Chief family officer: former McCain CEO Arnold Park

Former McCain CEO Arnold Park retired last year, but the rocking chair isn't going to claim him: he's building a new house, fundraising $250,000 for a non-profit helping orphans in Asia, and bringing up three new daughters.

It is late June, and the rains that have drenched Canada's East Coast for months fall on the idle bulldozers and backhoes sitting in Arnold and Sandra Park's muddy, unlandscaped yard. The pool out back is overflowing with rainwater, its pumps and filters not yet hooked up. Inside their newly constructed house, a workman busies himself installing a security system. The couple talks of expanding the stone fireplace and hanging art, but it will be months before this 3,400-square-foot place will really feel like home. After living for three months at their cottage a half-hour's drive away, the Parks moved to this house, outside New Minas, N.S., just days ago. Their cat, Rose Petal, made a break for the forest and has thus far declined to join them. It's a time of chaos. But looking back on his four-decade-long career, Arnold Park says he thrived under such conditions. “The worse things got,” he says, “the more I liked it.”

Park estimates he and his wife have moved 26 times, usually at the behest of employers offering new challenges and bigger paycheques. This time, however, is different. Last year, Park decided he'd had enough of meeting budgets and sales targets. For a decade, he had been president and CEO of the Canadian operations of McCain Foods Ltd., a french-fry and frozen-foods giant that employs about 4,000 in 15 processing plants across the country. The company was gearing up to execute an ambitious new strategic plan, and Park, then 60, could see it would be a time-consuming endeavour. Waiting just long enough to allow McCain to find a replacement, Park retired last December. He has only one regret: “The most frustrating thing about not working is that I've always had great assistants who have taken my phone calls, screened my e-mails and made my travel arrangements,” he says. “I guess I've been spoiled. Now I have to do it myself.”

There were other reasons to move on. One of them is scampering at Arnold Park's feet. Perhaps a day or so after her birth, in January 2004, his daughter Lily was found near the gates of a civic building in Xinyu City in south central China. She was placed in foster care before being adopted by the Parks last year. Her sisters, Sarah, 8, and Molly, 6, joined the family the same way. Says Park: “Especially once we got Lily, we had to make some decisions as to what we were doing.”

Communist officials claim that China's so-called one-child policy has prevented its population from swelling an additional 300 million since its inception in 1979. It has also resulted in untold selective abortions, however, and the abandonment of children. The controversial policy, enforced to varying degrees throughout China's history, limits couples to a single child on pain of high fines, imprisonment, forced abortions, sterilization or other harsh punishments. And that has exacerbated a traditional preference for male offspring, who carry on the family name and are responsible for taking care of their parents in old age. The policy has also created a pronounced population imbalance: official government figures peg China's birth ratio at 112 newborn boys to 100 newborn girls. Many girls who live to see birth–as well as handicapped or unhealthy children–are discarded, sometimes in public places, where they are likely to be found. They wind up in orphanages across the country, where their prospects are often bleak. Since the early 1990s, when the Chinese government began removing barriers to foreign adoptions, thousands of these cast-off children have found homes overseas–many of them in Canada.

This is the Parks' second family. They have four adult children and eight grandchildren, and in years past also had foster kids. Owing to his busy career, however, Park missed out on a lot the first time around. After a five-year stint working underground in northern Ontario's mines, the former high-school dropout piled on academic credentials (including degrees in political science and history, business and an MBA) and began a marketing career with companies including Heinz, Labatt, McCain, Cobi Foods and a year-long stint at a Toronto advertising agency. In 1989, he returned to McCain. Around the same time that company founders Harrison and Wallace McCain fell out in a turbulent bout of fraternal acrimony in the mid-1990s, Park assumed the top job at the company's Canadian operations. He frequently worked 11-hour days and on weekends, and estimates he travelled as much as 80 days a year. Asked how he balanced work and family life, he chuckles ruefully. “Most times, probably badly.”

Park's second chance arose in late 1997, when then Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto visited Ottawa. Peter McCain, president of McCain International and son of Harrison McCain, had been invited to attend a dinner honouring Hashimoto, but was killed in a snowmobile accident. The company dispatched the Parks in McCain's place, and there they met a woman who had adopted a Chinese girl through Children's Bridge, an Ottawa-based international adoption agency founded in the early 1990s. Back at their hotel later that night, the couple chatted excitedly about the prospect of doing the same. After three months spent mulling things over, they began preparing the necessary paperwork.

In 1999, with little more than a single photograph, some medical information of dubious quality and the vaguest outline of her story, they journeyed to China with a small group of prospective Canadian parents to collect Sarah, then 14 months old, in Nanjing. Asked why they dove back into parenthood at an age when many look forward to the benefits of an empty nest and fewer obligations, the Parks are hard-pressed to explain. “I can't tell you why,” says Sandra. “It's just something we wanted to do. We'd go for more.”

Age, though, is an issue. After 40, adopting a Canadian child is challenging. China is particularly flexible in this regard, but prefers applicants younger than 45 and refuses those over 55. Park asked a Chinese official to intervene in order to adopt Lily. The couple arranged financial trusts for the girls, and one of their adult sons has agreed to be the girls' guardian, in the event something happens to them. Not that Park thinks anything will. “My father died when he was 93,” he says. “He built a house when he was 85. My mother is 87 and she's still going strong. At least from a gene point of view, there's reason to hope I'll live awhile.”

Park's enthusiasm for adoption is not confined to his daughters. He serves on the board of directors of Children's Bridge, and he signed on as president of a related non-profit organization, the Children's Bridge Foundation. Founded in 2003, it aims to assist orphans in China and Vietnam who are unlikely to be adopted. The organization has raised some $300,000 to date, much of it from parents who have adopted through the agency. The funds have been spent on libraries, computer labs, sports equipment and musical instruments for orphanages, sponsoring the education of teenage orphans (whose government support ceases at age 14 in China), and surgeries for Vietnamese children with cleft lips and palates.

The foundation now aims to raise $250,000 a year. Its traditional methods, such as wine-and-cheese parties and eBay auctions, won't suffice; it will need to attract corporate dollars to meet that ambitious target. And that means Park's former colleagues can expect to be hearing from him. “I've got a lot of contacts in the business world, presidents of companies and sources of financing money. I can call them up and ask to talk to them,” he says. “All the people I worked with in business over the years are dreading getting that phone call.” Allison McCain, chairman of McCain Foods Ltd. and nephew of Harrison McCain, recently got his. “I reminded him that I'm going to be down to see him about raising some money,” Park says with a chuckle.

Park's talents will also be employed to ensure money is spent wisely and effectively. “I know how to do governance, and how boards and managements should work, and how budgets should come together and be honoured.” For one thing, he aims to put together programs that last for up to five years. “It's too expensive to go to an orphanage in the Gobi Desert and start a program that will only last a year,” he says. “The money's not well spent.” Park's position with the charity will see him visit China twice a year; his next visit is scheduled for this fall.

Park continues his lifelong habit of waking before 6 a.m. He confesses he was probably more involved in his home's design and construction than his contractors would have liked. And Sandra Park reports that her husband begins pacing when there's no task before him; she predicts that he'll soon return to work. “I might do some consulting or short-term work,” Park agrees. He's also thinking of teaching business part time. He'd like to resume sailing at some point, and hopes his daughters will share his enthusiasm for skiing.

Between raising three young children and overseeing the construction, Park's retirement in many ways resembles the working life he ostensibly escaped. “From six in the morning to 10 at night, we're going pretty much flat out,” he says. He then attempts to attribute this blazing pace to the demands of ferrying Sarah and Molly to school. But Sandra chimes in. “That's an excuse, Arnie,” she says. “Because you do that on the weekends, too.”