Business

Mainly because of the meal? No, mainly because of the president

January 24 1977
Business

Mainly because of the meal? No, mainly because of the president

January 24 1977

Mainly because of the meal? No, mainly because of the president

Business

A. J. E. Child, president of Burns Foods Limited, is a balding accountant with a preference for precise three-piece suits, a formal man whose initials fit him more neatly than his given name, Arthur. You’ll find him, 10½ hours a day, behind a massive black-topped desk, its starkness unrelieved by so much as an ashtray, in his office several miles away from the Burns packing plant in the blood-and-guts atmosphere of the Calgary stockyards. It’s hard to imagine—apart from their common work addiction—a more unlikely successor to the last of the old-time cattle barons, Pat Bums, who founded the company in 1909. Yet Child is the man who snatched the company from bankruptcy when he became president in 1966 and turned it into an industrial giant which will probably exceed $700 million in sales this year, the leading industry in nine Prairie cities, the largest private employer in Alberta, the most visible monument, now that the vast Burns ranchlands have been dispersed, to the man who rose from $24-a-month railway rock-blaster to be a multimillionaire senator and one of the founders of the Calgary Stampede.

If Child ever took a vacation (he hasn’t since 1966) he’d no doubt time it to escape the annual Stampede madness. He works every weekend, spends a third of his life traveling the world on business, and juggles directorships on 25 companies solely for the advantage he feels it gives Burns. He’s a man, it seems, without friends, social life or outside interests. If pressed, he’ll admit two enthusiasms: an art collection that includes 40 Robert Hurleys and a power cruiser he rarely sees. He has only one passion, however, and that is for business.

Child brings to his passion a talent admired by his peers. Analysts discussing Child’s management of Burns quote the 1966 loss—$94,000 on sales of $228.5 million—and the 1975 profit—$4.7 million on sales of $622.1 million—to illustrate his business acumen. But Child himself is rather proud of the 1966 loss. When he arrived in April that year, the company was losing $375,000 a month “and wouldn’t have survived for six months.” That Burns weathered 1966 with only a small loss is due to his machinations, he readily proclaims.

Business scuttlebutt has it that when Bums takes over a new company, the first people sent in are the auditors. It’s a charge Child denies but it was certainly true in 1966. In his first month as president, he slashed the meat packing division's head

office staff from 80 to 30 and the dairy division’s executive from 10 to three. “I transformed the organization, changed the structure of the meat packing division and, to some extent, the dairy division. I simplified procedures, instituted cost controls, brought in new reporting procedures. It was a general streamlining.” As for the 57 eliminated executives: “They were released. They were redundant.” Child permits few redundancies in his empire. By 1969, he had whipped Burns employees into a functioning management team (“Those who couldn’t come up to my standards aren’t here now”) and embarked on the diversification and acquisition program that saved Burns more than once in the intervening years. Burns, with R. Howard Webster as majority stockholder (he also holds a major interest in F.P. Publications Limited, which publishes the Toronto Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and seven other newspapers), is now a corporate title for 17 companies with more than 70 plants and offices and more than 6,000 employees. The meat packing division, which still contributes about half total revenues, although diminishing in relative importance, is still the base. But much

of the profit now comes from other areas: Palm Dairies Limited, grocery wholesalers Scott National Co. Ltd. and Stafford Foods Ltd., and Canbra Foods Ltd., a leading rapeseed crusher and vegetable oil producer. Burns has moved even further afield with its latest acquisition, 15% of Food Services Ltd., of Montreal, which controls Murray’s Restaurants, Anjou Food Services Ltd., and Crawley & McCracken Ltd., one of Canada’s largest catering companies. Like the executives, what didn’t come up to standard isn’t around anymore. Pork operations in Regina and Prince Albert were sliced off despite community outrage, and Child’s experiment with a small feedlot is long gone. The old cattle baron’s empire now contains not a single steer.

The Burns salvage job is the most dramatic of Child’s career. But he has been called in before as a company surgeon. He joined Burns from Intercontinental Packers Limited of Saskatoon, a troubled company he took over in 1960 and tripled in size in five years. Rescue operations are closest to Child’s heart, the one subject on which he becomes almost voluble: “You ay everything on the line. You risk your hole career. You’d find it difficult to live with yourself if you failed.”

The 1976 outcome for Burns is Child’s secret. “I don’t even tell my directors that.” But the third quarter statement shows sales at $537,639,026 compared with $442,568,641 in the first nine months of 1975 for a net operations profit of $3,834,242 compared with $1,483,762 in the first three quarters of 1975. “It should be pretty good but you always keep your fingers crossed. The thing is never to jeopardize the strength of your company, never strain your resources. In too many instances, food industry companies that went under overextended themselves. That doesn’t mean Fimso cautious I never take risks. But I try not to do anything foolish.” If Child is not rash, he is more of an adventurer than he’d like outsiders to believe. He has twice taken chances with floundering companies and pulled them through. He gave up flying only at the insistence of his insurance company and he designed that boat he sees only five times a year. He has written two books (Economies And Politics In U.S. Banking and Internal Controls) and has just taken it upon himself to deliver a paper on a national food policy to the government. It’s not quite the larger-than-life figure of the old cattle baron. But without Child there wouldn’t still be a Burns empire. SUZANNE ZWARUN