Donald J. Savoie, Harrison McCain: Single-Minded Purpose. Montréal, PQ & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. xii + 336 pp., illustrations, endnotes, appendices, index. Cloth; ISBN 9780773543218, Cdn $29.95.
Frozen french fries seem like an unlikely product upon which to build a global business empire. But this time-saving innovation hit the market at a time when more women than ever were entering the workforce and they needed quick and easy meal options. Restaurants and pubs also wanted to efficiently serve busy families while saving on the cost of labour cleaning and preparing fresh-cut fries. Taking advantage of these demographic shifts, McCain Foods began its steady growth.
The subject of Donald Savoie's biography, Harrison McCain: Single-Minded Purpose, is one of the two brothers that founded the McCain Foods corporation. The McCain brothers established and grew what was to become their business empire from the unlikely location of small-town Florenceville, New Brunswick. Their business success is even more surprising given the high rate of corporate failure within an industry squeezed by thin margins.
Making frozen french fries, it turns out, is not so simple. Machinery to flash-freeze potatoes was not widely available at the time and the McCain brothers had to risk everything on an eccentric engineer who promised he could equip their first production facility. The risks they took didn't end there. The brothers soon discovered that not all spuds are created equal. Common table potatoes grown in and around Florenceville had sugar levels that made them incompatible with flash freezing. This led the brothers to research potatoes that could be quickly frozen and still be grown in the Canadian climate. From those early days onward, the McCains continued to invest in food research and development.
Overcoming these early challenges allowed McCain Foods to survive while other frozen food factories went bankrupt on the meagre markups afforded to producers. The brothers soon realized that the real profits could only be had by establishing their own brand. This meant that they needed to develop trust in their brand and establish their own sales channels. It soon became clear that McCain Foods corporation needed a chief salesman and marketing officer – a role that was a natural fit for Harrison McCain.
McCain Foods first expanded throughout Canada. Soon, however, the McCain brothers were travelling the world – first to the United Kingdom and then throughout the rest of Europe – in search of new markets for their frozen french fries. Despite the firm's rapid growth, Florenceville remained the home of both McCain brothers and McCain Foods global headquarters. Even with all that success, McCain Foods deliberately stayed out of the American market until the firm was sufficiently large to withstand the world's most competitive market.
Despite numerous economic challenges, the brothers made a series of unconventional decisions. The head office would remain in the brothers' home town of Florenceville, New Brunswick, for Harrison McCain's lifetime. The brothers rejected larger centres such as Halifax, let alone Toronto. Savoie deftly conveys how this pride and loyalty to McCains' hometown and its residents suffused all of his decisions.
One senses that at some level, Harrison took more than a little satisfaction at being a successful business person existing well outside the orbit of Toronto's business and social elites. Once, when asked for a multi-million dollar donation for a Toronto concert centre in exchange for the naming rights, Harrison quickly agreed. Harrison's offer was subsequently rejected based on his condition of naming the site the Florenceville Dance Hall. Today, the iconic Toronto building is known as Roy Thompson Hall.
Family remained important for Harrison McCain throughout his life. Even during their worst disagreements, Harrison's brother Wallace was always close by. The two McCains shared a bed as children, were close neighbors throughout adulthood and had offices across from one another at work. In the end, a painful rift developed between the brothers over who would lead the firm after the brothers stepped down. Wallace advocated for his son but Harrison disagreed and wanted a split board with representation from the extended family. Savoie handles the split between the brothers fairly – he emphasizes the book is about Harrison McCain and not the McCain corporation or the split with his brother. Despite this, one senses that Savoie has gone to great lengths to be fair to both sides without delving into excessive personal detail.
When asked about his success, Harrison McCain frequently indicated the secrets of his success were “Good timing, good luck, right place” (p77). His emphasis on luck signals an awareness that in the early days McCain Foods could have failed in many different ways. In the early days McCain Foods benefitted from generous subsidies from Canadian regional economic development agencies. Harrison frequently acknowledged this early help and continued to take advantage of it as the firm expanded across the country.
Here, the book takes an interesting turn and broadens its scope to the role that government can have in developing regional economies. Savoie, an expert in regional economic development, explains throughout the book how Harrison McCain was deeply invested in the success of his native New Brunswick. Harrison McCain was well aware that McCain Foods had become the largest employer in Florenceville and provided a steady income for potato farmers throughout eastern Canada.
Savoie, a native New Brunswicker himself, builds on these themes and wonders if the success of McCain Foods can still be reproduced in eastern Canada. Are governments now so risk averse that they can no longer deal with market opportunities in a timely way? Even worse, have governments now given up on Eastern Canada altogether? These important questions are worth considering in the light of the success of McCain Foods. Savoie notes that subsidies for the auto industry are unquestioned as good for Canada but investments in Eastern Canada are assumed to be a loss. Regardless of where one stands on these issues, they were issues that Harrison McCain was passionate about. Savoie does an excellent job of putting the problems forward.
This multifaceted book will appeal to a number of audiences. Business historians gain a book that adeptly confronts a number of different issues – entrepreneurship, strategy, family business and public policy. Canadian students of regional economics and public policy will benefit from the policy perspectives in the book. These are clearly articulated points that consider a Canada that exists beyond the Montreal-Windsor corridor and the western Canadian oil patch. Despite Savoie's assurances that the book focuses on Harrison McCain, family business researchers will find an excellent in-depth work on a successful Canadian business and the family conflict that came about in the transition to the next generation. Similarly, scholars of entrepreneurship and strategy will find the book a rich source of case material. While the academic will appreciate Savoie's attention to detail, the book is engagingly written and will appeal to a general readership interested in the history of an iconic Canadian business.
Wilfrid Laurier University
Robert C. H. Sweeny, Why Did We Choose to Industrialize? Montreal, 1819-1849. Montréal, PQ & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015. xx + 436 pp., maps, figures, tables, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth; ISBN 978-0-7735-4537-3, Cdn $110.00; Paperback; ISBN 978-0-7735-4538-0, Cdn $39.95.
Robert Sweeny’s 2016 Sir John A. MacDonald Prize-winning book, the highest honour given by the Canadian Historical Association for a book dealing with Canada, tries to answer “what social and economic changes permitted the industrial revolution?”(311) Or, at least that was the question he once thought he was trying to answer. As he elegantly shows, the question is “simple but wrong” as it grants “autonomy to socio-economic changes and an agency to supra-human processes.”(311) Sweeny’s work brilliantly brings together quantitative historical approaches, prone to being simple and wrong, with a careful reading-in of human agency and choice as mediated by the intersections of status, gender, and class.
Sweeny takes the reader through the theoretical, historiographical, and practical data-driven questions that have driven him over the past four decades. The narrative is structured around a series of data-intensive examinations of nineteenth-century Montreal: commutation records, GIS-rectified re-envisionings of historical maps, property assessments, protested promissory notes, apprenticeship contracts, building size, occupational titles and property ownership, electoral franchise, fire insurance records, school records, and more. The narrative is equally structured by Sweeny’s examination of his own changing interpretation of historical sources, what they mean, and what they have to say about the present.
At the risk of taking an epiphenomenal reading of Sweeny’s text, it may be read as a much-needed corrective to the twenty-first century interpretation of “big data.” Sweeny’s careful reconstruction of significantly detailed aspects of industrializing Montreal can be seen as the historical equivalent of big data, a data paradigm that is “characterized by being generated continuously, seeking to be exhaustive and fine-grained in scope, and flexible and scalable in its production.” (Roy Kitchin, “Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts”, 2014). The big data question, like the question Sweeny asks, is that of the relationship between sources/data and reality. How can the easily measured or, the measurable at all, be used to construct a meaningful understanding of reality?
In Chapter Six (“C’est un travail dont je n’avais pas d’idée!”) Sweeny develops a complex picture of property and households using the Viger census, the Adams map of the city, and the Doige directories, all remarkable sources for 1820s Montreal, carefully deployed and delicately and critically examined. Each of the three sources “lends itself extremely well to computer-assisted analysis.” (180) The story they tell is consistent, compelling and sensible. Sweeny then asks a key question for our interpretation of modernity “why is it that certain sources are so computer friendly. Is it the structured ordering of reality that makes them appear so modern ... [and] what does this ... hide us from seeing?”(180)
This question, and Sweeny’s attempt to answer it in Chapter Seven (“Towards a Cubist Portrait”), forms the crux of the importance of this book for a contemporary understanding of how to use data, how to interpret big data, and the extreme importance of being very careful in understanding and analyzing one’s own unstated and unconscious theoretical framings when trying to interpret data – historical or otherwise. Sweeny is practising what Kitchin in “Big Data” calls an “epistemology […] in which quantitative methods and models are employed within a framework that is reflexive and acknowledges […] situatedness, positionality and politics.”
And, I would add, the fundamental importance of gender as a category of analysis. While gender as a category of analysis is taken seriously by many historians, Sweeney argues that despite the assumption that “gender is a conceptual tool whose legitimacy within the [historical] profession was established decades ago,” the “neo-liberal transformation of [academia …] has in many ways reinforced the barriers to a gender-based analysis.” (13–4) He shows how many aspects of the economic history of industrialization, often seen as gender-neutral, are anything but: changes in agricultural output, apprenticeship relationships, relative value of moveable and immoveable property, impact of direct taxation, production and consumption, legal change relative to property and spousal claims on property, and the function of markets and market access. The compelling case that gender as an analytic category is not just important but fundamental to economic history is a sorely needed corrective.
Sweeny’s careful, self-reflective ways of knowing, critique of his own ways of knowing, and willingness to (in print!) acknowledge himself to be wrong are some of the deepest strengths of Why did we choose to industrialize? He may not answer his question - nor may it be answerable - but readers of The Prospectus, whether historians, management scholars, or business practitioners, will all gain great insight by reading this book. In the era of key performance indicators and the rapidly increased quantification of business practices, this book is a powerful and very important reminder of the blinkers that we all wear by our positions in the present, by our ideology, and by the illusion of measurability. We should live by the author’s mother’s words of warning: “The things that you know for sure aren’t so.” (15)
André Magnan, When Wheat Was King: The Rise and Fall of the Canadian-UK Grain Trade. The University of British Columbia Press [www.ubcpress.ca], 2016. viii + 205 pp., figures, tables, notes, references, index. Paperback, ISBN 978-0-7748-3114-7 Cdn 32.95.
This is not a book of business history. Rather it is a sociologist’s account of the rise and fall of the Canada-UK wheat trade. Traditionally, business and economic historians have framed their analysis of the Canadian wheat trade as either a challenge or a defence of the staple thesis, which is most often associated with Harold Innis. Magnan is not in conversation with Innis or the post-Innisians (e.g. Doug McCalla, Robin Neill, M.C. Urquhart, Marvin McInnis and Frank Lewis), who have moved beyond the staple thesis, with its emphasis on external forces, to examine the endogenous factors in Canadian economic growth. Unlike Innis and the post-Innisians, Magnan is not interested in determining wheat’s role in the economic development of the nation or its regions. Nor is he interested in wheat as a long-run factor in the integration of the nation. Rather, he is interested in “the evolution of the distinctive institutions of the prairie wheat economy – the Canadian Wheat Board [CWB] in particular – through the relationships of conflict and cooperation that have linked the region to world markets since 1870”. (3)
This is not to say that the book should be ignored by business historians. One of the ongoing debates in the historiography is the role of the State in Canadian economic growth. Neo-conservatives/neo-liberals have long argued that the State has undermined the economic health of the nation, making it poorer than nature had originally intended. Magnan takes issue with this argument. For him, the CWB represents a successful case of government intervention in the market economy.
Magnan views the evolution of the CWB, and the Canadian wheat industry more generally, through the prism of “food regimes.” As Magnan explains, a food regime is a historical constellation of “rules and social relations regulating the production and consumption of food across domestic and international spaces.” (4) These food regimes determine the limits in which social actors – governments, farmers, industry, and social movements – operate. In this sense, Magnan acknowledges the importance of both the exogenous and endogenous factors in the rise and fall of the wheat trade over the last 150 years.
Since 1870, the Canadian wheat trade has passed through three epochs, each of which has been defined by a specific “food regime.” The first period, 1870-1945, witnessed the forging of the Canada-UK wheat trade as the State put in place policies for coordinating western expansion through settlement, transportation, and trade protection. The climatic conditions of the southern prairies were ideal for growing high-protein, high-gluten Red Rife wheat, which was used in Britain to make cheap, high-calorie white bread. During this period, Magnan argues, the farmers had little power in the market, but they were numerous, organized and politically influential enough to convince the government to regulate the market in their favour. In response to the farmers’ pressure politics, the government’s institutions for regulating the wheat trade were deliberately designed to integrate the prairie region into the British market. When the first CWB was established on 31 July 1919 it continued the practice of collective marketing and close Canada-UK coordination which had been established by the Board of Grain Commissioners. In the years leading up to WWII, the second CWB was able to reconcile the Canadian government’s desire to maintain the flow of prairie wheat to Britain with farmers’ need for protection against global grain companies. In the midst of food and financial crises brought on by WWII the government made the CWB the only legal buyer of wheat. The CWB’s monopoly would be maintained for fifty years.
In the immediate aftermath of WWII, a second food regime emerged – i.e. “the mercantile-industrial food regime” – which lasted until 1995. This period was dominated by the US government and its support for American farmers. The extensive government subsidies to farmers led to huge surpluses of wheat. To deal with this problem, the US government signed international trade agreements and established commodity programs. Due to the amount of grain it controlled, the CWB crafted a niche role for itself by setting the world price for wheat. At the same time, the CWB challenged the system by selling wheat to communist countries like the Soviet Union (to which American farmers could not sell). During the period, Magnan writes, “single-desk marketing of the CWB embodied a very specific set of state/economy relations, which shaped not only the development of the grain economy but also the terms through which the Prairies would be integrated into food regime relations.” (164)
The beginning of the end of the second food regime occurred in 1972 when the US government struck a deal with the Soviet Union that cleared global grain reserves and sent world food prices skyrocketing. At the same time, British bakers began using new technologies that allowed them to substitute European grains for Canadian wheat. Within this environment, the CWB found that it could no longer control world prices. To make matters worse, in the late 1980s the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney put an end to the practice of providing a floor on prices paid by the CWB to farmers.
Within this highly competitive global environment, the CWB again proved to be highly innovative in matters of marketing. In 1995, for instance, the CWB negotiated a deal with the British baking giant Warburtons, which saw prairie farmers providing all the varieties of wheat that Warburtons needed to meet its sourcing requirements in exchange for higher prices. Other successes followed. Nevertheless, when the Stephen Harper Conservatives came to power in 2006, the CWB’s days were numbered. The Harper government had an ideological aversion to big government with its preference for market-based solutions. As a result, on August 1 2012, the CWB was “stripped of its historic marketing monopoly…”. (2)
Over the course of its history the CWB functioned as an effective government agency in the market economy. Time and again, it re-invented itself in response to changing global political and economic conditions in order to promote and protect the interests of prairie wheat farmers. Magnan’s scholarly study thus lends further support to the position that government action has made the nation economically stronger, and not weaker, than nature had intended.
Matthew J. Bellamy