Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Jeff Mooney found all the materials he needed to build a solid character on the local fields, rinks and courts of his city.
“The kids in the neighbourhood where I grew up were all a couple of years older than me,” said the chairman emeritus of A&W Food Services of Canada Inc. “But they needed me to round out the sports teams that we played on. So I got some wonderful mentoring through sports, and it’s served me well throughout my life.”
Mooney, who was born in 1944 in Regina, Saskatchewan, moved to Winnipeg with his family around the time of his first birthday. He said his childhood was defined by sports – Canadian sports, to be specific – with lots of hockey, football and baseball.
“I often say this when I speak to groups,” he added. “Sports can teach you so much about life regarding growing up: taking responsibility for your position or your role, teamwork, learning how to win graciously and learning how to lose graciously.”
One issue Mooney had growing up, however, was that he was a Saskatchewan Roughriders fan – given his birth city – living deep in Winnipeg Blue Bombers territory.
“That meant if the Riders beat the Bombers that week, I got beat up. And if the Bombers beat the Riders I got razzed all week.”
Mooney graduated from high school in 1962 in Winnipeg and then headed off to the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, which his father had graduated from. Mooney studied history and philosophy and started graduate studies in philosophy before realizing the life of a university professor wasn’t for him. Mooney’s inflection point came after taking an undergraduate degree in 1966, and recognizing the academic life was a “little too dry” for his liking.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I needed to pay my rent, so I went out and got a job with a management training program with the Hudson’s Bay Co. [TSX:HBC].”
Mooney was sold, gravitating towards the fast pace of the business world. Most importantly, his superiors were once again great mentors, he said.
“They challenged me to deliver, and I loved it.”
Mooney, who stayed with the Bay for about five years, transferred back to Winnipeg partway through that time. Then came the big leap to the West Coast. Mooney was asked to fill a position in Vancouver in 1970. To this day, he can recall his feelings as the plane approached the airport.
“I remember coming in the early spring on a late flight, and I woke up as we were landing in Vancouver. And as I felt the plane coming down, there was green grass beside the runway, and I thought, ‘My God, there must have been something that has happened, and they’ve diverted us to the Southern Hemisphere.’”
Mooney was recruited away from the Bay to Vancouver’s Eaton’s branch in 1971 to work in the personnel division doing organizational and manpower planning for B.C. and Alberta. He stayed with Eaton’s for two years, and then was recruited by a friend who was building the workforce for the newly launched Insurance Corp. of British Columbia (ICBC). When Mooney joined ICBC there were only eight employees, and he quickly realized the life of a public servant was not his cup of tea.
“It was a very visceral experience. It turned me into an ardent free-enterprise capitalist. So the government of the day had decided to socialize the insurance industry, and I was attracted to it because we were going to go from eight employees to 8,000 employees. What I learned once I was inside was that the government exists in a democracy as an arbitrator. When the government is an employer, they’re no longer an arbitrator, and so I experienced what a dictatorship was, as opposed to free enterprise.”
Mooney left ICBC after seven months, recruited by A&W to take on a senior role in the human resources department in 1973. A&W had been struggling, and was bought by international consumer goods company Unilever (NYSE:UN) shortly after he joined. Mooney said the first few years were rocky but they turned out to be a valuable learning experience.
“It was a volatile time because McDonald’s [NYSE:MCD] had come to Canada,” he said. “A&W used to be the only game in town, and we started to go downhill fast.”
By 1975 profits for A&W had fallen 50% he said. However, Bob Johnson, whom Mooney credits as another mentor, had developed a unique decision-making process.
“We needed that because we didn’t know how to fix [the drop in profits] and we were going out of business. And Bob’s process was perfect for us.”
Mooney said the idea was to become a “strategy-driven” company, and to this day A&W still uses the method Johnson first implemented in 1976. The essence of this approach, which was hatched when the company was struggling with fierce competition from Wendy’s (Nasdaq:WEN), Burger King and McDonald’s, was for A&W to adopt an “entrepreneurial mindset” even though it was already a well-known brand.
The Great Root Bear, which has become an iconic Canadian fast-food image, was also instrumental in cementing the company as a Canadian staple.
In 1995, A&W, along with Mooney, bought out Unilever. Mooney just celebrated his 44th year with the North Vancouver-based company, which now has more than 850 locations across Canada.
Mooney, who served as the company’s CEO from 1991 until 2005, has taken a step back from the day-to-day operations, but he still serves as chairman emeritus for the company.
Along the way, he has also had a chance to dive back into one of his childhood loves: baseball. In 2006 he joined forces with friend and forestry leader Jake Kerr and bought the triple-A Minor League Baseball team the Vancouver Canadians, which plays at Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium.
Kerr said Mooney is definitely a serious, philosophical businessman, but that doesn’t mean his friend – who was inducted into the Business Laureates of British Columbia Hall of Fame in 2015 – doesn’t have a fun-loving side.
“One of the things he has is a great sense of humour – and a sense of the absurd,” Kerr said.
During the sixth inning of Canadians games, fans partake in the famous chicken dance. Kerr said he himself doesn’t join it; Mooney, on the other hand, leads the entire fan base at the stadium in the tradition.
“I think the main thing I would emphasize is what a great chicken dancer he is,” said Kerr. “Which is something I wouldn’t dream of doing in public, on a bet.” •