They came to Florenceville, N.B., this week to bury one of their own, a local boy who commanded a multinational food empire but still lived just up the road.
Harrison McCain's funeral served as a poignant reunion for the influential network of mostly male business leaders who jokingly call themselves "the Maritime Mafia."
"It very much exists, I'm part of it," says Moncton lawyer and former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, an honorary pallbearer at the McCain funeral and a central hub in this circle of contacts.
The influence of this circle is testimony to the power of personal relationships in business. The Maritime Mafia has been one of Canada's most quietly effective networks, with a reach that extends to Bay Street, the chartered banks and into the boardrooms of the largest corporations.
But the sight of grey-haired men hoisting Mr. McCain's casket is also a reminder that these are aging titans. There are questions about whether this powerful affinity can function beyond their generation. It has, in fact, become Mr. McKenna's mission to link up new waves of Maritime networkers.
The region's bright young people are moving farther from their Atlantic roots, working as managers for national companies and global multinationals. With this dispersal -- and the passing of company founders and builders such as Mr. McCain -- the old cohesiveness and shared values may disappear, observers say.
That talk doesn't faze Mr. McKenna, 56, who since leaving the premier's job seven years ago has been a driving force in sustaining the network. He is picking up the torch from Purdy Crawford, 72, the Nova Scotia-born, Toronto-based corporate lawyer who is a mentor for many senior Maritime managers.
The "mafia" tag is appropriate because it suggests an intense loyalty, a determination to look after one's own, and an ingrained sense of family.
It also assumes a power that has far eclipsed the individuals' roots in the small towns and countryside of the three Maritime provinces. (Maritimers say Newfoundlanders have their own close network that can be equally effective.)
The list of official and honorary pallbearers at the McCain funeral captured that power: Besides Mr. McKenna, there was former Bank of Nova Scotia CEO Cedric Ritchie, onetime Royal Bank boss Rowland Frazee, BCE Inc. chairman Richard Currie, and supermarket magnate David Sobey.
Also on the list was Wallace McCain, chairman of Toronto's Maple Leaf Foods Inc., who after a bitter rift had been reconciled with Harrison, his older brother and co-founder of McCain Foods Ltd. Ron Joyce, co-founder of Tim Hortons, and a couple of Irving brothers were also in attendance.
But most of these men are in their 60s, 70s and older, and there are no obvious successors.
Still, Mr. McKenna insists there is still a very strong business class in Atlantic Canada. He says the region keeps generating new leaders such as Moncton pizza king Bernard Imbeault and emerging generations of McCains, Irvings and Sobeys.
The business culture remains unique, he argues. Atlantic Canada is lightly populated and people truly know each other and their families. Business relationships are less legalistic and more personal than elsewhere in the country.
"More things are done with a handshake," Mr. McKenna says, and people carry this with them when they pursue careers, as they often must, in Toronto, Montreal or Boston.
"As a premier, I used Maritime executives as the access points to get inside an organization," he says. "Invariably people from Atlantic Canada have a home-town sentiment."
Mr. Crawford says that as a corporate lawyer, he has been very close to many business leaders from many other regions but there is not the same quality of emotional ties as with Maritimers.
In the Atlantic provinces, networking gets done in an informal, unostentatious way, over fishing, hunting or even at funerals. At Mr. McCain's funeral, for example, Mr. McKenna was able to put some cranberry producers in contact with a major food chain.
This cohesiveness is fed by the fact that Atlantic Canada has nurtured very strong family businesses.
"There is a conservative culture that resists the wider diffusion of equity," Mr. McKenna says. "People don't tap into public market as much. You get these large trees growing in the forest."
Indeed, Mr. McKenna's decision to turn down an offer to join Paul Martin's federal team means he can continue to wield considerable influence as a regional networking impresario. He says he received a flurry of executive and directorship offers since announcing he would not seek a federal candidacy because he did not want to challenge incumbent Liberal MPs.
He is also the prime mover behind what he calls "the Frank McKenna Annual Networking Event," which will be four years old this summer. After two sessions in Moncton, about 150 Atlantic movers and shakers showed up last year at an elite golf course and lodge in Fox Harbour, N.S., which Mr. Joyce, a local boy, has developed.
Geoff Flood, a Saint John-born computer executive based in Toronto, found the Fox Harbour event -- with star speaker John Major, the former British prime minister -- to be extremely valuable. Networking among Maritimers is easier because it's like family, says Mr. Flood, president of T4G Ltd., a computer systems provider -- who, at 50, is one of a younger wave of native Maritimers based in Toronto. "It's like a relative introducing you to a contact," he says, adding that this comfort level "accelerates the relationship."
Delegates also took note of the attentive way in which Wallace McCain tended to his ailing brother. During the fraternal rift of the 1990s, some business people had felt compelled to pick sides, but others, like Mr. McKenna, were able to compartmentalize the dispute and remained friends with both camps.
The key pressure points in the network remain the big family companies, including McCain Foods, the Sobeys' Empire Co. Ltd., and Irving interests in forestry, food, energy and retail. Another focus is the alumni associations of universities such as Acadia (Irvings), St. Francis Xavier (Mr. McKenna), and Mount Allison (where Wallace McCain met Mr. Crawford).
The network has spawned major outposts in Toronto, built around law firm Osler Hoskin & Harcourt, where Mr. McKenna and Mr. Crawford both have offices; Maple Leaf Foods, which Wallace McCain and sons Michael and Scott run; and Bank of Nova Scotia. Peter Godsoe, the bank's former chairman and CEO, is Ontario-born with Maritime family ties; his predecessor Mr. Ritchie hails from the Saint John River valley.
Mr. Crawford believes one factor that will continue to bind current and former Maritimers is a love of place that, he says, is not so passionately shared by other business people. Even after they locate to Toronto or Montreal, Maritimers keep going home to cottages and second residences.
"I kid my friends from Manitoba and Saskatchewan -- they don't go home."
East Coast connection
The self-styled Maritime Mafia has been one of Canada's most quietly effective networks with a reach that extends to Bay Street, the chartered banks and into the boardrooms of the largest corporations. But there are fears that not enough of the next generation is continuing the trend. Some representatives of the last cohort and the new one are:
76, former CEO, Bank of Nova Scotia
From Upper Kent, N.B.
73, chairman, Maple Leaf Foods Inc.
From Florenceville, N.B., lives in Toronto
72, corporate lawyer
Born in Five Islands, N.S., based in Toronto
73, former chairman, now director, Sobey's Inc.,
Born and raised in Stellarton, N.S.
73, co-founder, Tim Hortons
Lives in Fox Harbour, N.S. (brought up in nearby Tatamagouche)
56, lawyer with McInnes Cooper
Born in Apohagui, N.B., based in Moncton
66, chairman, BCE Inc.
From Saint John, now in Toronto
Mid-40s, heads Irving Oil Ltd.
Based in Saint John
50, president, computer company _T4G Ltd.
Born in Saint John, based in Toronto
58, owner, Pizza Delight Corp.,
Based in Moncton
45, president and CEO, Maple Leaf Foods
From Florenceville, lives in Toronto