We were just a couple of lads from Carleton County, N.B., joking about the distaste the folks back home have for pretence.
I’d never met Michael McCain, chief executive of Maple Leaf Foods Inc., so I greeted him over the phone in November 2018 as “Mr. McCain.” He chastised me for being so formal, suggesting that an expletive that ends with “head” would have been more appropriate given our common roots in the Upper Saint John River Valley, 140 kilometres north of Fredericton.
“You know, when you are from Carleton County, if they stop calling you things like that, it means they don’t like you,” said McCain, son of the late Wallace McCain, who co-founded McCain Foods Ltd. in tiny Florenceville in 1957.
I can confirm that the potato farmers, truck drivers, welders and mechanics who set the tone of the discourse in western New Brunswick have little time for the nonsense that keeps others from having an authentic conversation.
McCain is a product of that environment. He was local royalty, but he went to the same village high school as everyone else. It seems to have kept him real during a period when so many other members of the Canadian establishment took their success for granted and disappeared to the VIP rooms off stage.
And if not that, then he at least honed an uncommon degree of courage.
McCain’s decision to publicly blame the United States government for the destruction of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 and all 176 people on board is extraordinary for many reasons.
His conclusion is aggressive, since Iran admitted that it erroneously fired the missile that blew up the plane. He risks irritating politicians in a country where Maple Leaf runs plants and angering customers in a crucial market. The company’s stock price dropped about one per cent as the tweets circulated among tens of thousands of people on social media.
But I bet some of the most uncomfortable people on Monday were McCain’s fellow chief executives.
For the most part, they’ve vanished from the public square, content to occasionally publish shallow commentaries in their favourite newspapers and utter platitudes from the stage at glitzy conferences. They tend to talk directly to analysts, not shareholders, and they pay legions of professional communicators to guard them from the press.
I’m very angry and time isn’t making me less angry
McCain CEO Michael McCain
McCain’s tweets will make it harder for other chief executives to use fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders as an excuse to stay out of the fray. He used the company Twitter account on Sunday night to accuse a “narcissist in Washington” of tearing “world accomplishments apart.” McCain also declared that he was “livid” that 57 Canadians died in the “crossfire,” including the wife and son of a Maple Leaf employee. “I’m very angry and time isn’t making me less angry,” he said.
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Powerful stuff. I haven’t seen anything like it from a Canadian chief executive since Twitter went online in 2006. If more corporate leaders talked that way, they might have had a role in the last election. Instead, they and their trade associations were shunned. The result is a government with a mandate to do a lot of things, but not many of them are priorities of the business community.
McCain has shown his counterparts a way back to political relevancy.
There has been lots of grumbling from the establishment about the Donald Trump administration wrecking the global order that made it — and, frankly, most of the rest of us — richer, but few examples of any of its members taking a stand.
Corporate leaders, especially those with operations in the United States, were mostly quiet during the first couple of years of the Trump presidency as they waited for him to pass a big business tax cut. They’ve been louder lately, but it’s hard to tell whether they are sincere, or whether they are hedging their bets ahead of this year’s election.
“It is sickening to see an environment where the character of individual is sidelined for the purpose of a specific policy interest,” McCain said on an episode of the Herle Burly podcast in July. “That is just sickening.”
With a few tweets, McCain has shown a skeptical public that running a big company is — or can be — about more than maximizing profit.
Some will say that McCain selfishly put emotion ahead of the men and women who own the shares of the company he runs. (McCain and other members of his family own a significant number of those shares, but not the majority.) Those people argue that if chief executives take care of their shareholders, then their employees, the communities in which they operate, and the environment will benefit at the same time. If the wealth fails to spread, it should be elected governments that attempt to close the gaps, not imperious executives.
The problem with that approach to management is that it isolates the C-suite from society. Corporations and their managers might do well for a while, but policy will eventually come back to bite. Ask any business lobbyist in Ottawa today if you don’t believe me. They are pushing good ideas, but few are listening, mostly because the politicians’ shareholders — voters — now see their interests and the priorities of companies as different things.
McCain’s willingness to take a risk and communicate honestly will remind the public that executives aren’t necessarily the enemy simply because they’re rich. More should follow his lead.