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The death of Harrison McCain, a Canadian business legend, has raised questions about the future of McCain Foods Ltd. with speculation the family-owned company could go public or be taken over.

Mr. McCain, 76, died Thursday night at a hospital in Boston after suffering a heart attack a day earlier at his home in Florenceville, N.B.

He and his brother, Wallace, co-founded McCain Foods in Florenceville in 1956 with the help of their older brothers and a small inheritance from their father. The company is still owned by the McCain family and is now one of the largest French fry makers in the world with annual revenue exceeding $6-billion.

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"It's a tremendous loss," said Andrew McCain, a nephew and company director. "It's a huge event in our family."

Mr. McCain had been ill for some time and he stepped down as company chairman in 2002 (he was replaced by another nephew, Allison). He has had two previous heart attacks, in 1992 and 2000, and suffered kidney trouble.

Friends and family say Harrison had been in good health in recent weeks. He attended church last Sunday in Florenceville and spoke with Wallace on the phone for hours last weekend. The brothers chatted about business, politics and the sponsorship scandal dogging Prime Minister Paul Martin, said a source close to the family.

Harrison "was stronger than he had been," the source said. "He said 'I'm a lot better than I was.' "

Andrew said he last spoke to Harrison a week ago. "We had a very good chat. He's been ill for some time but he was cracking some jokes and we had a nice chat. I'm glad I had the opportunity to have it with him."

Andrew said he doesn't expect any change in the operation or ownership of the company. "We are going to continue to operate our company as we have in the past."

But others say Harrison's death reopens issues that have been dormant since the brothers had a bitter falling out ten years ago.

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Wallace, 73, was forced out of the company in 1994 after a prolonged legal battle with Harrison that centred largely on succession. Wallace favoured his son, Michael, while Harrison pressed for an outsider to take over day-to-day management.

A few months after Wallace left, the company hired a British food executive, Howard Mann, as chief executive officer and Harrison became chairman.

The feud was devastating for the family because Wallace and Harrison had been inseparable since childhood.

They shared the same bedroom growing up, attended the same university, and lived side by side on a hill overlooking Florenceville while building McCain Foods as co-chief executive officers. They brought their sons into the business and expanded McCain Foods around the world at a time when few Canadian businesses ventured outside North America.

"Harrison and I were not just partners in title as co-CEOs, but much more than that," Wallace once said.

"We tackled the minefields of our business together, almost as spiritual partners as well. It was a very hard thing for me to endure, to watch such a successful partnership go down the drain the way it did."

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After Wallace left the company, he and his family rarely returned to Florenceville. Wallace's wife, Margaret, said going to the New Brunswick house "was like looking into an open grave."

Wallace and his family moved to Toronto and he and his sons Michael and Scott, who also worked at McCain, acquired control of Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods Inc. in 1995. Michael became Maple Leaf's CEO and Wallace was named chairman.

Wallace continues to own one-third of McCain and he remains a company director along with his sons. Harrison also owned one-third of the company and that is now expected to be inherited by his son and daughters.

The remainder is held by several other relatives including the descendants of their dead brothers, Andrew and Robert.

During the feud, both brothers considered splitting the company or buying each other out as a way of resolving it. Wallace also pressed to take McCain Foods public but Harrison refused, preferring family control.

Harrison's death now leaves Wallace with control over the largest block of shares. Some analysts say that could open the door to the company going public or merging with Maple Leaf, which is one of Canada's largest food companies and about the same size as McCain Foods.

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"I have always felt that Maple Leaf and McCain would wind up getting merged," one analyst said.

Wallace declined comment yesterday and Andrew dismissed a question about McCain Foods going public with a terse: "No. There is no change here."

Sources say Wallace and Harrison had mended their rift in recent years and spent considerable time together. Wallace visited his brother about once a month in Florenceville.

He also rented a home in Toronto for Harrison to stay in during his visits. The feud "is all history," one source said.

Family tragedy has also brought the brothers closer, sources say. Since the break up, Harrison's wife Billie has died from cancer and his son, Peter, a McCain Foods executive, was killed in a snowmobile accident.

Wallace had been worried about his brother's health for months. Sources say he visited Harrison at Christmas and was shocked at his deteriorating condition. Harrison suffered a heart attack on Wednesday and was rushed to the Lahey clinic in Boston, where he has long received medical treatment. He bounced back and some family members were convinced he might recover. But his condition worsened Thursday night and he died around midnight.

Florenceville mayor David Morgan said the village of 762 people is in mourning. "I've lost a friend and so have the people of the village," said Mr. Morgan, who worked at McCain Foods for 34 years.

He added that Harrison made an enormous contribution to the village, including helping build a $4.1-million civic centre that opened last year.

"We wanted to put his name on it," Mr. Morgan said. "We offered to. But he didn't want it. He's a very private person."

Preparations were under way for a funeral expected Tuesday. Mr. Morgan said the community is expecting up to 1,000 people.

"It's going to be virtually impossible to handle the crowd in any one building," he said, noting that 1,100 people in the area work in the local McCain Foods plant.

Yesterday, tributes to Harrison poured in from business people and politicians.

"He was a very, very smart man and his understanding of how things work was quite extraordinary," said Pat McGee, a Toronto-based media consultant who worked with Harrison.

"He played it the way he wanted to play it. Some of us might second guess him on that, but obviously he was a very successful guy and knew what he was doing."

Harrison "was a major contributor to the social, cultural and economic well-being of Florenceville and New Brunswick, and his passing is a substantial loss for our province and our country," said New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord.

Added former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna: "He was a farm boy who never lost his sense of loyalty to his community."

Even New Brunswick's powerful Irving family, known for its privacy, issued a rare public statement. Harrison worked for the Irvings briefly after graduating from university in 1949.

"Harrison had great abilities in the business world," James K. Irving said, describing Harrison as a lifelong friend.

"He was a fine New Brunswicker who made a tremendous contribution to his native province."

Harrison is survived by his son, Mark, and daughters Ann Evans, Laura McCain-Jensen and Gillian, as well as several grandchildren.

McCain Empire

OWNERSHIP

One-third: Wallace and family (sons Michael, Scott both company directors, daughters Eleanor and Martha.)

One-third: Harrison and family (son Mark a company director, daughters Anne, Laura, Gillian.)

One-third: Descendants of two deceased brothers Andrew and Robert.

(Andrew's son Allison, chairman, son Stephen and daughters Linda, Kathy, Margaret, Nancy. Robert's son Andrew, a company director, daughters Elizabeth and Mary.)

McCAIN FOODS LTD.

Product: Frozen foods

CEO: Howard Mann

Head office: Florenceville, N.B.

Revenue: $6.2-billion*

Employees: 18,000

Employees in Canada: 3,300

Plants: 55, on six continents

Countries exported to: 100

Company type: Private

*Year ended June 30, '02

SOURCE: McCAIN

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