Jeff Stewart worked for Maple Leaf Foods Inc. for about a decade, and he vividly remembers when Michael McCain, the big boss from Toronto, would fly in to Saskatoon on his private jet to visit the company’s offices there.
McCain was smart, straight talking, a billionaire, though he mixed with his mid-level managerial troops, Stewart, a quality control manager among them, without emanating so much as a whiff of pretension.
His employees viewed McCain as a maverick, a workaholic, a guy born into an East Coast frozen French fry dynasty who didn’t coast through life on a trust fund but became known as the hardest working person at the publicly traded company he ran, a company whose official twitter feed McCain used to share some “personal reflections,” at 8:47 p.m. on an otherwise sleepy Sunday evening in mid-January.
McCain’s now famous tweet-thread spoke of a colleague who “lost his wife and family to a needless, irresponsible series of events of Iran…”, and it placed the blame for those events — the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 out of Tehran, and the deaths of 57 Canadians on board — squarely on the shoulders of a “narcissist in Washington.”
I’m Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, and these are personal reflections. I am very angry, and time isn’t making me less angry. A MLF colleague of mine lost his wife and family this week to a needless, irresponsible series of events in Iran…
— Maple Leaf Foods (@MapleLeafFoods) January 13, 2020
To avoid any possible confusion as to whom, exactly, was responsible for the tweets, McCain included his name at the top and bottom of the thread, signing off with: “We are in mourning and I am livid. Michael McCain.”
Naturally, the Trump-bashing, blisteringly raw message went viral; it was liked, hated, re-tweeted, trolled, commented upon, shared and eventually picked up by the New York Times and Biorports, among other American media outlets, a not uncommon fate for a controversial missive on social media.
But what was unusual was its’ authorship.
McCain after all, isn’t a bleeding-heart Hollywood actor, aging rock and roller, card-carrying Democrat or you-name-the-type who stereotypically rages against President Trump. He is a 68-year-old Canadian CEO, and as such belongs to that rare class of wealthy Canadian business folk who typically only speak out publicly at charity galas or on quarterly earnings calls with shareholders.
But those that know McCain, even as a former boss, were not shocked.
“It didn’t surprise me at all what he said,” says Stewart, now a realtor in Saskatoon. “He is an emotional, caring guy, and you would see that within two seconds of meeting him. He also used some pretty blunt language — which is another hallmark of his.”
Scrappiness, indeed, is a McCain family trait. Had all gone according to happily ever after endings, Michael McCain would today be running McCain Foods out of his hometown of Florenceville, N.B., and not Maple Leaf Foods out of Toronto. Alas, a family fortune steeped in French fries splintered when its co-founders — McCain’s father, Wallace, and his uncle, Harrison — disagreed over the company’s succession plan.
He is an emotional, caring guy
Jeff Stewart, former Maple Leaf Foods employee
Enter the lawyers and billable hours that reportedly topped $20-million before a years-long legal dispute ended with Wallace and his son, an heir who no longer had a company to run, leaving McCain’s with a war chest they used to buy Maple Leaf Foods. The younger McCain become CEO in 1999, raising a family with his then-wife, Christine, in a mansion in Toronto’s north end. The couple would go to fancy parties and donated millions to charity before they split in 2013, a messy divorce highlighted by Christine’s lawyers convincing a judge to toss out a pre-nuptial agreement. As for Maple Leaf Foods, the company was thrown into crisis in 2008, when a listeria outbreak that left 23 dead was traced to one of its plants in Toronto. McCain, in what is regarded as a textbook example in good crisis management, took responsibility.
“Knowing there is a desire to assign blame, the buck stops here,” he said. “I emphasize: this is our accountability and it’s ours to fix.”
He also appeared in a Maple Leaf commercial, offering a stripped down, straight from the heart apology to the victims. It was a public performance given as his company’s stock price was cratering and its products being pulled from grocery stores shelves. McCain had to do something, and by owning the crisis the narrative shifted from what happened to what was being done to remedy it.
But with his tweets Sunday, the CEO wasn’t solving a crisis so much as whacking a hornet’s nest: Some speculated about whether the company, which has significant U.S. operations, would face a backlash as a result.
It wasn’t the first time McCain had taken issue with Trump. He expressed his dislike for him in July 2018 on the Herle Burly podcast hosted by David Herle, a former pollster for Prime Minister Paul Martin. McCain told Herle that he abhorred what Trump “stands for.”
Herle then noted Maple Leaf had plants in the United States.
“I would be as critical if I was right there, front and centre, as I am here and damn the torpedoes,” McCain said. “The consequences, the hate mail, the tweet storms — I don’t give a shit.”