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Canada Doughnut dynasty: The high school dropout turned billionaire force behind Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons co-founder Ron Joyce, photographed here in 1994, has died at 88.

FRED LUM/The Globe and Mail

It was a daily habit for Ron Joyce to put in time at his desk wearing a suit, tie and his Order of Canada lapel pin, regardless of whether he planned to receive company or even leave the house.

The self-made billionaire and lifelong entrepreneur granted The Globe and Mail a rare interview at his home office in Burlington, Ont., last December to discuss his life and legacy. The octogenarian’s career began during the Depression when he was just 15 and, though his wit remained sharp, Mr. Joyce knew that his body was flagging. A plane crash in 2007 – the second of his life – left the entrepreneur with chronic back pain that rendered him home-bound more than he would have preferred (he still managed, however, to get up and sing with the band on his birthday last October).

Twice divorced and a father of seven, Mr. Joyce attempted to sum up what he has learned on his rags-to-riches journey: “The more you give, the more you get back,” he said, sipping iced vodka from a vintage Tim Hortons mug. Behind him, two computer screens offered live market readings; his shelves and office walls were crowded with awards and some of his eight honorary doctorates.

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“I’ve been very, very fortunate economically. I mean, we were brought up on the welfare system in a small village in Nova Scotia," he said. "It’s been a wonderful journey, and I probably wouldn’t change a thing.”

Mr. Joyce died on Friday, at his home in Burlington. He was 88. He leaves his children Gary, Ron Jr., Derrick, Darrel, Grant, Rhonda and Steven Joyce.

Mr. Joyce is best known as the force that transformed Tim Hortons from a fledgling Hamilton coffee shop into one of the most iconic businesses in the country. However, the Tim Hortons days are not what Mr. Joyce wants to be remembered for. Instead, he pointed to his long effort to help youth in need.

Since exiting the doughnut chain more than two decades ago, Mr. Joyce has spent $124-million to seed endowments across Canada that will give economically disadvantaged youth access to educational opportunities for decades to come. Combined with donations for children’s health care, Mr. Joyce has donated $185-million of his personal wealth, according to The Joyce Family Foundation, which has never before revealed that figure.

“It’s like an old farmer planting oak seedlings,” Mr. Joyce’s son, Steven, explained. “They are never going to rest under the shade of that tree, but if they don’t plant it, who will? The youth he helps now may one day graduate to be doctors or engineers or poets or artists.”

From behind his desk, Mr. Joyce listened in silent agreement. And then he had an idea on what he might change about his life.

“I’d get rich a whole lot earlier," he guffawed. "I sure hated being poor.”

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Ronald Vaughan Joyce was born on Oct. 19, 1930 in Tatamagouche, N.S. He was three years old when his father was killed in a road accident; his mother was pregnant with their third child. The family lived in a three-room house with no running water, electricity or insulation.

“Even as a young boy … I was self-conscious about my family’s situation," he wrote in his 2006 memoir, Always Fresh: The Untold Story of Tim Hortons.

Mr. Joyce finished Grade 9, but quit school at 15 in favour of working. He dug trenches, built roads and worked shifts in a canning factory and later at a creamery. But jobs were scarce in Atlantic Canada at the end of the Second World War. With $35 in his pocket, Mr. Joyce took a train to his first real city: Hamilton, Ont.

He worked several industrial jobs and, at 19, married his first wife, Lynda Korolenchuk. A five-year tour with the Royal Canadian Navy whetted his taste for life at sea. By 1956, Mr. Joyce was back in Hamilton and became a policeman. He was then a father of four – a set of twins surprised the young couple. Being a policeman was interesting – he once had to deliver a woman’s baby and tied the umbilical cord with his shoelace. But his $5,000 annual salary was not enough, particularly after he and Ms. Korolenchuk split up in 1958.

Mr. Joyce was in his mid-30s and still scrambling for any secondary jobs he could get. Then, a friend who had a Dairy Queen franchise suggested Mr. Joyce (by then married to Theresa McEwan, his second wife) get into the business.

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The Joyces' Dairy Queen opened in 1963. Profit in one year tripled the police force salary. When Dairy Queen turned down Mr. Joyce’s request to open a second location – he was undercapitalized – he stumbled upon an upstart coffee and doughnut store owned by Toronto Maple Leafs' player Tim Horton. Mr. Joyce teamed up with Mr. Horton and quit his policing job.

When he showed up for his first evening of bakers’ training, Mr. Joyce was aghast when his trainer took out not a manual but a Ouija board to determine how much to bake.

“From there, I fell in love,” Mr. Joyce recalled. “It was 24 hours, seven days a week. It was a very difficult time,” he said. “But I fell in love with it.”


Mr. Joyce eventually struck a deal that elevated him to Mr. Horton’s full business partner. The defenceman had little interest in running the business and agreed to split his NHL salary with Mr. Joyce, who ran the chain.

His around-the-clock devotion to work did not bode well for his second marriage, which also ended in divorce. Steven Joyce said his father never considered marriage again.

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“Business and that company became his primary relationship,” Steven said. “He was flying from coast to coast for work, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was going off on fishing trips,” he said. “He didn’t want to compromise his experience for domestic stability.”

Mr. Joyce had lofty goals.

“I had decided to be the largest chain in Canada,” he said last December. “The amazing part of it all was that there were so many people wanting to get in business.”

John Hoey and his wife, Carol, were among them.

“If you work hard, you’re going to make money, and I’m going to make money with you. We’ll be partners,” Mr. Hoey recalls Mr. Joyce telling him at their first meeting. “He was a man of his word."

Mr. Hoey said Mr. Joyce and the franchisees built up a camaraderie through the Tim Horton Children’s Foundation. Mandated to help financially disadvantaged youth long before anyone in the company had amassed much wealth, the foundation’s camp program began at Lorimer Lake, near Parry Sound, Ont.

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Of course, the camps’ creation was bittersweet: The idea arose in the aftermath of Tim Horton’s fatal 1974 car accident. Mr. Horton’s death meant his wife, Lori, became Mr. Joyce’s partner. The relationship was difficult, and led Mr. Joyce to take out his biggest loan yet – $1-million – to buy out the widow (Ms. Horton later launched and lost a court challenge disputing the sale).

While Mr. Joyce kept his focus on expanding the chain, he remained intimately involved in the camps, including, for a time, personally flying across the country to interview each camper.

“He always had a grand vision,” recalled Peter Moffat, a retired NHL referee who ran the foundation for a decade and later owned several Tim Hortons outlets. He recalled the pleasure of going to a boat show with Mr. Joyce.

“I said, ‘Jeeze, it would be wonderful to get a couple of sailing boats,'” Mr. Moffat recalled. “Ron said, ‘Okay, let’s get seven.’ It was magical."


The drive through the formidable gates of Fox Harb’r Resort in tiny Wallace, N.S., offers a view of curated coastal beauty like nowhere else in the region.

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Famed for its golf course, stunning vistas and for its discreet private airstrip, Fox Harb’r was a vacant spread of land when Mr. Joyce acquired it in 1987. He has since spent more than $40-million on what is a symbol of pure love for his home province. Despite its economically depressed surroundings, the luxurious resort grew into a magnet for the rich, famous and the political and business elite.

Mr. Joyce focused his efforts on achieving this after selling Tim Hortons in 1995 to Wendy’s for about $600-million. Although the resort is not profitable, Steven Joyce said its $3-million payroll achieves his father’s goal of boosting the area he grew up in.

Frank McKenna, deputy chairman of Toronto-Dominion Bank, was premier of New Brunswick when he met Mr. Joyce, during the building of Fox Harb’r.

“He is deeply conscious of where he has come from and never forgets it," Mr. McKenna said. “The idea of giving back is second nature to him. He’s a role model for our region.”


Mr. Joyce called his life “interesting, but also challenging." He said he had few regrets.

He did not lament selling Tim Hortons – none of his children were poised for succession and he wanted to sail the world and take time for himself. But the direction the business has gone after his reign troubled him, as did the acrimony that resulted for so many franchisees he considered family.

Mr. Joyce acknowledged that his relationships with his children have, at times, been tenuous. Some of that was attributable to his propensity for spending as much time as possible at work when they were young. Then, the spoils were few.

“My children did not have a rich life,” Mr. Joyce explained.

Steven Joyce worked the most closely with his father in his final years.

“He has mentored all of us in one direction or another,” Mr. Joyce said of his father. “It hasn’t always pulled us together. It hasn’t driven us apart, either. Whether you are family or not, it’s not a free ride,” Mr. Joyce said, adding of his father: "He has been very generous.”

The task of ensuring the elder Mr. Joyce’s commitment to aiding youth continues now falls largely to Steven, who is now steeped in his father’s ideology.

“He believes that people who have been more fortunate should be investing in the future and youth,” Steven said. “When you’ve done so well by this country, you contribute back."

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