The $5-million man

"It's all about character. Firstly, he knows how to work. Secondly, he won't quit. And thirdly, he is as straight as an arrow. His word is his word. A deal is a deal. I don't think he has ever had to sign a contract. "It speaks to his honour."
February 22, 2011

The $5-million man
Philanthropy: Wallace McCain makes generous gift to business institute at UNB that bears his name
Marty Klinkenberg


Wallace McCain announced a $5-million gift to UNB at an event in his honour at the Grand Hall in Saint John Monday night. Photo: Kâté Braydon/Telegraph-Journal

SAINT JOHN - On a night billed as a tribute to one of Canada's greatest philanthropists and entrepreneurs, Wallace McCain announced Monday that he is donating $5 million to the institute at the University of New Brunswick that carries his name.

A crowd that included many of the province's most influential business leaders let out a collective gasp when the announcement was made at the end of an emotional program at the university's Grand Hall in uptown Saint John.

Speaking on behalf of his mother, Margaret, who was sick with the flu and unable to attend, and his father, who is ailing and greatly dislikes speeches anyhow, son Scott McCain announced the endowment to the Wallace McCain Institute, an advanced studies curriculum for entrepreneurs that his parents established with a $2 million donation in 2006.

Seated at the front of the room near his close friend Frank McKenna, the TD Bank chairman and former premier, McCain received a lingering and loving ovation from several hundred guests, including graduates from the program's first three years. A billionaire business titan from Carleton County, McCain has been battling pancreatic cancer for nearly a year.

"The emotions I am feeling are mostly pride and excitement and enthusiasm for what the program will do" Scott McCain, president and chief operating officer of Maple Leaf Foods, said quietly afterward. "My mother and father are hugely supportive of what they have done, and they want to build on that and make it bigger and better in the future."

Inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in 1993, Wallace McCain is the chairman of Maple Leaf Foods and remains a vice-chairman of McCain Foods, a small potato export company in Florenceville that he and his late brother, Harrison, turned into one of the world's most successful french fry and frozen food firms.

"I think he and Harrison collectively may be the best entrepreneurs ever produced in Canada," said Richard Currie, the UNB chancellor and former executive at Loblaws. "If they slept at home 100 nights a year for 40 years that was it. They deserve every accolade they ever get. They earned it."

With Wallace, Currie said, "It's all about character. Firstly, he knows how to work. Secondly, he won't quit. And thirdly, he is as straight as an arrow. His word is his word. A deal is a deal. I don't think he has ever had to sign a contract.

"It speaks to his honour."

Before a crowd brimming with academics and Olands and Ganongs and McKennas, the 80-year-old McCain, who refers to himself humbly as "just a farmer from New Brunswick," was hailed as inspirational and visionary by budding entrepreneurs who have participated in leadership studies at the McCain Institute.

"The program has taught me how to live, how to love, and how to laugh - and I did learn a few business skills," Vince Cormier, president of the Titan Metals Group in St. Antoine, told the audience when called to the stage. "Wallace, this program has taught me more than you can ever imagine, and I will cherish it the rest of my life."

Envisioned as a bridge between established entrepreneurs and younger talents with new ideas, the McCain Institute offers one-year programs with business icons as mentors - McKenna included.

"I think it is obvious now to people in this province that the old ways don't work," Currie said.

"We have a huge deficit and a huge accumulated debt, and the only way out is through education, innovation and entrepreneurship.

"In the future, I don't think you can count on leadership from born entrepreneurs. But trained New Brunswickers will do awesome work and this will go a long way to that training."

Gerry Pond, the chairman of Mariner Partners and former president of Aliant and chief executive officer of NBTel, serves as a fellow within the McCain Institute.

He was beaming after the announcement on Monday night, which was served up along with caviar, scallops wrapped in bacon and glasses of wine and ice-cold beer.

"This is a fantastic shot in the arm for us," Pond said. "It is exactly what we needed to take the institute to the next level."

Wallace McCain, who along with his wife, the former lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, has handed over millions of dollars to establish education and child-development programs and to help fund the arts, declined to speak.

"I talk too much, but I don't like talking in public," he said earlier in the day.

He acknowledged that he likes giving money away to appropriate causes.

"Do I love New Brunswick? Yes," he said. "Will I do anything I can to help further business here? Yes, absolutely."

Then, as way of an explanation, he said, "I like to give money away. It's as much fun or better than it is to make it. Seriously.

"I give away the maximum I possibly can."

On Monday night, before a grateful crowd, he did it again.

Marty Klinkenberg is senior writer at the Telegraph-Journal. He can be reached at moc.liamtoh|grebneknilkytram#moc.liamtoh|grebneknilkytram.

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