Right time, right place, good luck

Donald J. Savoie has written an excellent book about an entrepreneur who deserves to be celebrated. The book, Harrison McCain: Single-Minded Purpose (McGill-Queen’s), tells how Harrison and his brother Wallace, built McCain Foods from a rural startup in backwater New Brunswick to a global powerhouse that makes and sells one-third of all the french fries in the world. “One world, one fry,” was the company motto. From a profit of $1,822 in its first year of operation in the 1950s, McCain Foods has annual revenues of more than $6 billion today.

Savoie, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at l’Universit√© de Moncton, was a long-time friend of Harrison McCain who died in 2004. Savoie declares his involvement up front in an almost apologetic fashion, but in fact, the relationship is a strength. No one else could have seen as deep inside McCain as Savoie. He vividly relates the beginnings of the empire and the government mindset of the day when grants and loans were first becoming available in helpful amounts.

Throughout, McCain is portrayed as unstoppable, focussed on helping his community of Florenceville, New Brunswick, and a visionary with a self-effacing manner. When asked the reasons for his success, he always said, “Right time, right place, good luck.”

Only in the middle of the book, when describing expansion to various countries, does the story drag. As long as Harrison McCain is on the page, his impatience, focus and folksiness keeps your interest. Drawing on Harrison’s personal papers, Savoie adds new details to the family feud that eventually drove Wallace away from the business. But to my mind, the best comes at the end when Savoie tells stories about Harrison’s interest in public policy, his genuine love of farming and farmers, and his integrity. At one point, for example, an employee trademarks the name 5 Alive to stop a U.S. competitor from bringing the drink to Canada. When Harrison learns of the dodge, he orders that the name be sold back to the U.S. company for one dollar. “We are not goddamn crooks,” he said. “This is not the way for us to do business.”

Savoie concludes it is unlikely another Harrison McCain will rise from rural Canada. The focus is all on big cities now and governments are unlikely to help a little guy from nowhere. Too bad. We need more Harrison McCains in this country. 

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