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A thaw in New Brunswick's French-fry wars

Irving-owned Cavendish Farms is acquiring a potato plant in Lethbridge, Alta., from Maple Leaf Foods, run by a member of the archrival McCain family. Cavendish already operates three state-of-the-art potato processing plants in North America, including this one in New Annan, PEI.

CAVENDISH FARMS

As deals go, it was small potatoes, but the $60-million sale of an Alberta processing plant signals a new stage in the long-running French-fry fracas between New Brunswick's McCain and Irving families.

Maple Leaf Foods Inc., run by Michael McCain, announced this week the sale of the Lethbridge plant to Cavendish Farms, the potato-processing arm of J.D. Irving Ltd., the family conglomerate owned by the Irvings of Saint John.

Twenty years ago, a McCain selling a potato asset to an Irving would have been scandalous.

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But as Michael McCain explained, Maple Leaf is a public company which is peeling back its interests to a core that includes meat and bakery products.

A small potato plant, part of Maple Leaf for 50 years, did not fit into the mix, and the Irvings, he said, came up with the highest price in an open sale process managed by Maple Leaf's board and management.

Among the losing bidders was McCain Foods Ltd., the family French-fry business based in Florenceville, N.B., which has battled with Cavendish Farms on the East Coast – and which once employed Michael McCain as an executive.

"Everybody had an opportunity to participate equally," Mr. McCain said.

It is a reflection of the complex twists and turns in the two family sagas since the early 1990s, when the Irvings lined up federal government money to build a new potato processing plant on Prince Edward Island.

The McCains countered with their own ambitious expansion plans, setting off a war of lobbying. After Ottawa removed its support for the Irving proposal, the potato wars eased back to a simmer, as each company pursued its growth plans.

The Irving-McCain feud was soon overshadowed by the quarrel that broke out between the McCain Foods founding brothers, Wallace and Harrison, over their succession.

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It ended with Wallace and his sons Michael and Scott being ousted and moving to Toronto to take over Maple Leaf Foods, a large pork processor and food supplier. Wallace maintained a one-third interest in McCain Foods.

Since Wallace's death in May, 2011, Michael has focused his attention and investment in Maple Leaf, maintaining just a small piece of McCain Foods. Scott, still an executive at Maple Leaf, joined his two sisters in assuming their father's interest in McCain Foods. With feet in both camps, Scott excused himself from the Lethbridge sale process.

Robert Irving, president of Cavendish Farms, noted in a press release that the acquisition represents his company's expansion into Western Canada.

McCain Foods already has a Western presence, including a Lethbridge plant.

The Maple Leaf plant in Lethbridge employs 135 people.

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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