The Nation’s Business

Tales from a mellower Harrison McCain

Four years after winning a bitter feud with his brother, Harrison acknowledges that ‘strained’ family relations still exist

Peter C. Newman January 19 1998
The Nation’s Business

Tales from a mellower Harrison McCain

Four years after winning a bitter feud with his brother, Harrison acknowledges that ‘strained’ family relations still exist

Peter C. Newman January 19 1998

Tales from a mellower Harrison McCain

Four years after winning a bitter feud with his brother, Harrison acknowledges that ‘strained’ family relations still exist

Peter C. Newman

The Nation’s Business

This week, Harrison McCain will be joined at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel by 220 of his most intimate friends to celebrate his 70th birthday. But the French Fry King has mixed feelings about this anniversary. “When you’re 62 and turn 63, that’s a year,” he told me in an interview from his Florenceville, N.B., home last week. “Sixty-six to 67 is a year. But 69 to 70, my God, that’s something like aging 10 years overnight!”

No longer outrageous or outraged, McCain admits that he has become “dull as hell. I don’t know what to say to entertain you at the moment.” The past half-decade has taken its toll. He and his brother Wallace, who ran McCain Foods Ltd., the New Brunswickbased multinational food company, as co-CEOs for most of 40 years, split over the family’s lines of succession in 1993, and the rift has not been healed. In the same five years, McCain also suffered a major heart attack, his wife, Billie, died at 65 in 1994 after a long struggle with cancer, and he lost his younger son, Peter, at 39, in a snowmobile accident.

His zest for life hasn’t diminished, but he has grown mellow and controls his tongue better. In my many interviews with him over the years, he has used profanity in such a creative and wonderfully effective way that I once half-seriously considered editing my tapes and issuing a CD of Harrison McCain’s Greatest Insults. No more. “My mother wouldn’t approve all that cursing and swearing” is his lame excuse.

The nasty family feud officially ended when Wallace McCain was kicked out as co-CEO by a New Brunswick arbitration court. The younger McCain brother has moved to Toronto, where he bought and now runs Maple Leaf Foods, but he and his branch of the family still own about one-third of McCain Foods Holdco, the family holding company that controls the New Brunswick food-processing giant. “There are still strained relations in our family holding company,” Harrison acknowledges. “Ownership is divided equally among Wallace and me at about 33 per cent each, with my brothers Andrew’s and Robert’s families holding the rest. They support me, always did, so 33 per cent is never going to outvote 66, right? I wish I could say the bitterness is all gone, but that would be an overstatement.”

In terms of succession, his comments are brief and to the point. “Our family,” McCain emphasizes, will continue to manage McCain’s, “but having some outsiders as part of the mix doesn’t bother me a bit.” One legacy of the family quarrels is that McCain has added several heavyweight outsiders to his operating board, including CNR president and CEO Paul Tellier, Victor Young, the successful head of Fishery Products International Ltd., David Morton, the former CEO of Alcan, and Ken Cork, former vice-president of Noranda. “Now,” says McCain, “if something happened to me, do you think all those guys are just going to sit back and say, ‘Oh well, I guess this is the end of the company, we’ll just wind it up.’ No damn way. There will be family continuity in place.”

As well as making and marketing food products, McCain Foods— which will top $5 billion in total sales this year—owns a large trucking division (Day & Ross) and a national courier company (Same Day), plus an industrial loaders manufacturer (Thomas Equipment) and a hauling subsidiary (FastTracks). “The real news,” he says, “is Canada’s 69-cent dollar, which has turned out to be a lot more important in spurring exports than the U.S. free trade deal, which has become relatively innocuous in its effects.”

McCain’s family has scattered, with son Mark working as an analyst in the McCain corporate office in Toronto; Laura helping her husband run a small winery in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley; and daughter Ann married to a Toronto contractor; while Gillian, the baby of the family, has moved to New York City and has just written Please Kill Me, an oral history of punk rock. “She has sold 35,000 copies and when I was in London recently, I walked into a bookstore on the Strand and bought a copy,” reports her proud, unpunky father. “I’d like to see my kids be happy and successful,” he says, “and I want our company to be at least twice as big and successful as it is now. We’re the world’s number 1 french-fry maker, but I’d like to be first in some other global brands, such as frozen pizza, as well. We have guys doing marketing tests in China, South Africa, Poland and India right now.”

He still works hard, but McCain is taking more holidays. He enjoys three-day summer weekends at a waterfront place he bought 200 km south of Florenceville at St. Andrews by-the-Sea and skis regularly at Sun Valley, Idaho, or in Switzerland, shussing down the luxury slopes of St. Moritz and Gstaad.

His company is meanwhile continuing its expansion into the United States. The $675-million purchase last year of the food-service division of Ore-Ida of Heinz was only a start. Something like 83 per cent of the company’s business is now outside Canada (in 90 countries) and McCain spends 140 nights a year in the sleeping compartment aboard the company’s triple-engine Falcon-50 Dessault jet, on his way to or from inspecting his branch plants in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. French fries account for 60 per cent of McCain Foods’ sales, and it’s an area that retains top growth priority.

No wonder Harrison McCain remains a champion of the oily little creatures. Despite his heart problems, McCain still chomps fries at least twice a week. “It’s OK,” he explains, “they’re made with canola, so there’s no cholesterol.” Then, slipping back into character, McCain adds a typical Harrison punch line: ‘We’re too cheap to add the fat. Costs too God damn much.”