December 5, 2023

Wallace McCain Dies at 81; Fed the World Frozen Fries

The directors of Maple Leaf Foods, Mr. McCain’s latest business venture, said in a statement that the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Mr. McCain’s hometown, Florenceville, New Brunswick, has long been associated with potato farming, but not until he and his brother Harrison formed a food company under their family name in 1956 did it become a corporate center.

McCain Foods, the world’s largest producer of “frozen potato specialties,” as they are known in the industry, has 50 plants in 15 countries. The plants produce frozen French fries, or local variations, and churn out a million pounds of frozen French fries and similar products an hour. The fries at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and KFC outlets around the world often come from a McCain factory.

While Mr. McCain and his brother Harrison are sometimes described as the sons of a potato farmer, that understates their family’s position. Early in the 20th century their father, Andrew Dean McCain, established a prosperous seed potato business with an emphasis on international exports.

G. Wallace F. McCain was born in Florenceville on April 9, 1930. After obtaining a degree in mathematics and economics, which meant attending three universities over several years, Wallace joined Harrison in trying to start a business. A third brother, Robert, noted that although frozen fast food was quickly becoming popular in Canada, there was no locally owned producer. For perhaps obvious reasons, French fries became McCain’s first product.

McCain fries were cooked longer before being frozen, making them darker and richer tasting than American imports.

Within four years the company was successful enough to expand to Britain, a nation known for its love of deep-fried potatoes and with close trade links to Canada at the time. In what would become a model for its foreign businesses, McCain’s British operation was given considerable autonomy in the hopes that consumers there would view it as a local company.

Over time, the business expanded into pizza and other frozen foods.

But the brothers’ personal relationship frayed. During the 1990s they became estranged when Harrison McCain wanted outside managers to assume the top executive positions at the company, while Wallace McCain favored his son, Michael. After prolonged litigation, at estimated legal costs of $20 million, Wallace McCain resigned as president and co-chief executive and left Florenceville, although he retained one-third ownership of McCain Foods, which has annual sales of about $6 billion.

“The biggest thing that happened to me in the past 25 years — and in my life — was being unceremoniously dumped from McCain Foods,” Mr. McCain told The Globe and Mail in 2009.

After moving to Toronto, he took control of Maple Leaf Foods, a processed food company with several valuable brands that had fallen on hard times. He made his son Michael Maple Leaf’s president and, eventually, its chief executive. Wallace McCain remained chairman.

After modernization and several acquisitions, Maple Leaf became Canada’s dominant processed food supplier, particularly in meats. It had a serious setback in 2008 when some of its cold cuts, infected with the listeriosis bacteria, caused several deaths.

In his final years, Mr. McCain became entangled in another corporate battle. Outside investors in Maple Leaf have opposed the family’s plan to invest heavily in the company to improve its efficiency and to compete better with American imports.

Mr. McCain is survived by his wife of 56 years, the former Margaret Norrie; two sons, Michael and Scott; two daughters, Eleanor and Martha; and nine grandchildren.

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