Michael McCain on entrepreneurial professionalism: From small family business to large public enterprise

As a child in small town Florenceville, New Brunswick, MaRS Board member Michael McCain sat at the kitchen table listening to two of Canada’s greatest entrepreneurs, Wallace and Harrison McCain, discuss the family business. In last week’s CIBC Presents Entrepreneurship 101 we heard him tell not only their story of the international food giant McCain, but his own story of acquiring the near-demise Maple Leaf Foods in the mid-nineties and turning it around.

The thread linking the two stories was the importance of entrepreneurial professionalism: for a small family business to think big and for a big public company to think small to ensure their future success. In each case, there were challenges to managing these seeming opposites: staying entrepreneurial and innovative while managing professionally.

Entrepreneurs need to be professional

What does entrepreneurial professionalism look like from the vantage point of an entrepreneur? According to Michael, entrepreneurs need to focus on the long term and avoid hitting the proverbial glass ceiling of entrepreneurship and failing because they couldn’t professionally manage a rapidly growing organization. Wallace and Harrison knew what they didn’t know and were dedicated to filling in the gaps they had with great people. From the very beginning they had systems and discipline in place such as budgetary controls, monthly reports, organizational reviews and so forth.    To them, bringing in great people didn’t mean delegating, it meant working together.  They remained incredibly detail-oriented as owners and managers of the family business.  Michael remembers his father Wallace bringing home piles of invoices and purchase orders to review at night.

Bringing in professional elements to an enterprise early can only complement other necessary entrepreneurial characteristics such as hard work and determination. The McCain family’s dogged determination is exemplified by their entry into the market in France – after three dismal failures, they finally cracked the French market on the fourth.

Large organizations need to be entrepreneurial

The challenge of the food industry is that the margins are slim and the competition is stiff. So professional management and controls are an absolute necessity. For Maple Leaf Foods, however, maintaining a culture of entrepreneurship was also a priority, especially as 30 acquisitions necessitated weaving common DNA throughout the organization.

What does entrepreneurial professionalism look like in a large organization? Michael talked about instituting a personal sense of ownership and accountability among employees, encouraging decisiveness and agility throughout the organization and allowing ideas to flow freely.  He also spoke about truly living the values that they set out for their organization and how following those values guided them to do the right thing in times of crisis such as the listeriosis outbreak of 2008.  After the crisis, employee engagement survey scores reached an all-time high as employees supported the leadership’s direction in dealing with such a tragedy.

Would you like to hear more of Michael McCain’s insights and experiences? Check out the slide presentation below. And watch for  the video link, coming soon.

Interested in learning more about the challenges entrepreneurs face managing a growing enterprise?  Check out:

  • Why Entrepreneurs Don’t Scale” by John Hamm, Harvard Business Review, Dec 2002.  In this article, John Hamm identifies why founders flounder via four management tendencies that work well for small company entrepreneurs but which can become Achilles’ heels as those individuals try to run larger organizations.
  • The Founder’s Dilemma” by Noam Wasserman, Harvard Business Review, Feb 2008.  This article examines the choice entrepreneurs must make between money and power and discusses how superior returns can come from replacing the founder with a professional CEO more experienced with dealing with the needs of a growing company.

Downloads and resources

Weren’t able to attend the class? Need some notes or want to look something up? Click below for all of the goodies from the lecture. Watch the video and the slide presentation below.

CIBC presents Entrepreneurship 101 2009/10 – Week 13 – Lived it Lecture featuring Michael H. McCain from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.
Entrepreneurial Professionalism
View more documents from MaRS Discovery District.