The creation story begins with Ron Joyce as just a child, whose father died when he was three, and whose mother, Grace, a widow at age 23, would move back to her out-of-the-way hometown of Tatamagouche, N.S., with a wee son in tow, and into a tiny house with no running water, no electricity and no insulation.
Grace would remarry and the boy would grow, leaving home at 15 with exactly “zero dollars,” in his pocket, heading west, working in a factory in Ontario, pulling a five-year stint in the navy, becoming a policeman in Hamilton and buying a shop in a fledgling doughnut chain that Tim Horton, a hockey great and future NHL Hall of Famer, started as a pet business project and ran out of his basement.
Joyce, the ex-cop, would learn how to bake from a fella who consulted a Ouija board, and he eventually became Horton’s partner in 1967, growing the doughnut chain into an iconic Canadian brand and adding terms, such as double-double, to the Canadian lexicon.
Along the way, Joyce was elevated to the status of legendary Canadian businessman or, in his rendering of the creation story, the luckiest man alive.
“I’ve had a helluva ride in life,” Joyce once told Maclean’s magazine, describing his good fortune. “I have been lucky.”
Joyce died Thursday at his home in Burlington, Ont., not far from that first shop he bought, all those years ago. He was 88 years old and surrounded by family.
“My father had a big vision and a big heart,” Joyce’s son, Steven, said in a statement on behalf of the family. “He never forgot his humble beginnings.”
Robert Thompson, who authored the Joyce memoir Always Fresh: The Untold Story of Tim Hortons, hung around the doughnut king — by then 10 years removed from having sold his stake in the chain to Wendy’s in exchange for 16.45 million shares — five days a week for six months ahead of the book’s 2006 publication.
Thompson recalls piling into Joyce’s “big honking Mercedes,” for an outing to the first Tim Hortons franchise, and walking into a place that had Joyce’s picture on the wall, but where nobody recognized him, at least not at first.
“If you get right down to it, Ron was a guy from Tatamagouche, N.S., who came to Hamilton with 10 bucks and turned it into a billion dollars,” Thompson says. “It was an over-the-top Horatio Alger success story, and along the way he created a brand that is immediately recognizable to any Canadian, and anybody who has been to Canada — it’s startling.”
It was an over-the-top Horatio Alger success story, and along the way he created a brand that is immediately recognizable to any Canadian, and anybody who has been to Canada — it’s startling
Robert Thompson, author
Thompson adds that Joyce was always a billionaire outsider, a self-made guy, who might have had all the private jets, fancy cars, sailboats and properties of the uber-wealthy, but could never really view himself as one of them. He was a high school dropout, a guy from back East, a guy who could talk a guy’s ear off over a vodka tonic.
Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister, who first met Joyce in Montreal in the late 1970s, said there was “no pretence in him whatsoever.”
“Whether he was dealing with a king, or whether he was dealing with a pauper, he was the same,” Mulroney recalled.
The first Tim Hortons restaurant cost Joyce $10,000. Horton, the hockey great, died in a car accident in 1974, and over the next 21 years his partner grew the company to include 1,000 stores, before selling his stake to Wendy’s.
“Selling to Wendy’s was the biggest mistake of my life,” Joyce once said. “I was concerned that this was not a family business…. I worked at succession for a while, but my children had their own goals.”
There were other setbacks.
In 2013, a woman sued Joyce for $7.5 million, alleging he sexually assaulted her in his Burlington home. Joyce flatly denied the charge, claiming the woman was attempting to extort him. The case is ongoing.
A pilot since the early years of Tim Hortons, Joyce also crash-landed amid high winds on the runway of his Fox Harb’r Resort in 2007, the golf mecca/gated community he built in northern Nova Scotia.
But that’s the thing about Joyce: he truly did remember where he was from, and always went home again, returning to Tatamagouche during the summers. After Horton died, he founded a camp for underprivileged children in the hockey player’s memory, one of seven operated today by the Tim Horton’s Children’s Foundation. The Tatamagouche location was by the ocean, with sailboats, pontoon boats, a stocked trout pond, bicycles, big playing fields, a modern dorm for campers and staff — and a landing strip for Joyce.
The founder used to fly in to visit the kids in his float plane, spending the balance of lazy summer days taking groups of eight on aerial tours of the area where he had grown up with next to nothing.
“Everybody should give back,” Joyce once said. “If you can afford it — giving is what it is all about. I think there’s an obligation to give back, especially if you’ve been successful financially.”
… he was all about — as they say in the special forces — deeds not words. He was just somebody who felt that he was extremely privileged
Peter MacKay, former minister of foreign affairs
Peter MacKay, the former Nova Scotia politician, and now a lawyer in Toronto, had multiple brushes with Joyce’s generosity. MacKay was minister of foreign affairs in 2006, working to broker a trip to Nova Scotia for a soccer team made up of Israeli and Palestine girls. He called up Joyce. Joyce offered to house, feed and play host to the games at his camp, a gesture he paid for.
“He gave us the green light to do all this,” MacKay recalls. “But then he got personally interested in it, so that he actually came and would stand on the sidelines watching the kids play for hours, but he never wanted any recognition for any of it.”
A few years later, Joyce spent Christmas at an army base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, again with MacKay, declaring that the base’s Tim Hortons outlet would be serving free double-doubles and doughnuts throughout the day.
“Mr. Joyce had had all these extra supplies brought in, unbeknownst to any of us, and then he opened it up to the entire base,” MacKay says. “It was so typical of him, he was all about — as they say in the special forces — deeds not words. He was just somebody who felt that he was extremely privileged.”
In Ron Joyce’s telling of the story, he was the luckiest man alive — and he knew it, too.
— National Post with files from Geoff Zochodne