From Timbits to tee shots

For those interested, here is a story I did with Tim Hortons’ co-founder Ron Joyce in 2003 as a cover story for Ontario Golf. As many know, I’ve done some more writing on this subject lately, including a book with Mr. Joyce. Anyway, here’s a story about Ron and golf….

Interviewed by Robert Thompson photos by Chris Gallow
With his Tim Hortons franchise days behind him, Ron Joyce has retired to the links
As Canadian as the Maple Leaf, Hockey Night in Canada and Anne Murray, Tim Hortons, along with its bite-size Timbits and famed coffee, has evolved over the past few decades as a vital ingredient of our national culture.
The country’s most renowned restaurant chain emerged from humble beginnings, though, masterminded as it was by a man who grew up in rural Nova Scotia, failed to graduate from high school and spent years in the navy long before ever considering a business venture alongside a famed hockey player.
Now, at the age of 72, Ron Joyce is secure in the fact that he not only helped develop what might be Canada’s best-known brand, but also orchestrated a venture that has become something intrinsically Canadian. Along the way it made him one of this country’s richest men.
It seems an awfully long way from a day in February 1965, when Joyce, then 36 and living in Hamilton, began helping NHL great Tim Horton with his struggling restaurant chain. The pair slowly built up the operation until Horton was killed in a car accident in 1974, leaving Joyce in charge of developing the business. He spent hundreds of hours piloting his plane from Tim Hortons’ Hamilton headquarters to distant locations in search of new franchise opportunities, and put time in at everything from training new store owners to actually baking donuts. The chain’s growth was immensely successful, making the phrase “double-double” as commonplace in the Canadian vocabulary as “He shoots, he scores.”
In 1995, with more than 1,000 Tim Hortons restaurants churning out thousands of cups of coffee and cruellers, Joyce sold the chain he still refers to as “his baby.” Restaurant giant Wendy’s, led by Joyce’s golfing buddy Dave Thomas, snapped up Tim Hortons in a deal that made Joyce a billionaire and the largest shareholder of the burger chain.
So what’s a donut king to do after selling his empire? Apparently a lot, and golf has played a significant role.
In the late 1990s, Joyce decided to build a golf course and resort on an oceanside piece of property he owned about a half hour outside Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, the town where he was born and raised. Canadian golf architect Graham Cooke was hired to build the course. Called Fox Harb’r after a local inlet, the course has nine inland holes before venturing to the sea where fairways and greens sit dramatically poised on the edge of rock-lined cliffs. Given the time and care Joyce put into the project, including $55 million for its construction, clubhouse and small airport adjacent to the property, it wasn’t surprising to see Fox Harb’r snap up Golf Digest’s Best New Course in Canada award in 2001.
But building golf courses isn’t the only thing keeping Joyce busy these days. He has also continued to throw his time and support behind the Tim Hortons Children’s Foundation, a group of retreats for underprivileged children that he set up in Horton’s memory. There are now six of the facilities strewn across North America. If Joyce isn’t talking about golf, there’s a good chance he’ll be talking about the Children’s Foundation. And his fundraisers at Fox Harb’r have become legendary for Joyce’s ability to draw the elite from Toronto’s Bay Street financial crowd and have them plunk down thousands of dollars to play in a Tim Hortons Children’s Foundation golf tournament.
Also legendary are the stories of Joyce’s competitive nature, such as the time when he was flying back from Nova Scotia on his private plane with friends, and a gin rummy game broke out. Joyce and his partner soon found themselves down in the money as the plane neared the Hamilton airport. The co-pilot told Joyce that he should wrap up the game and prepare for landing. Joyce turned and indicated in his own inimitable style that the game wasn’t over yet: “Circle,” he told the pilot.
With his years of owning Tim Hortons behind him, you’re likely to find Joyce circling the links of Fox Harb’r, his world-class golf course where he plays up to four games a week during the summer months. Or he may be making his way ’round the globe in one of his jets, or cruising the seas in his new sailing yacht, freshly minted from the dockyards of New Zealand. Or maybe just sitting on the verandah of his sprawling home at Fox Harb’r and enjoying the million-dollar views with a “double-double” in hand.
OG: Golf played a big role in your decision to sell Tim Hortons, didn’t it?
RJ: When I approached Dave Thomas about buying the rights to his Wendy’s Canadian operations, our first meeting was in Florida. I thought that if you took the Wendy’s name and married it with Tim Horton’s, we’d have a winner. But at the time, Wendy’s couldn’t make the chain work in Canada. So we said we’d try a joint venture in real estate and put the two companies in the same spots.
I met David there at Adios, a men’s golf club that he was one of the founders of. The course was named after a racehorse – one of the great thoroughbreds of all time. There were 25 guys, like Arnold Palmer and the gentleman who owned Adios, who wanted to build a men-only club. David was among them.
We met for lunch and golf. I was such a bad player then – the saving grace was that he wasn’t much better. It was the beginning of the partnership.
I remember playing double or nothing for $10,000. He went into the woods with his tee shot and then hit it out. His next shot went into the water – and he is sitting five, while I was sitting one. I was so far ahead of him that I thought I was fine, and took a mighty swing and hit into the water. Then the next one went into the water as well. David ended up winning with an 11.
Lots of people know Dave Thomas through his television commercials where he appeared as a Wendy’s pitchman. What was he like?
He loved to bet. He got to the point where he never hit a ball without betting on something – longest ball in the fairway, or even hitting the fairway. He always had a little distance on me. But that’s what made him interesting to play against – he had to have motivation to play, and in his case, it was gambling.
Your relationship with Wendy’s didn’t end with the partnership, did it?
A few years later I decided to move on. I spoke with another food company in Canada, but then Wendy’s approached me. So now that’s where we are today, with 2,400 stores in the U.S. and Canada.
I’m proud that it’s basically the same management team I put in place years ago. Wendy’s didn’t tamper with what made the chain successful. And now it has gone to new heights.
I would assume you didn’t play a lot while running Tim Hortons.
I didn’t really have time. I think people who excel in anything are often totally dedicated to it, but are only really good at one thing. I look at the great athletes of all time, like Michael Jordan, who went from basketball to baseball and it didn’t work. Or Wayne Gretzky, who probably wouldn’t have been great at anything but hockey.
For me, it’s business. That’s true of so many things in life. When you find the niche you love, that becomes your passion. For me it was Tim Hortons. It was my world.
So how did you become such a passionate golfer?
When they built Glen Abbey, there was a thing called the 100 Club, and it was about a mile from our offices in Oakville. I got a call asking me to join. And I said I was interested, but I didn’t play golf. So I took some lessons, and I thought, “Gosh, this is so time-consuming and I have so many things to do.” I never got comfortable with the game and was never prepared to give up the time to get better. So I just lost interest in golf.
But I really got serious about it when I bought a condo in Boca Raton, Florida, when I was in my 60s. There was a golf course right there and I joined and started playing, sometimes twice a day. I got to the point where I could hit the ball reasonably well on that course. That was the beginning of it. But I was still very much involved with developing the Tim Hortons chain. And given my love of airplanes and boats, there was a lot of competition for my time. I could have done a better job of learning the game if I had been more focused on it at that point.
But you played a lot after selling the chain. Given your lifestyle and love of planes, you must have played some of the world’s best courses with some pretty big names.
I’ve gotten to know Gary Player quite well and I like to play with him. I consider him a friend. The first time he played in Canada after Apartheid ended was at a Tim Hortons golf tournament.
I’ve also played with Arnold Palmer a few times and Jack Nicklaus – so I’ve played with the “Big Three.”
In terms of courses, I’ve played Cypress Point, and three times at Augusta. I’ve played Ballybunion in Ireland. Each one of these great courses is part of a learning curve. I still belong to Hamilton, Burlington and Old Farm in Bristol, Virginia, which was Golf Digest’s best new private course a few years back. And I’m a member of The Floridian, Wayne Huizenga’s course in Stuart, Florida. So there’s four – oh, five, since you’ve got to include Fox Harb’r.
How did you come to decide to build Fox Harb’r?
After I sold Tim Hortons, I knew I’d be less and less involved with the company. I decided I had to have a focus. And I had bought this wonderful piece of real estate in an isolated area of Nova Scotia where there isn’t a lot of development. I thought if I could build something really special, then people would come there. It has proven to be that – and people are flying in from all over. And the future of Fox Harb’r is quite solid, even though we know there isn’t a proliferation of golf courses. But it is a unique golf course, and we offer a runway, a health club, tennis courts, skeet shooting, fishing – it is becoming more of a retreat for people who enjoy that sort of thing.
You mentioned a runway. That’s a little unusual for a golf course.
It had to be that way. I built the runway before I built the golf course because I had a plane, but also because of the remote nature of the property. I knew that if people were going to come, I had to make it easy to access.
It isn’t a long drive from Halifax, but it’s a really easy flight, and we have aircraft that we charter. We now even have a helicopter that we can use to fly people to spots. And there are so many wonderful golf courses in the area, like Highlands Links, Bell Bay or Crowbush Cove. People now can have a great golfing experience in the area. And our guests can fly from Fox Harb’r to anywhere they want to go.
You speak very passionately about Fox Harb’r. Is it because it is near your boyhood home?
I think I really fell in love with a marvellous piece of shoreline that to me was so amazing. When I first saw it I said, “Wow, this should be a national park.” The reality is that it is a unique and beautiful piece of real estate that should be visited. Look at Peggy’s Cove, which is spectacular. I think Fox Harb’r is the same sort of thing.
And the great thing about the north shore of Nova Scotia is that the water gets to 75 degrees, so you can swim or go boating. But there are weaknesses, like a lack of shopping. There’s also no nightlife there, so you have to create your own – not that it’s ever been a problem for me.
How well do you play?
I’ve never broken 90. The best round I’ve ever shot was 92. I had a 43 on one nine at Fox Harb’r and then had a 49 on the other nine, so it has been close.
You’ve got a very unorthodox swing.
Everyone tells me the same thing, but it is tough. I hate seeing a lady play the red tees, and I play the white tees and she out-drives me. I just hate it.
Friends have told me you’ve offered golf pros trips if they could fix your game.
That’s true – anywhere they wanted to go if they could get me under 90.
But you still have a love of the game that seems to go beyond your skill at it.
If you love the game, it doesn’t matter if you play badly. It is still a wonderful way to spend a day. There are days when I get so damned mad at myself when playing, but then I can hardly wait to get back on the course.
I find downhill skiing the same way. I was skiing near Calgary years ago and a friend of mine met a professional skier from Lake Placid. And this gal said that what bothered her about people is that they wanted to get up to the top of the hill and down again as quickly as they could. And they didn’t care about the in-between, which was the fun part. I took the same attitude about golf. I look at a player like you, who shoots three or four over par, and I think that must be nice. But it is also quite nice just to go out there and play.
You really appear to be enjoying your life, from your planes to your boats to Fox Harb’r. You also seem to be enjoying spending your money.
Why not? I don’t want a whole bunch of Brinks trucks following me to the grave. I mean, I started in this world with nothing and I think some people lose sight of that. I guess it is a power trip for some people and I wonder why they don’t give to things like children’s camps.
I’m not sure if it’s the right way to go, but it is right for me. You must have leaders in business that generate revenue and jobs, I understand that. But you can pass it on down and let your senior managers work the business. And I have friends, like David Sobey, who just retired from Sobeys and has got a great balance with his friends and family. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish as well.
Given your humble upbringing, are you ever surprised by your success in life?
I never imagined it. I can’t even believe today what has happened. I look around me, at the golf course at Fox Harb’r, or Children’s Foundation, and I am simply astounded. I look at Tim Hortons, which has grown and expanded, and realize it has become part of Canadian culture.
In many ways I guess if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have sold it. I would have stayed with it. But that is hindsight.
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