In 1930, Wallace McCain was born in Florenceville, a town in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. His ancestors, who had settled there many years earlier, were potato farmers. Although money was always scarce, McCain studied hard and eventually graduated from New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University.
The McCain family was tight-knit, and—as the youngest children—McCain and his brother Harrison were particularly close. After each had finished his university studies, they both worked for the same company and dreamed of going into a business together. The two were exploring various options when their older brother Bob suggested processing frozen French fries. They knew nothing about the business, but in 1956, they built a small potato processing plant in a cow pasture with their savings and small investments from their two older brothers, and they were determined to learn the business from the ground up.
This was the start of McCain Foods Ltd., which would grow to become one of Canada’s leading businesses. Brothers Wallace and Harrison ran the company, while their two other brothers served on the board. By the early 1960s, they had cornered Canada’s frozen French fry market. Although noting the long-standing popularity of French fries in the U.S. market, they instead expanded operations to England, followed by plants in the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, France, and elsewhere.
McCain Foods became the world’s largest producer of frozen French fries, and the company’s product lines grew to include frozen juices, pizzas, and other food items. Business professor Jan Grude once told the New York Times that “McCain Foods is one of the greatest single-generation success stories in Canadian business history.”
As the business continued to grow, brothers Wallace and Harrison parted ways in 1995, following a dispute over who would head the company when they retired. While maintaining his shares in the family-owned company, McCain bought publicly owned Maple Leaf Foods, Inc., another leading Canadian food processor. McCain became chairman and was also on the executive team were son Michael was president and CEO, and son Scott was president and chief operating officer of the agribusiness group.
The McCain family was prominent in provincial politics. McCain’s wife, Margaret, served as lieutenant governor of New Brunswick from 1994 to 1997. Together, they supported a host of charitable causes including a major gift to McCain’s alma mater, Mount Allison University, and a $2 million contribution to establish a business institute at the University of New Brunswick.
McCain received numerous distinctions and honors, including honorary degrees from Mount Allison University; University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia; the University of New Brunswick; Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario; and the University of Toronto. McCain was made an officer of the Order of Canada, inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, and accepted into the New Brunswick Hall of Fame. In 2003, he was selected as Canada’s International Executive of the Year, and in 2008 he received Canada’s highest honor, Companion of the Order of Canada.
McCain once stated that there are two speeds in business, “backward and forward.” At his company’s 50th anniversary celebration, McCain—quoting from Sophocles—said, “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been. It’s been a splendid day. Tomorrow will be even better.”