Live and Learn: Wallace McCain

Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong. But I don't have trouble making decisions. The best, obviously, was entering the french fry and frozen food business. Second best was getting involved with Maple Leaf Foods and bringing it into the 21st century.

Canadian Business
September 29, 2003

Live and Learn: Wallace McCain
"I don't believe in free lunches. I was brought up to believe in always working."
Thomas Watson


Wallace McCain

"I still eat french fries, and often. I love them. I love hot dogs, too. Seriously. I also eat bacon and eggs for breakfast every day. My favorite Sunday lunch is pizza and a beer.

I'd rather be rich than poor. I'd be lying if I said different. I remember when my goal was one million dollars. But after that, making money hasn't turned me on as much as my love of business.

I learned to swear milking cows. Dad thought it was a good idea if we all milked a cow on our farm starting at age 12 or 13. I ended up with two. We'd chase them through the pasture, fighting mosquitoes and often rain. And we didn't use machines. We used our hands. Our pay, thank you very much, was a calf. You looked after the calf, fed the calf, and could sell your calf.

I didn't have any burning desire to do anything specific early in life. I spent a couple of summers in the navy. I started university in pre-med and ended up in mathematics and economics. I didn't learn much. But I had a good time as a young man, spread a few wild oats, and the navy gave me discipline.

After school I took a job as an insecticide salesman. Then I was hired by one of K.C. Irving's companies. I ended up general manager. I wasn't born a sales type, but I don't mind sales. And I was good enough to suit my employers. That's all that mattered.
Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong. But I don't have trouble making decisions. The best, obviously, was entering the french fry and frozen food business. Second best was getting involved with Maple Leaf Foods and bringing it into the 21st century.

I don't understand technology. Years ago, back in Florenceville, I had a computer that sat idle for 10 years. Today, I can — thank you very much — get e-mail and follow the market. I can even return e-mail. But I'm no buff. I'm too old a dog to be taught new tricks.

I'm a strong Canadian. I don't want to be an American. But they're nice people, and our best customers, so I've no interest in getting into hassles with them. We don't have to do everything they want. But we don't have to throw mud at them either.

American CEOs are no more or less dishonest than Canadian CEOs. But they have more pressure. Canada is tough, but guess what, the United States is a more competitive environment. I have empathy for them, big time.

I don't think there are any serious problems with capitalism. Sometimes it is pushed too fast and too hard on countries on the other side of the fence. I don't think that's right. Citizens of communist societies can't go to bed thinking one way, then wake up and be told, "No, no, that's wrong." That causes chaos. To change world philosophies, we have to walk down the hill, not run.

SARS is serious, but more people probably died of pneumonia over the same period, and the world thought everyone in Toronto was wearing a mask. I blame the press for that.

My father played the stock market and made more money from that than the potato business. He played on one basis. He always looked at management.

No question, the two best things in the world are business and politics. Just for laughs, I once invited eight former premiers of all political stripes to a getaway with their wives. After a good debate, I found they could agree on anything.

I never entertained running for office. First, I'd probably never get elected. And I prefer business.

My family went through a painful period. But if I looked back and worried about all the things that happened and the mistakes I maybe made, I'd be upset half the time. So I let bygones be bygones. My brother Harrison and I communicate commonly these days. His health is not good, and I try to talk to him once a week and try to see him every month.

More from Wallace McCain

I don't believe in free lunches. I was brought up to believe in always working.

Like my mother, my wife has a very big social conscience. That's beat me down on some things over the years.

There is no easy answer to what happened at companies like Enron. Some of it, I think, is capital market expectations, and part of it is ethics. But board structures also play a role. Maple Leaf Foods follows governance rules to the letter. The company is controlled by my family and the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. But independent directors control the board.

On the whole, I think free trade has been a success. Having said that, I was concerned about the impact on the food-processing business. And although I'm not an economist, I think it will be a disaster if the dollar hits par with the US.

On my father's side, my grandfather and great-grandfather were cabinet ministers. On my mother's side, there were three generations of politicians. They were Conservative; my father's side, Liberal. We talked politics at home like others discuss weather.

I was a fan of Pierre Trudeau. When he ran for leadership, I led his campaign in New Brunswick.

When my brothers and I started our business, it wasn't easy. But competition is stiffer today. McCain Foods grew 15% to 20% annually in our first 15 to 20 years. If you know any business that can grow like that today, let me know. I'd like to do it again.
Timeline: Wallace McCain
Born April 9, 1930, in Florenceville, NB
Billionaire, french fry connoisseur, humanitarian

1943: Learns not to expect free room or board, along with value of hard labor, working for his father on the McCain family farm.

1951: Starts career as a pesticide salesman after graduating with a math and economics degree from Mount Allison University.

1956: Strikes it rich co-founding McCain Foods Ltd. with his three older brothers, Andrew, Robert and Harrison.

1995: Leaves executive posts at McCain after bitter succession dispute with Harrison. Leads acquisition of Maple Leaf Foods.

2003: Remains chairman of Maple Leaf, non-executive vice-chair of McCain Foods, and director of associated companies.

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