Tim Hortons boss tops list of business movers and shakers in 2014

Marc Caira, Tim Hortons new CEO, poses for a picture in one of the company's coffee shops in Oakville, Ontario on Monday September 16, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Marc Caira courted Burger King between March and August, prompting the U.S. burger chain to raise its offer three times. CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – Debate over the marriage of doughnuts and burgers unfolded in Canadian coffee shops and the corridors of power in Washington and Ottawa, as seemingly everyone had something to say about the pairing of Tim Hortons and Burger King in 2014.

The US$11-billion deal helped Tim Hortons’ former chief executive Marc Caira secure the title of The Canadian Press Business Newsmaker of the Year for 2014, in an annual survey of editors and broadcasters.

MORE: Meet the new guy taking over Tim Hortons

Caira received 18 of the votes from 50 editors and news directors across the country who participated in the annual survey. He was trailed by TransCanada chief executive Russ Girling with 13 votes, and Guy Laurence, the new head of Rogers Communications, with seven votes.

But it was Caira and his role in negotiating the deal to sell Tim Hortons just as the chain prepared for its 50th anniversary that topped the list.

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“There was an unexpected shock Hortons was being sold at all and also being sold to an American company,” said Warren Beck, news director at 1380 CKPC and The Jewel 92.

MORE: Goodbye Tim Hortons, hello … Restaurant Brands International 

The takeover didn’t just make news in Canada.

Miami-based Burger King Worldwide Inc. faced criticism in the U.S. by some who perceived the deal to be hinged on relocating its head office to Canada for a lower tax bill, a practice known as a corporate tax inversion.

The company denied paying lower taxes was even one of its considerations for buying the Canadian coffee chain, but it added fuel to a debate in Washington.

New regulations were enacted last fall to remove some benefits for U.S. companies, and make the tax inversion process more difficult, but the Tim Hortons takeover was already sealed.

Tim Hortons wasn’t shopping for a suitor last March when Burger King made its first offer, but Caira was a willing participant in the courting process and pushed for the U.S. chain to increase its bid three times.

For about five months, he quietly negotiated alongside his board, while making changes at Tim Hortons designed to inject new energy into menu boards that had grown stale over the years.

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MORE: Canadians are opening their wallets wider at Tim Hortons. Here’s why

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Caira offered a different perspective on the business, coming from a background at food and beverage manufacturer Nestle. His knowledge allowed him to focus on what he did best, and let the rest of the management team dedicate time to their priorities.

“I don’t have to be strong operationally, I bring strengths in other areas,” Caira said in a conversation about his career held by Foodservice and Hospitality Magazine last May.

“My responsibility is to build on the solid foundation that this brand enjoys today and try to bring it to the next level — not alone, but with the help of my colleagues.”

Caira, born in Cosenza, Italy, graduated from Seneca College in Toronto and immediately began his career at Nestle for an annual salary of $12,500, though he admits he was mostly attracted by the perk of a company car.

He rose through the ranks, becoming president of Nestle Food Service Canada, and then after a brief stint at Parmalat, returned to Nestle to climb the rungs of its global operations where he oversaw expansion of the company’s hot and cold beverage division.

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For him, that was nearly enough, and after more than 35 years in the business, Caira announced his retirement with the intention of returning to Canada.

But he was pulled back into the fray by Tim Hortons interim CEO Paul House.

“The Tim Hortons brass was interested with him for a long time,” said Rosanna Caira, Marc’s cousin and an editor at trade magazine publisher Kostuch Media.

“I think he felt there was a challenging component to that job.”

Caira joined Tim Hortons saying he wanted to think like a customer, and within months began to make dramatic changes in Tim Hortons’ business strategy.

He turfed the Cold Stone Creamery ice cream stores, a foray into frozen treats that never really caught on in a country known for its winter weather.

Then he introduced dark roast coffee, the first time Tim Hortons offered an alternative to its signature blend, and revamped the menu to attract more lunch customers.

“They realized they were getting maxed out in Canada and had to do something,” said Maureen Atkinson, senior partner at retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group.

“He made some pretty substantial changes to start with.”

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Caira’s legacy at Tim Hortons, however, will almost certainly rest on the takeover, a deal that has raised questions about whether Burger King will respect the significance of the Canadian brand and the culture around it, Atkinson said.

Also uncertain is how staff at Tim Hortons’ head office in Oakville, Ont. will be affected, as they are not protected under a five-year promise from Burger King to maintain current job levels at Tim Hortons franchises across Canada.

“I’m not 100 per cent sure this is the best deal, and whether it’s best for the company,” Atkinson said.

MORE: ‘Painful changes’ await Tim Hortons under new owners, report warns

Burgers and doughnuts have made strange bedfellows in the past, and with the 1995 merger of Tim Hortons with Wendy’s sputtering out little more than a decade later, some outsiders have little confidence in these two companies thriving together either.

In the case of Wendys, the shareholders pressured executives to focus on burgers and cash in on Tim Hortons success with a public offering.

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“On the surface, there’s no reason to expect this will click any better,” said Kevin Grier, an independent food and industry analyst at Kevin Grier Market Analysis and Consulting.

In December, Tim Hortons embarked on what Caira labelled the “next chapter” in its corporate history, under the leadership of a Burger King executive who oversaw the company’s expansion into Asia.

Caira, who now holds the role of vice-chairman of Restaurant Brands International (TSX:QSR), the new name of the combined company, told shareholders that he believes the move will pave the way for a more aggressive expansion of Tim Hortons in international markets.

“Tim Hortons deserves to go around the world,” he said.

Outside the Top 3, federal finance minister Joe Oliver and Bank of Canada head Stephen Poloz each received four votes, while Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. chief executive Hunter Harrison, the late Jim Flaherty, former Quebecor publisher Pierre Karl Peladeau and the latest head of Quebecor, Pierre Dion, each received one vote.

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