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'I am livid': Maple Leaf Foods CEO spouts off against U.S. over Iran crash

Alicja Siekierska

The chief executive of Maple Leaf Foods ($MFI.TO) took to Twitter on Sunday night to spout off against the United States government, in the wake of the Iranian missile strike of Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752 that killed 176 people, including the relatives of a Maple Leaf Foods employee.

CEO Michael McCain’s emotionally-charged tweets, which were published on the Maple Leaf Foods official Twitter account on Sunday evening, have surprised many in the business community, who say it’s rare to see CEOs enter the political fray so directly.

“I cannot think of another CEO in Canada doing something like this ever before,” Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie University professor who has worked alongside McCain and Maple Leaf Foods, said in an interview.

In the series of tweets posted Sunday, McCain expressed outrage over the deaths of those aboard Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, saying “Canadians needlessly loss their lives in the crossfire.”

Michael McCain, the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods.
Michael McCain, the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods.

McCain lashed out at U.S. President Donald Trump without directly naming him, referring to “a narcissist in Washington” that “tears world accomplishments apart.” He also alluded to the ongoing tensions between the United States and Iran and the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, referring to “an ill-conceived plan to divert focus from political woes.” Trump was impeached last month by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Janet Riley, the vice president of communications and public affairs at Maple Leaf Foods, confirmed the authenticity of the tweets on Sunday. In response to an interview request from Yahoo Finance Canada, Riley said that McCain “would prefer to let the messages in his tweets speak for themselves.”

“He felt the tragedy warranted his response,” Riley wrote in an email. She would not confirm the identities of the victims related to a Maple Leaf Foods employee, citing the family’s need for privacy.

‘Pointedly political’

Chris MacDonald, a professor of business ethics at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, said that while corporate engagement in political issues has been on the rise in recent years, the situation with Maple Leaf Foods is “unique”.

“This is a CEO sticking his neck out, for better or for worse, on a topic that is not central to the company’s interests. There isn’t some sort of big strategic goal here,” MacDonald said.

“I’m trying to think of a parallel example but I really can’t because it’s so unique. It’s both pointedly political and not right up the company’s alley.”

MacDonald also said it’s notable that the comments were made on the Maple Leaf Foods official Twitter account, as opposed to a personal account, which McCain has, although the account is set to private.

Ian Lee, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, says it doesn’t matter whether the comments were posted by McCain through a personal account or through the one belonging to the Maple Leaf Foods brand. He says McCain went “way over the line” with his comments.

“If he was a private citizen sending the tweet, it really doesn’t matter, but he isn’t,” Lee said.

“He is the CEO of a publicly-traded company with public duties and public responsibilities. It is not his role to get involved in the very complex politics of the Middle East. It went far beyond an expression of sympathy.”

A company entering the political fray in such a way can have risks, Charlebois said, including potential backlash from both customers and suppliers. On Monday, the hashtag #BoycottMapleLeafFoods was trending in Canada on Twitter.

“For a publicly-traded company, the risks are real,” Charlebois said. “Knowing Maple Leaf Foods’ expansion plans in the U.S., you can only appreciate how risky a message like that is, given how it could be perceived by Americans.”

Last year, Maple Leaf Foods announced plans to construct a $310-million plant-based protein food processing facility in Shelbyville, Indiana. The company said the facility will be the largest investment of its kind in North America.

It was last Wednesday when an Iranian missile shot down the Ukrainian airline flight and killed all 176 people on board, including 57 Canadians. It was initially thought that 63 Canadians were killed on the flight, but Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne updated that number on Friday. Of the 176 victims, 138 were headed to Canada.

Iran admitted late Friday that its military “unintentionally” shot the plane down, and blamed “human error” for the strike.

McCain has been CEO of Maple Leaf Foods since 1999. The company is worth approximately $3.13 billion, based on market capitalization. It company is headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario and operates in Canada, the United States and Asia, employing approximately 12,500 people.

With a file from the Canadian Press

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