Book Review: Tim Hortons Co-founder's Memoir

There is no icon in Canadian business more universally revered than Tim Hortons. For millions in this country, "Tim's" long ago transcended the world of doughnuts and a decent cup of coffee. It is now a part of the national identity - one of those rare brands by which people identify themselves.

There is no icon in Canadian business more universally revered than Tim Hortons. For millions in this country, "Tim's" long ago transcended the world of doughnuts and a decent cup of coffee. It is now a part of the national identity - one of those rare brands by which people identify themselves. A double-double-from-Tim-Hortons kind of guy wouldn't be caught dead ordering a venti soy latte from Starbucks. And for generations of Canadians, there is no more welcome sign on a late night drive than those glowing red letters along the side of the highway.

Over the course of 40 years, Tim's has caught and surpassed the big-name American burger chains to become the undisputed behemoth of this country's fast-food business - controlling 22 per cent of what the the industry prefers to call the "quick service restaurant" market. Consider that, on the average day, a typical Tim Hortons restaurant in Canada sells about $2,100 worth of coffee, equivalent to more than 1,750 medium-sized cups. Stretch that across the 2,600 Tim's outlets throughout this country, and it equals a little more than 4.5 million cups a day - one for every person living in Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg and Halifax combined. It all adds up to revenue of close to $5.5 million, every single day, on a product that costs pennies a cup to make. And that doesn't even begin to touch on the simple beauty of the apple fritter. If it's not the perfect business, it's darn close.

To the man who was the driving force behind Tim Hortons for 30 years, this is the source of enormous and justified pride, but precious little glory. Earlier this year, Tim Hortons shares were listed for the first time on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The offering created a sensation and put a value of more than $5.5 billion on the chain. In all the stories heralding Tim's arrival among the heavyweights of the business world, however, the name Ron Joyce was almost universally relegated to footnote status, just passing references to the former Hamilton cop who founded the chain with legendary NHL defenceman Tim Horton back in the mid-1960s.

But Ron Joyce's place in the history of Tim Hortons is no footnote, and with a new book due in stores later this month, Canadians will finally get a glimpse of the complicated and messy personal story behind one of the most successful businesses ever created in this country - the drugs, the infidelity, an epic court battle, a nine-figure cheque, and one spectacular, fatal car crash.

Always Fresh: The Untold Story of Tim Hortons By the Man Who Created a Canadian Empire, written with Toronto journalist Robert Thompson, is as unabashedly self-congratulatory as the title suggests, but it is far more than your typical business memoir. Joyce insists the book is nothing more complicated than a proverbial local boy makes good story, but that significantly understates it. Yes, the poor kid made it big, as we all know by now. But it's also a book about how success can tug at the seams of friendship and family. It's as much about jealousy, greed and betrayal as it is about cash flow and marketing.

On the surface, the details are so prosaic that they seem almost cliché. Joyce left Tatamagouche, N.S., at the age of 16 after dropping out of high school, and moved to Ontario in hopes of making something of his life. He settled in Hamilton and worked menial jobs in factories, scraping together enough to get by. Eventually he joined the police department and supplemented his meagre pay working as a produce truck driver, construction worker and Brinks guard before finally stumbling into the restaurant business in his mid-30s. Through sheer hard work and force of will, he went on to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country.

But for those expecting a 230-page thank-you speech to all the little people who helped him along the way, Joyce's recollections will land with a jolt. Most jarring is the book's portrayal of the company's namesake. To those who remember him at all, Tim Horton is an almost-sainted figure. He is the hockey hero who grew up poor in a northern Ontario mining town, and was so affected by his early poverty that he worked in a gravel pit during off-seasons even after he became a pro athlete. The common picture of Horton is of a man who was driven by a phenomenal work ethic and a deep desire to be more than just a hockey player. But Joyce portrays his partner as little more than the public face of the business, and himself as both the brains and the workhorse behind the scenes. In one of his first meetings with Horton, when Joyce was still just a franchisee, "it was clear that he didn't know the business all that well and couldn't help me with any of the problems we were having," Joyce writes. A few pages later, "Tim had no expertise whatsoever [in operating a store], so the burden fell squarely on me." In the next chapter, once Joyce had become a full partner in the chain, he explains that Tim "had a tough time seeing the big picture for the business in the way I perceived it."

In one of the book's most memorable passages, Joyce illustrates just how detached his partner was from the reality of the job. A few years before he died, as it was becoming clear that his hockey career was winding down, Horton said he wanted to get a better handle on the business and asked Joyce to teach him to bake. The training was to last a couple of weeks, but after two frustrating nights in the kitchen, Horton stopped showing up, leaving Joyce once again to do the hard work that Horton avoided. "Without an everyday partner, all of the business's successes and failures were my doing," he concludes later.

It's an unflattering portrait, but if the strapping hockey player was a flawed businessman, those failures paled next to the disaster scene that was his personal life. Joyce opines that Horton drank so heavily that it probably contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. He airs an unconfirmed rumour that police once had to be called to break up a quarrel between Horton and his wife, Lori. Perhaps most surprising, Joyce reveals that Horton kept an apartment in Oakville, Ont., at which he carried on a long affair with an unidentified, married woman. According to Joyce, both planned to leave their spouses had Horton's life not been cut short in a car wreck on the road between Hamilton and Buffalo in February 1974.

Joyce spills a lot of dirt, but appears to hint at a great deal more. In the aftermath of Tim's death, Joyce recalls travelling to St. Catharines to collect his personal effects. "It was part of a gentleman's agreement between Tim and me," he writes. "If either of us died suddenly, the surviving partner would destroy any personal items that might cause embarrassment to the family." It would seem to be a coy admission that not only was Tim a more complicated and conflicted character than the world realized, but so was Joyce.

It's the depiction of Horton's wife, Lori, though, that is the most devastating in the book. "A player's wife can be an asset or a liability," he writes. "Lori was the latter, and you never knew when she'd explode." The book describes her as a selfish attention seeker, and details embarrassing scenes in which Lori threw hysterical, public fits of anger, one time even flattening the tires on several of Horton's friends' cars after a particularly nasty blow-up.

After Horton died, Joyce inherited Horton's mercurial widow as a business partner, to predictably disastrous effect. For two years they tried to coexist, but Lori never had the expertise to really help run the chain. Near the end of 1975, Joyce and Lori struck a deal to end their crumbling partnership. An independent audit valued the chain at $1.7 million, and Joyce agreed to pay Lori $850,000 for her half of the business. At the last minute, Lori held out for $1 million. Joyce scrambled and went deeply into debt to complete the deal and gain full control.

In less than a decade, Lori burned through her entire fortune, while Joyce quickly expanded Tim Hortons into a national icon. Years later, Lori would sue Joyce, claiming that she had been so incapacitated by booze and amphetamines that Joyce had been able to cheat her out of her rightful share of the Horton windfall. To this day, there are many who whisper that Joyce took advantage of a vulnerable and unstable woman. But in the early 1990s, an Ontario judge completely absolved Joyce - ruling that he "dealt fairly, reasonably and honestly with Mrs. Horton."

Sorting through the scattered fragments of Joyce's personal relationships is no easy task, in large part because there seems to be much that he leaves unexplained. In the emotional aftermath of Tim's death, Joyce's second wife, Teri, took their three children and left him, leaving no forwarding address where she could be found. Little is said of Teri, except that she "wanted the benefits that came with a strong work ethic, but I always felt she wasn't willing to put up with the sacrifices I needed to make to obtain them." Later, Joyce says he "often dated" Lori after she sold her stake in the business, but says he had no inkling that she had addiction problems. In the '90s, Teri was a witness in support of Lori's suit against Joyce. As for his kids, Joyce indicates only that he remains close with them, and that all seven - four from his first marriage and three from his second - worked in the Hortons empire over the years.

Joyce is clearly uncomfortable discussing those years even now. To many, the exoneration of the courts doesn't change the fact that Joyce became one of Canada's richest men, and Lori Horton died in December 2000 with almost nothing. Joyce still bristles at the questions. "Mrs. Horton was treated very fairly," he says. "She just had too much money and too much freedom, I suppose." Joyce says he is on good terms with Lori's four daughters. Jeri-Lyn married Joyce's son Ron Jr., and he pays an annual stipend to the other three daughters, Kim, Kelly and Tracy. Still, the book is sure to rekindle painful memories, and Joyce admits he's uncomfortable about that. "Of course I worry, but I'm also setting the stage for a little bit of what I went through," he explains. "I don't know whether I should've put it all in the book or not, but I've done it. I can't take it back."

Maclean's had planned to run an excerpt from Always Fresh detailing Joyce's troubled dealings with Lori, but the author objected, saying that the passage, when removed from the overall context of the book, makes it appear he is picking on a poor dead woman. But regardless of context, there's no escaping the fact it is a withering portrait, and Lori isn't the only one who comes off looking bad.

When Joyce sold the Tim Hortons chain to Wendy's International in 1995, the deal immediately vaulted him into the realm of the super-rich. But looking back, he says, it's the biggest regret of his career.

At first it seemed the sale was Joyce's ticket to a life of leisure. Not only did he personally receive stock worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he came away with a seat on Wendy's board of directors, the title of senior chairman, and a salary of $850,000 plus stock options. His contract allowed him to devote as much or as little time to the business as he chose. To most of the world this is the job description sent from heaven, but Joyce's happiness ended almost as soon as he surrendered the driver's seat.

Immediately after the sale, Joyce became embroiled in a dispute with Wendy's management over dividends on his stock. The squabble eventually turned nasty, with threats of legal action. Joyce prevailed, but his relationship with top executives at Wendy's never recovered. He soon found himself frozen out of management decisions, and his voice on the board of directors was utterly ignored. Most galling of all, as Wendy's operations slumped and stumbled, Tim Hortons became the most profitable part of the whole enterprise, and yet management failed to aggressively expand the chain into the U.S.

Even Wendy's beloved founder Dave Thomas, whose folksy persona was a mainstay of the company's advertising until his death in 2002, is portrayed as a corporate manipulator who wielded absolute control over the business despite owning fewer shares than Joyce did. When Wendy's CEO Gord Teter died in 1999, Thomas hand-picked his successor, Jack Schuessler, over Joyce's strenuous objections. "Thomas wanted Schuessler because he knew he would be his 'yes' man," Joyce writes. "It was just another example of how weak the company's management was."

Joyce briefly toyed with the notion of attempting a hostile takeover of the entire company, but concluded that such a move would not only be enormously risky, it would be virtually impossible with Thomas and his top managers standing in the way. Instead, he tried to get Thomas and his men to meet with outside investors who had ideas on how to breathe life into Wendy's floundering business. Thomas initially agreed, but CEO Schuessler was furious at the interference, and the idea died.

Finally, Joyce decided he'd had enough. And in October 2001, while on a fishing trip with former U.S. president George Bush Sr., Joyce signed the papers to sell his stock back to Wendy's and to cut the last of his ties to the empire he built. The deal was sealed with a cheque for US$250 million.

That was where his 35-year relationship to the doughnut business sadly ended. The Tim Hortons children's camps he established continue to be a lasting legacy, providing a place for poor kids to enjoy the camping experience each summer. Joyce has gone on to establish a thriving air charter business. He built his dream golf resort on a stunning piece of property in Nova Scotia. He has sailed around the world and generally lived the life of a multi-millionaire. Asked if he feels he's been denied his due, Joyce is gracious. "I'm having a wonderful life," he says. "I've done things I never could have dreamed of doing when I was young."

And yet, flashes of disappointment still bubble to the surface. Though he goes to great pains to be magnanimous, those close to Joyce say he harbours some lingering resentment toward current management of the chain - men that, for the most part, he hired, but who've moved away from some of the most fundamental aspects of his vision. The most stark example of this estrangement may be the frozen dough fiasco of 2003.

A few years ago, a reporter with the Calgary Herald caught wind that Tim's had begun using frozen dough rather than mixing it up fresh at every location each morning. The procedure seemed to fly in the face of Tim's "Always Fresh" mantra, and the company initially tried to ignore the story. But Joyce confirmed it was true and criticized the decision. Franchise owners were furious at what they considered a betrayal of trust by the company's former leader. Even now, Joyce's anger shines through his measured prose. "The idea of using frozen products thoroughly disappointed me," he writes. "It wouldn't be done in Tim Hortons restaurants if I still owned the company, even if, in the long run, it may have been the best way to operate the chain."

Today, Joyce prefers not to go into detail about his relationship with management, saying simply that things are "cordial" between them. But this year, he caused another stir when he told reporters after the company's share offering that although he thought the business still had great potential, he wouldn't be buying the stock because he thought it was too expensive. In the book he seems to damn current CEO Paul House with faint praise. Despite working closely with him for more than a decade, and putting him in control of day-to-day operations in 1993, Joyce scarcely mentions House except to note that he failed to mentor his son Grant Joyce when he joined the company in the early 1990s. House was travelling last week, putting the finishing touches on the company's stock spinoff, and didn't respond to a request for an interview. Ask what he thinks of Tim Hortons' prospects going forward, Joyce chooses his words carefully. "I think, if the basic fundamentals are stuck with, it should have a great future." Translation: if management doesn't screw up the model I created, they should do fine.

As for all the unpleasantness - with Lori, his ex-wife Teri, Paul House, Dave Thomas, Jack Schuessler - Joyce prefers to just let the book speak for itself. Besides, he says, that stuff isn't what really matters anyway. "I just really wanted to tell the true story as I understand it, and as I lived it," Joyce says. "The amazing part of this story is that a young kid can leave small-town Nova Scotia at an early age, and be successful working hard at what he believed in ... it's a great story of what you can achieve in this country."

Indeed it is. And it is also an undeniably compelling, warts-and-all depiction of the author himself - not always forthcoming, but revealing nonetheless. Early on in his memoir, Joyce quotes former U.S. president Calvin Coolidge: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence," he said. "Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

And that is Ron Joyce. He didn't need education, or genius, or even much talent to do what he did. But he needed an endless supply of persistence to make a simple coffee shop into a national institution - "your friend along the way," as the ads used to say. He needed determination to survive all the personal struggles that came with it. And now he'll need those qualities again, to endure the inevitable backlash that comes from spilling the story, for better or for worse.

Maclean's October 16, 2006

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