A deal struck in the dining hall
By Suzanne Robicheau (’03)
Jack MacDonald (’69) offers the same piece of advice at almost every speaking engagement, telling people to find a job they love and they will never work a day in their lives. Thanks to a deal struck more than 50 years ago with Al Whittle (’60), long-time manager of Acadia Cinema’s Al Whittle Theatre, MacDonald was able to follow his own words of wisdom in a career that took him to the top of the hospitality sector.
The story begins on a September afternoon in 1965 when MacDonald arrived at Wheelock Dining Hall without his meal card. “Up to then, I had not had any personal dealings with Al Whittle,” he recalls, “but on that day Al was punching meal tickets and he allowed me in for lunch on the condition that I fill out an application for a job at the dining hall.”
Working part-time at Wheelock fueled MacDonald’s passion for the hospitality industry, and his work ethic caught the attention of management at Saga Foods, then the University’s catering company. Two courses short of his degree, MacDonald received an offer from Saga that he couldn’t refuse: full-time employment at the princely salary of $10,000 a year. “It was far more than I would have made at the time as an engineer,” he says. “I took the job and never looked back.”
In time, the work with Saga took MacDonald to Ontario, where he and his wife Faye lived for 34 years, but before leaving Nova Scotia, he took a leave of absence to help a struggling family business – Clearwater Seafoods Ltd., where he was co-president along with his brother and brother-in-law. With the exception of that absence and a five-year foray into the health sector, MacDonald spent his entire career in hospitality, parlaying the initial job with Saga into a role as the company’s Canadian President. Subsequent executive positions in the sector included CEO of Marriott Corporation’s Canadian Division, and CEO and Chair of Compass Group Canada and ESS North America.
Grateful for his good fortune
MacDonald is grateful for his good fortune. He is also the first to admit that things might have gone very differently. The oldest of seven children, he quit school in Grade 11 to help his family after his father, Colin, had a heart attack. Thanks to a supportive administration at Halifax West High School and the strength of his mother, Belle, who worked as head nurse at the former Halifax Infirmary hospital, he managed to graduate the following year and was off to Acadia in September 1965.
Acadia evokes many fond memories for MacDonald, including a foiled plan to put his pilot’s license to ill-use by flying over the University’s football field during a game. He also remembers the confusion of having a fellow engineering student named Jack MacDonald. “Our friends and a few of the profs started to refer to us as Jack 'Halifax' and Jack 'Kentville', but that didn’t address the issue of mixed-up mail deliveries,” he says. “In order to solve that problem, we decided that for our second year we would room together in Chipman House.”
MacDonald went on to graduate from the Institute of Corporate Directors program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and he has an Honorary Bachelor of Applied Science from Humber College, but he will always have a soft spot for Acadia. “I was an introvert by nature,” he says. “Acadia gave me the opportunity to open up more to others and establish connections I still value.”
One of those connections was with the late Al Whittle, who helped MacDonald on many occasions. During one visit to Nova Scotia from their home in Burlington, Ontario, Jack and Faye took Whittle for lunch. On a subsequent trip, they went to see him in the hospital.
In 2014, that soft spot for Acadia translated into a gift of $100,000 from Jack and Faye MacDonald for the University’s “Twenty Wing” campaign, a fundraising effort to secure 20 gifts in that amount to complete renovations that turned Patterson Hall into a state-of-the-art new home for the F.C. Manning School of Business. Fond regard for Acadia also inspired this year’s equally generous gift to establish The Jack C. MacDonald (’69) Bursary, a renewable bursary designated for students from the Halifax Regional Municipality, preferably Halifax West High School, who have financial need and demonstrate leadership ability. “I had to have three jobs and a student loan to pay my way at Acadia,” MacDonald says. “This bursary will help others focus more on their studies.”
Helping others a given
Helping others is a given for MacDonald. Although his career has been centered around hospitality, his board membership has included executive roles with the Canadian Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame, the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research, the President’s Advisory Council for Humber College, the Colorectal Screening Initiative Foundation, the Province of Ontario Investment and Trade Advisory Council, and Sienna Senior Living. As a philanthropist, he has made a difference for many organizations in addition to Acadia. A recent gift of $20 million from his family will help transform cancer care at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.
After almost three-and-a-half decades in Ontario, Jack and Faye MacDonald returned to Nova Scotia in 2017. Jack serves as Chair of the Micco Group of Companies and in 2022 took on the responsibility of chairing the fundraising efforts in the Maritime provinces for Kids Help Phone. His father told him that the only way to appreciate something is to go out and work for it, which he has done repeatedly throughout his career, but he doesn’t ever claim to have done it alone.
“Be humble, work hard, and remember that you only get where you are going with the help of others,” he advises. “I owe my success in life to finding work that I loved and having the support of a lot of people.”
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