Best Managed Companies

How McCain Foods keeps its family-business feeling at global scale

Is there anything innovative about french fries? McCain Foods proves there are plenty of ways to improve on the humble spud

Canada’s Best Managed Companies
Farmers in a potato field with tractor

Eugene Antworth (right) and his son Ethan on the family potato farm in Knoxville, NB. The Antworth family have supplied potatoes to McCain Foods, based in nearby Florenceville, for 30 years. (Dean Casavechia/McCain Foods)

“Would you like some fries with that?”

If you said yes—anywhere in the world—odds are one in three you were served a McCain Foods french fry. Not an insignificant accomplishment for a family of potato farmers from the small village of Florenceville, N.B., who built the world’s largest manufacturer of frozen potatoes.

Founded by Harrison and Wallace McCain, as well as their brothers Andrew and Robert, in 1957, McCain Foods Limited celebrated its 60th anniversary this year by investing more than $1 billion into its plants and facilities. For Shai Altman, president of McCain Foods (Canada), that investment aptly captures the company’s long-term strategic thinking, focus on its core values, and commitment to sustainable growth.

Altman brings a fresh outlook and a global perspective to a family business now in its third generation. He previously served a stint with Wrigley, which included working in the chewing gum giant’s Israeli and Indian markets before joining Wrigley Canada. Recruited in September 2014, Altman describes his company’s mission in simple terms. “We are, at the end of the day, an agriculture company—we are a potato company,” he says. “Yes, we do a lot of things beyond potatoes, but potatoes are the core of the business.”

In Canada alone, McCain processes 4.5 billion potatoes each year. But beyond potatoes every which way, its products include desserts, assorted oven meals, and appetizers for quick service restaurants. But the humble potato that launched the business remains its driving force, and Altman sees McCain’s passion and commitment to the spud as critical to both its past and future success.

“We constantly refocus our business to areas where we have competitive advantage,” Altman says. That means investing in product innovation—a new line of appetizers will hit the market later this year—but it also means shedding product lines that no longer work. Remember McCain pizza and juices? The company expanded into both areas aggressively, but pulled the plug on both ventures half a decade ago. While the moves occurred before Altman’s time, he says they show how McCain makes decisions.

“Those businesses made sense at the time they were launched; then the market changed, and they didn’t. When businesses don’t make business sense, you divest them,” he says. Then, look for opportunities elsewhere.

McCain’s careful attention to growth strategies is one of the reasons it’s recognized as a Best Managed Company by Deloitte.

“As an organization that has experienced tremendous growth and has wide-ranging operations around the world, attention to strategy and focus is an area of strength for McCain,” says Jonathan Calabrese, a partner with Deloitte in New Brunswick.

A second area of strength is the company’s family-focused corporate culture. McCain may be a $9-billion behemoth that employs 20,000 people worldwide, but it’s still a privately owned family business. The cultural implications are profound. In the boardroom and on the potato field, McCain wants its people to feel and act like family, and for the most part, they do.

“McCain has a family-oriented culture that has grown from local facilities to international locations,” says Calabrese. The company works with 153 Canadian family farms (globally, that number is a stunning 3,850). Of the 53 processing plants it operates worldwide, eight are in Canada, also located in small, rural communities. That means, Altman says, “McCain is the community and the community is McCain.” It’s a responsibility McCain takes seriously, investing in programs such as school breakfasts, Christmas toy drives and other supports for families who live in McCain communities.

But being family-focused does not mean that McCain has shied away from hard-nosed business decisions, such as closing its processing plant in Borden-Carleton, P.E.I., in late 2014, a move that eliminated 121 jobs in the small community.

It was a difficult decision, but one followed by a massive capital investment in its infrastructure globally in 2017. Altman, who was with Wrigley as it transitioned from being a public company to part of the privately held Mars family empire, believes the business implications of being family-owned are one of McCain’s key strengths.

“Public companies report and operate on a quarterly basis,” he says. “We can invest in growth and think long term. The more-than-billion-dollar capital investment we are making in our facilities around the world this year is easier for a private company than a public one.”

This freedom to invest in the long term, coupled with the ability to reposition quickly as markets change, has been part of the McCain story from the beginning. Its early explosive growth was the result of the McCain brothers’ domination of the frozen foods market before most people realized there was one. More recently, as consumers became more health-conscious, McCain moved ahead of market regulations to address concerns about trans fats, GMOs and other additives. Now, Altman and his management team are watching out-of-home preparation of food overtake in-home. The rise of companies such as UberEats and Skip The Dishes—coupled with people’s hectic daily schedules—means consumers are more likely to order french fries for delivery instead of popping a bag of McCain frozen fries in the oven.

Fortunately, McCain was ahead of that trend as well—one in three of the fries delivered to your house by UberEats is also a McCain french fry.

The company is investing heavily in what Altman calls “agriculture of the future,” drawing on GPS, drones and other technology to improve its farmers’ processes, all with a view to improving sustainability and cost efficiency. (And beyond: McCain’s investment in ongoing product innovation means that when humans are ready to eat potatoes on Mars, McCain will be there.)

Altman’s not losing sleep over low-carb diets, either. “One of our themes is, ‘It’s all good,’ and I think here, too, it’s all good,” he says. “Our purpose is to bring enjoyment to people’s lives through great-tasting food. So long as we’re doing that—it’s all good.”