following in the steps of their father, who owned a seed potato exporting business in their hometown of Florenceville, N.B. They hired 30 employees at their new plant and sold $152,000 worth of fries in their first year.
But as consumers craved the convenience of prepared foods, the company grew into more than small potatoes — expanding into the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States in less than 15 years.
Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, McCain snapped up European and American businesses, expanding into the frozen pizza, vegetable and fish processing markets, and juice business, and ramping up its number of plants around the world.
But in 1994, McCain was forced out as co-CEO after a bitter public feud with his older brother about who would take over the company. Wallace wanted his son Michael to take the reigns, but Harrison preferred outside managers. More than $20 million in legal fees later, courts sided with Harrison, who later went on to name his nephew Allison McCain as his successor. Harrison died in 2004.
“The contrast between the two brothers was just fascinating,” said Ritchie.
“Harrison was sort of like a bull — you could tell he was charging at you all the time. But Wallace, of course, with the courtly mane of white hair, Wallace was a very gracious and very well-spoken and charming individual, and one who really cared.”
McCain and his brother, who’d been inseparable most of their lives, reconciled well before Harrison’s death, Ritchie said.
New Brunswick Premier David Alward said the province will always be grateful for McCain’s “immense contribution” to the company that has helped fuel its economy for decades.
“Over the years, the McCains created and maintained good jobs for many people in Carleton County and throughout our province, and they still do today,” he said in a statement.
McCain was also a key player in the province’s political sphere, McKenna said.
“The McCains were major icons in the Liberal Party of New Brunswick,” he said, noting their paths first crossed during McKenna’s bid for party leadership.
The former premiers recalled his “fear and trembling” at being summoned to meet the brothers in the early 1980s. “They grilled me for an hour and just scared the hell right out of me,” he said with a laugh.
“They were bigger-than-life figures and to me, they were very intimidating because even then, they had quite a reputation. But it was all in good fun … and we were friends forever.”
Although Wallace McCain left the New Brunswick food company, he remained a board member and vice-chairman and still owned one third, but he couldn’t stay out of the business that made him one of the world’s richest people.
In 1995, he became an Officer of the Order of Canada. That same year he and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan bought Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods, maker of deli meats, bread and other prepared foods. That company grew to more than 21,000 employees under his supervision, increasing his status as one of the richest people in the world.
His son Michael now runs Maple Leaf Foods (TSX:MFI) as CEO of the company.
Until his death, Wallace McCain also sat on the board of directors of Brookfield Asset Management Inc. (TSX:BAM.A) and the Maple Leaf subsidiary Canada Bread (TSX:CBY).
Last year, Forbes Magazine listed Wallace McCain as No. 421 on its annual list of richest billionaires worldwide, giving him a personal net worth of $2.3 billion.
McCain was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in 1993 and its current head praised him for business leadership that has increased Canada’s profile around the world.
“He has demonstrated the qualities necessary to ensure the success and competitiveness of Canada in a global marketplace,” Ross Maund, the president and CEO said in a statement.
“Mr. McCain’s commitment to entrepreneurship has paved the way for young Canadians to develop their own entrepreneurial spirit and excel in tomorrow’s business world.”
But McCain extended into philanthropy as well, fundraising for the National Ballet School, establishing an entrepreneur training institute in his name at the University of New Brunswick, and sitting as a board member of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation.
“I liked making money,” Wallace once said, “but I love giving it away even more.”
According to his wife Margaret, the first woman to serve as Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, she and Wallace believed that devotion to family and a strong work ethic were essential, as was dedication to the church and community. They founded and annually funded their family foundation, which champions and researches early childhood programs and policies across Canada.
Mavis Staines, artistic director and co-CEO of the National Ballet School, said the organization had lost a great supporter.
“Through this role I also am blessed to have become friends with Margaret and Wallace McCain,” Staines said.
“Without their tireless dedication to NBS, we quite simply would not be the school we are today. NBS went from having the worst facilities in the world, to having the best and most beautiful. Thanks to their tireless and impassioned support, NBS students’ exploration of their exceptional talent now has a fitting home.”
Wallace is survived by his wife Margaret, his four children and nine grandchildren.
Funeral services were planned for May 20.