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Maple Leaf Foods Inc. Chairman Wallace McCain in 2010. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters/MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)
Maple Leaf Foods Inc. Chairman Wallace McCain in 2010. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters/MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)

Wallace McCain: from small potatoes to big-time success Add to ...

Wallace McCain was born into a family of New Brunswick potato farmers, and he grew up with a flair for earthy language and a gift for growing companies. Both traits were dramatically present as he co-founded and built a global frozen-food colossus, before being exiled in a famously bitter feud with his brother Harrison.

Ousted from McCain Foods Ltd., McCain bought and turned around another iconic food company, Maple Leaf Foods Inc., and emerged as a generous philanthropist, whose causes ranged from grooming East Coast entrepreneurs to nurturing ballet dancers in Toronto.

This business lion, who spearheaded the growth of two Canadian corporate giants, died on Friday at 81 after a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

He was a distinctly Canadian role model – a tough billionaire with fiercely held social values.

“He was a steely-eyed, hard-nosed capitalist who took an idea and created the largest French fry business in the world,” says his friend Frank McKenna, deputy chair of Toronto-Dominion Bank and a former New Brunswick premier. “To prove it wasn’t a fluke, he did it again with Maple Leaf.

“But the other side was a warm, caring individual who believed there is a legitimate role for government – that you need to pay your taxes, not avoid them, and who believed in public health and early childhood education.”

McCain’s large, rollicking life had several acts, beginning with his creation of multinational McCain Foods, with his three older brothers, most notably Harrison, with whom he served as co-CEO for decades. The two became a powerful and inseparable brother act who, at McCain Foods, built a rare Canadian-based consumer-products champion, commanding a third of the world market for French fries. And they did it all from tiny Florenceville, N.B., flying in and out on corporate planes that plied the small air strip behind their adjacent homes overlooking the Saint John River Valley.

McCain Foods now holds diverse interests, spanning frozen cakes and pizzas, food services and transport trucks, compiling annual sales of $6-billion with 20,000 employees in more than 60 countries.

But these achievements were tragically overshadowed by an angry battle with Harrison over the suitability of Wallace’s son Michael to be their successor. In the early 1990s, the quarrel exploded into a legal wrangle that polarized the McCain family and forced Wallace from the company (while remaining one-third owner) and out of New Brunswick.

He and sons Scott and Michael scoured the world for another venture to run, and found it in 140-year-old Maple Leaf Foods. They resettled in Toronto, but the family split left deep wounds. “The biggest thing that happened to me in the past 25 years – and in my life – was being unceremoniously dumped from McCain Foods,” McCain said in 2009.

He and his sons, with funding from Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, took over Maple Leaf, a creaking old meat-packing giant with bakery and agribusiness interests, and nursed it back to better health. But Maple Leaf, with Michael as CEO, has faced its own challenges, including shareholder impatience, a rising dollar, and a near-death experience in 2008, when an outbreak of listeria threatened to sink the company’s reputation.

The McCains met the listeria challenge head-on with a policy of frank and open communications, and Michael became a role model for crisis management.

The McCains came to Canada from Ireland 185 years ago and found a home along the Saint John River Valley. For generations, they were potato producers in an area where the lowly spud ruled supreme.

Wallace was born on April 9, 1930, in Florenceville – the youngest of six children raised by Andrew and Laura McCain. Andrew, known as A.D., sold seed potatoes internationally, giving the children an early sense of world horizons. Wallace was particularly close to his next oldest brother, Harrison. As boys, they shared a bedroom in the farmhouse, along with outsized dreams of doing something big.

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