ICYMI: Leveraging serendipity: The life and times of Harrison McCain

Without question my favourite Christmas gift this year was a copy of Donald Savoie’s new biography of Harrison McCain. I could hardly put this book down. It is a fascinating exposé of one Canada’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Donald J. Savoie is easily Atlantic Canada’s most prolific writer on public policy and economic development. I have had to dedicate an entire wing of the bookshelf in my office for his recent publications including Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher?: How Government Decides and Why (2013), Power: Where Is It? (2010), I’m from Bouctouche, Me (2009), Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom (2008) and Visiting Grandchildren: Economic Development in the Maritimes (2006).

Harrison McCain, Single-Minded Purpose (2013) is a ‘two-fer’. It is an excellent and engaging story of successful entrepreneurship interwoven with Savoie’s thoughts on the historical development of the Maritimes, regional economic development policy, transparency in government and many of his other key research themes.

In the preface to this book, Savoie states “[my] heroes are entrepreneurs” and this telling of Harrison McCain’s life story is one of a great New Brunswick hero.

It’s not that Savoie shies away from the more complicated parts of the Harrison McCain story. The split between Harrison and his brother Wallace is discussed in detail. But the overall tone is celebratory – an inspiring story of tenacity, ambition, business success and ultimately, passion for family, community and province.

I came away from this book concluding that McCain took full advantage of serendipity. As Savoie tells it, McCain himself defined the secret of success as “right time, right place, good luck”.

History, timing and geography were on McCain’s side.

Entrepreneurship was in his blood. His family had a long entrepreneurial pedigree.

He got into the French Fry business just as the market for fast food was taking off. He started to build manufacturing plants just when governments decided to financially support value-added agricultural manufacturing sectors. Early on, he got to know and observe some of New Brunswick’s key industrialists – most notably K.C. Irving.

Serendipity, turbocharged by ambition and single-minded purpose, led to the creation of one of Canada’s largest, global firms. Harrison McCain and his brother set out to build something amazing and did just that.

What can we learn from the life and times of Harrison McCain?

First, timing does matters. I have always maintained that true entrepreneurs are not tied to a specific product or service but they show a knack for spotting trends and opportunities that have the potential to explode into something great.
Second, being in the right place also matters. McCain started in New Brunswick. He got good, real good, at developing the business here and then he took it to the world.

New Brunswick is a small province. Business networks are small. Decisions can be made quickly. Entrepreneurs should see New Brunswick as an incubator for entrepreneurial ideas. Get good at the business here and then take it to the world.

Government and community leaders should position New Brunswick as an ideal place to start and grow an export-oriented business and then promote the province to entrepreneurs around the world.

Third, government has a role to play whether we like it or not. In addition to the funding support to establish the firm’s manufacturing plants, federal government supported research into potato varieties was critical to the early success of McCain Foods.

The federal government has been cutting its research and development spending in New Brunswick for a number of years. We may never know the unintended consequences of this slow but steady retreat from the province.

The biggest lesson from Harrison McCain is one of ambition. He had big plans. He worked very hard and “bet the farm” in the early days. He wanted to do something great.

Achievement of any kind starts with ambition. It transcends entrepreneurship. It is a passion for excellence that applies to all walks of life – business, sports, the arts, academia, politics, the civil service, etc.

This is the greatest lesson provided by Harrison McCain, and Donald Savoie, for all New Brunswickers.

We can sit back and watch our communities slowly wither while we tout the merits of our ‘laid-back’ lifestyle or we can kick it into high gear and do something great.