Wallace McCain, billionaire mogul of frozen food empire

The company Wallace McCain founded with his brother produces more frozen french fries than any other firm. The company Wallace McCain founded with his brother produces more frozen french fries than any other firm. (Moe Doiron/The Canadian Press/File 1995)
Associated Press / May 16, 2011

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TORONTO — Wallace McCain, a billionaire philanthropist who helped turn a small Canadian french fry plant into the global McCain Foods empire and later went on to control meat processor Maple Leaf Foods, has died. He was 81.

Mr. McCain, cofounder of McCain Foods and chairman of Maple Leaf Foods, died Friday night in Toronto after a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer. The death was announced by the board of directors of Maple Leaf Foods on Saturday.

This year, Forbes Magazine listed Mr. McCain as No. 512 on its annual list of the world’s billionaires, estimating his personal net worth at $2.3 billion.

Paul Martin, the former prime minister, praised Mr. McCain as a great Canadian.

“What he built in business is now part of our history,’’ Martin said in a statement. “But what should be known as well was his infectious sense of humor, his compassion, and his generosity to so many causes dedicated to making the lives of Canadians better.’’

Mr. McCain and his brother Harrison founded New Brunswick-based McCain Foods Ltd. in 1956, building it into one of the globe’s largest frozen food companies. The firm now operates in 44 countries and produces more frozen french fries than any other company in the world.

The two brothers followed in the steps of their father, who owned a seed potato exporting business in their hometown of Florenceville, New Brunswick. They hired 30 employees at their new plant and sold $152,000 worth of fries in their first year.

As consumers craved the convenience of prepared foods, the company grew, expanding into the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States over a 15-year period.

Throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, McCain Foods snapped up European and American businesses, expanding into the frozen pizza, vegetable, and fish processing markets and the juice business, and ramping up its number of plants around the world.

But in 1994, Wallace McCain was forced out as co-chief executive after a bitter public feud with his older brother about who would take over the company. Wallace wanted his son Michael to take the reins, but Harrison preferred outside managers. Millions in legal fees later, the courts sided with Harrison, who later named his nephew Allison McCain as his successor. Harrison McCain died in 2004.

Although Wallace McCain left the New Brunswick food company, he remained a board member and still held a one-third interest, but he couldn’t stay out of the business that made him a billionaire.

In 1995, he became an Officer of the Order of Canada — one of the country’s highest honors. That same year he and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan bought Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods, maker of deli meats, bread, and other prepared foods. That company grew to more than 21,000 employees under his supervision.

His son Michael now runs Maple Leaf as its chief executive.

“Wallace made an indelible impact on Maple Leaf Foods, our country, and the food industry globally,’’ said Purdy Crawford, lead director of the board of directors.

Mr. McCain was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in 1993 and its current head praised him for business leadership that has increased Canada’s profile around the world.

“He has demonstrated the qualities necessary to ensure the success and competitiveness of Canada in a global marketplace,’’ Ross Maund, the hall of fame’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.

Mr. McCain was also known for his philanthropic activities, fund-raising for the National Ballet School, establishing an entrepreneur training institute in his name at the University of New Brunswick, and sitting as a board member of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation.

“I liked making money,’’ Wallace McCain once said, “but I love giving it away even more.’’

He leaves his wife, Margaret, four children, and nine grandchildren.