'I love ya, Blub' was Horton's final farewell

In the 1960s, Ron Joyce was a cop who liked to dream.


His goal wasn't that complicated. He just wanted to find a way to earn more money to support his young family in the Hamilton area.

In the process, Joyce helped develop one of the most prominent retail brands in Canada - Tim Hortons - as he built the Canadian coffee and doughnut chain that he calls "an icon."

Joyce also became a billionaire after, or sometime before, he sold the firm to the U.S.-based hamburger joint operator Wendy's International Inc. in 1996.

Larry MacDougal, Business Edge
Ron Joyce saw his stake in Tim Hortons grow from a single store in Hamilton to a North American business giant.

"There have been so many misconceptions about the Wendy's deal, that Wendy's provided the financing for the growth we've had since they became the owner, which is nonsense," says Joyce.

"If anything, we were subsidizing them. They didn't have to provide anything, because we were cashflow-sufficient to develop a system."

Many retailers can only dream of building a chain such as Tim Hortons. It has grown from the first store in Hamilton that Joyce managed to approximately 3,000 outlets in Canada and the U.S. today.

Unlike the coffee that he once peddled, Joyce's journey through life and business has not always been smooth. He dropped out of school after Grade 9 and moved to Ontario from his native Nova Scotia, and, as he reveals in his autobiography Always Fresh: The Untold Story of Tim Hortons by the Man Who Created a Canadian Empire, he has had many disagreements along the way.

His adversaries have included the widow of the chain's legendary namesake, whom he often dated. He's also locked horns with Wendy's brass and others who were closest to him.

"I've been married twice and divorced twice," says Joyce. "I've lived alone for 30 years. I'm the only person I can get along with."

Despite their occasional disagreements on how to run a company, Joyce "got along extremely well" with Tim Horton. The legendary National Hockey League defenceman launched the business before he died in 1974 in a car accident while returning to Buffalo after the Sabres had met his former club, the Toronto Maple Leafs, at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Joyce was among the last to see Horton alive as they jawed into the early morning over Horton's expenses before the ex-Leaf met his fate. The friendship with Horton helped Joyce develop the means to acquire future stakes in several other ventures.

His interests now include 20 small-market B.C. radio stations operated by privately held Duncan, B.C.-based Vista Broadcast Group Inc., oil and gas stakes in Alberta and Argentina, and the Fox Harbour golf resort in Nova Scotia.

Joyce is also a former minority owner of the Calgary Flames and retains board positions with Calgary-based Shaw Communications Inc. and other private firms that he declines to disclose.

The father of seven and grandfather of 11 has also set up the Tim Hortons Children's Foundation and supported many other community causes, including the Canadian Youth Business Foundation.

He provides annual stipends to three of Horton's four daughters, while the fourth daughter, Jeri-Lyn, is married to Ron Joyce Jr.

Joyce won't go into details about his payments to the Horton family members, and a Maclean's reviewer has criticized him for not spilling all the coffee beans in his book - contending it's "as unabashedly self-congratulatory as the title suggests."

But Joyce still serves up some steaming-hot stories.

"I like to think I'm a pretty good Canadian," says Joyce, who has homes in Burlington, Calgary and Nova Scotia. "I'm proud of what I've accomplished in my life. I'm able to give back financially, whether (to) universities, hospitals, children or whatever. I like to think that I've done my share when it comes to being part of the Canadian business scene."

1. Why did you decide to write your book?

"People would say, 'Why don't you write a book and tell the story of Tim Hortons? Because you're the guy that was there for the beginning and from Day 1.' It's a story that should be told. I struggled with whether I wanted to or not for several years and, finally, I said, 'Aw, I'm going to do it.' In fact, I'm glad I did. I tell the story of how it all started. I think there's a good business story."

2. What qualities do you have that enabled you to succeed in business?

"Probably focus, tenacity and work ethic. I worked a lot of long hours through difficult periods of time, trying to develop a system. I also believe that focus is an important thing. When you find something you love to do, for gosh sakes, you'll never work again. But when I fell in love with the food-service industry, it was consuming to a great degree. As I developed the system, it was just a tremendous experience."

3. What was it like growing up in Nova Scotia?

"We were brought up in the small village of Tatamagouche. We had a humble home. We were always well-fed and warm. A small village doesn't offer a lot of things (economically), but it does offer some other great things. Our quality of life wasn't too bad. I did enjoy my young years. I look back at it now from where I'm sitting today, and it was certainly a different quality of life. My mother was widowed at a young age when she was pregnant with my sister. I also had a brother. I was the oldest. So she raised three children on her own. She tried to do about anything she could do to help supplement her income on a mother's allowance. That started off as a meagre amount. She did all kinds of different things to help (provide) food and clothing for our family, including being a telephone operator. She did house cleaning and just a lot of different things to survive during those years."

4. When did you move to Ontario?

"I decided to leave home in the '40s when I was 16 years old. There wasn't much opportunity for good-paying jobs in that immediate area and that's when there was a lot of migration of people from Atlantic Canada, which was the industrial heart of the country at that time - and it still is, I suppose. I went to Hamilton from Tatamagouche. I had saved up $35. It was $30 for the train fare, and I thought I would live dollar-for-dollar until I got a job. I arrived in Hamilton and the very first day I found a job and went to work - the same day. There was lots of opportunities for work for young people - or for anybody, I should say. (My job was at) a big can company. They produced cans for the oil industry and things like that. Then I bounced around the tobacco fields.

"I worked at several different factories and ended up going to the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. I was there for three or four years before I joined the navy (and served in Korea and Japan). "I left the navy in 1956 and joined the Hamilton Police Department. I was there for nine years and then left to open the first Tim Hortons store."

5. What was your career like as a police officer?

"I was in uniform and I was a plainclothes (officer.) I did all the usual things. It was a job that I rather enjoyed, but it didn't pay any money. I had four children and I was making $4,000 a year. Eventually, I ran into an old navy buddy who had a Dairy Queen in Hamilton. My wife and I went for an ice cream cone and we had a reunion. He said, 'Get yourself one of these. They're a licence to print money.' So that was the beginning of my food-service career. There was an ad in the paper for two or three Dairy Queens for sale, so I called and purchased one. The first year we had the store, we did three or four times the revenue, or money or profit or whatever you want to call it, than I did as a police officer. On top of that, it was easier to sell ice cream cones than it was traffic tickets. You didn't have any happy customers when you were giving a speeding fine."

6. How did you get connected with Tim Horton?

"I was the third franchisee in nine months and I bought the first store. Shortly after that, I met him for the first time. His partner (Jim Charade) and he split. That was 1965 and in 1966 he had opened a third store in Kitchener-Waterloo and I managed it for him. Jim (Charade) was really the guy that dreamed of the idea of Tim Hortons - but he couldn't execute. There were a lot of financial problems. So Tim bought him out and I became his partner."

7. How would you describe your relationship with Tim Horton?

"It was excellent. We had a good friendship and we worked well together. We shared an office right up to his death and we got along extremely well. More and more as the chain started to develop, he left me to manage the food-service part of the (business) and he played hockey. I kept him informed of pretty well everything, but he was comfortable that everything was fine. So he started taking the summer months (off.) He got a cottage up north (in Ontario) and spent his summer months there."

8. In your book, you reveal that you spent time with Horton on the morning he died. What were your last words to him?

"We'd had a great conversation and I convinced him that he should come to my home. It was four o'clock in the morning. I had to be in Sarnia at 8 a.m. So I said, 'Look, I've gotta get some sleep. Come on to the house and stay there with me.' He said, 'OK, I'll lock up and I'll see you at the house.' He said, 'I love ya, Blub.' That was his nickname for me. I went on home and he went by me on the trip home. I just assumed that he just kept right on goin' to Buffalo. Of course, that's what happened. The accident happened in St. Catharines. I was very emotional, as you can appreciate. We were good, close personal friends. He was my business partner and we just loved each other. It was a very difficult period. But out of that came some good things. That's when we decided to build the Tim Horton Memorial Camp in Parry Sound (Ont.). He died in '74 and we opened in '75, and today there are 11 of those camps across the country and one in the United States. They have over 11,000 kids each summer as guests of the store owners and the (Tim Horton) Foundation. Of a tragedy, something good happened - and that's something that we're all very proud of."

9. How did you keep the company going following Horton's death?

"There was actually no impact at all, really, as far as sales go. There was some concern from some of the owners, now that the founder was gone. But the reality is, the business had already been established by the time he died, and there was really no negative impact. It continued to grow quite rapidly and Mrs. Horton became my partner for a couple of years and she sold her interest to me (for $1 million) and from there we continued to develop the chain. We were selling 40 to 50 stores a year and it became 100 stores a year."

10. How did the lawsuit with Lori Horton affect you?

"That was just a very sad or difficult time or whatever words you want to use, because 15 years after the fact, she decided to sue for half the company. Anyway, the proper conclusion came out from the courts.

"They fully supported the deal and the case was dismissed."

11. When did you decide to build the company from a fairly small operation into a large operation?

"In the late '80s, we had a meeting, all of my senior executives at a retreat. I was the sole owner by this time and I said to senior management that, if we were going to be the leading brand in this segment of the industry, we had to move the numbers up. In 1992, we made the decision that we would have 1,000 stores by 1995. So that became our goal. Then we said our next goal was 2,000 stores by 2000, and we accomplished that. After that we just ramped everything up. The real estate department had to have more people. We regionalized the company. We had four regional offices - one in Nova Scotia, one in Ontario, one in Quebec and one in Calgary. We also had one in British Columbia. It allowed us to focus on those key parts of the country and each area was given a goal to achieve in more stores to open. So that became the tipping point for the significant growth of the company - and that's gone on to this day."

12. Why did you sell your interest in Tim Hortons to Wendy's?

"It was part of my estate planning. Also, I wanted to have the opportunity to grow with an American brand of significance like Wendy's. I thought that would give us an opportunity to take our chain into the United States, which is exactly what is happening. I felt we were better off having a partner that had a business down there than trying to develop on our own. The unfortunate part was, Wendy's was not as strong or well-recognized as I had perceived them to be. They had a lot of problems in their company - and still do, I think. Hortons has really carried the load for them for the better part of 10 years, until the initial public offering. (Joyce has declined to invest in Tim Hortons since its IPO last spring.)

13. What was your relationship like with late Wendy's founder Dave Thomas?

"We were good friends. We played a lot of golf together and went boating together. He loved to play gin. He used to come to Canada on a pretty regular basis ... He was a good guy."

14. So why was there this acrimony between you and Wendy's while you had this good relationship with Dave Thomas?

"Eventually, the relationship deteriorated as the (merged) company grew. We were both going in different directions. Finally, in frustration, I resigned from the board because I couldn't make the changes that I perceived would have to happen to turn the thing around. So we were at loggerheads with senior management. I'm still not on friendly speaking terms. But that had nothing to do with David in the early years. It was the management of the company - which was very weak - that caused the problem."

15. Switching gears, when did you decide to invest in the Calgary Flames?

"After I lost the (NHL) franchise bid for Hamilton (during the league's expansion in the early 1990s), I got to meet a lot of the owners of the Flames and they were looking to change the focus of ownership. Some of the people wanted to get out, like (Canadian Football League legend) Normie Kwong (now Alberta's lieutenant-governor) and Mrs. (Sonia) Scurfield (widow of late Flames owner Ralph Scurfield). So they brought in several new partners and I was one of them. We needed to strengthen the ownership and take the team to the next step."

16. Did you invest in the Flames with the idea of possibly moving the team to Hamilton?

"No. Absolutely not. There'll never be a team in Hamilton, I don't think. It infringes on Toronto and Buffalo's area. The team is doing very well. It's nice to see that they're starting to win again."

17. What do you think of this idea, which people have suggested, of putting a second NHL team in Toronto?" "Right now, you can't get seats for the Leafs games. They're sold out. I think two teams in Toronto would work. They even have three (teams) down there with New Jersey. (Toronto) is a huge growth population."

18. Would you be interested in owning a second NHL team in Toronto?

(Joyce laughs.) "Not at this point in my life. I'm getting too old to do that sort of thing. I'm pretty well retired now."

19. You bought your own airplane and became dissatisfied. Why?

"I had set certain goals in my life. One was to have a pure jet rather than prop airplanes. That was another turning point, I suppose, when I accomplished that dream and it didn't meet the expectations somehow or another. It's amazing when you set goals - do things in life - and you attain them. All of a sudden, they're done. Now where do I go? It's the same with the golf course (in Nova Scotia.) It's virtually done and now I've gotta find another vehicle that I have to create - to keep (my) mind active and doing things. I have a sailing boat that I use - that I love. It's a fairly large boat that I had built in New Zealand. I travel a good part of the world in that sailboat. I crossed the Pacific to New Zealand. I went over for the Americas Cup in 2003 and I've gone across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. " 20. What are your future business goals?

"I'm still very much involved in investing in companies. My son here (in Burlington, Ont.) has a packaging company he's developing that we're very excited about. I'm an investor in a lot of different startup companies through a fund that I'm one of the senior partners in. We manage to keep ourselves busy. I have a charter airline for executive-type aircraft and we have seven airplanes. We have our own FBO - fixed-base operation - where we do our maintenance, (refuelling) and so on and so forth. I feel I'm retired, but I still have these irons in the fire."

Ron Joyce

* Title: Former president/CEO of TDL Group Corp. (TDL was the licensing agent for Tim Hortons franchises.)

* Born/raised/age: Tatamagouche, N.S./Tatamagouche/76.

* Education: Dropped out of school in Grade 9.

* Family: Father of six sons and one daughter. Grandfather of 11.

* Career: Worked as a labourer with a can company, Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., and other firms before joining the Royal Canadian Navy in 1951 and serving for five years. After leaving the navy, he was a Hamilton police officer for nine years and then bought a Dairy Queen franchise. He then became the first Tim Hortons franchisee store owner and eventually acquired full ownership of the company. Since selling his stake to Wendy's International, he has lived the life of an entrepreneur.

* Moonlighting: Board member for Shaw Communications and other private firms.

* Charitable efforts: Set up the Tim Hortons Children's Foundation. Supports several other non-profit groups, including the Canadian Youth Business Foundation.

* Awards/honours: Appointed to the Order of Canada. Member of Canadian Business Hall of Fame and recipient of Canadian Franchise Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Holds honorary degrees from St. Mary's, McGill and McMaster universities. Has received several other awards, including the Gary Wright Humanitarian Award for contributions for the betterment of communities across Canada.

* Passions: Flying, sailing, golfing, fishing.

Tim Hortons Inc.

* Brass: Chairman James V. Pickett; president, CEO, and director Paul D. House.

* Profile: The Tim Hortons chain was launched by late National Hockey League star defenceman Tim Horton and his then-business partner Jim Charade. The first shop opened in Hamilton in 1964. Ron Joyce, the first Hortons franchisee store owner, became a full partner with Horton and became sole owner in 1975 after acquiring the interest of Tim's widow Lori for $1 million. In 1996, Tim Hortons merged with Wendy's International, Inc. but continued to operate as a separate entity.

* Locations: Tim Hortons shops are located across Canada and in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Maine, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The Canadian operation is 95-per-cent franchise owned and operated, and most future U.S. outlets will also be owned by franchisees.

* IPO: Tim Hortons completed an initial public offering last March. It was fully spun off into a separate company, Tim Hortons Inc., that now trades on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges.

* Stats: Tim Hortons Inc. reported third-quarter net income of $51.84 million, down 21.8 per cent from $66.26 million in the same period in 2005, when the company was still private. The company's year-to-date net income climbed 8.9 per cent to $191.74 million from $174.6 million a year earlier.

* Recent stock price (TSX, NASDAQ): $29.85 (52-week range, $33 - $23.79).

* Website: www.timhortons.com

* HQ: 874 Sinclair Rd., Oakville, Ont., L6K 2Y1

* Phone/Fax: (905) 845-6511 or 1-888-601-1616/ (905) 845-0265.

(Monte Stewart can be reached at monte@businessedge.ca)