National Column: Double double, brand in trouble: Tim’s losing its Main Street cred

by Jennifer Wells

James Pickersgill would be the first to tell you he’s not a master of social media. And he wouldn’t exactly call himself an activist, even though he played a determined role in getting the pretty town of Cobourg, Ont., to change its bylaws to allow for boulevard gardens.

Mostly he’s a “doing good things to help people” kind of guy, from co-ordinating volunteers to help at a local hospice, to chairing the committee charged with defining the terms of reference for the town’s poet laureate.

In this latter role, Pickersgill found himself promoting the power of poetry by roaming the streets one Valentine’s Day, reading love poems to passersby. “We were wandering poets,” he says in fond remembrance, adding that poems had been sent from all over the world, printed up on red paper and taped to local shop windows.

So on the day when he heard that “this awful thing happened” in the community he loves, Pickersgill decided to do something about it.

The “awful thing” was the news that filtered through kids’ friends and family friends of a notification to staff at the local Tim Hortons that Pickersgill frequents. Owing to the province’s increase in minimum wage to $14 an hour as of Jan. 1, and the further $1-an-hour increase to follow, staff was informed that workday breaks would no longer be paid.

Thus a nine-hour shift would draw eight hours and 20 minutes of pay. Certain benefits costs would shift to employees. Certain incentives were cancelled.

“I was furious,” Pickersgill says. “I felt betrayed as a Tim Hortons customer. These people have bought into the community’s goodwill by saying ‘We’re significant in the life of the community.’ ”

By “these people” he means Ron Joyce Jr., son of Tim Hortons cofounder Ron Joyce, and Jeri-Lynn
Horton-Joyce, daughter of Tim Horton, who was playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs when he opened the first doughnut shop in 1964. Ron Joyce Jr. Enterprises Ltd. is the Cobourg franchisee, noted for its Tim Horton hockey paraphernalia. “A real small-town sort of hub,” Pickersgill calls the coffee shop where he orders his double cream, no sugar. (According to an unrelated court filing, Ron Joyce Jr. Enterprises Ltd. operates three Tim Hortons franchises. Two are in Cobourg.)

So Pickersgill posted an image of the letter, which employees were asked to sign, on his Facebook page. “The image I had of the letter looked amateurish,” he says. “But I was told they weren’t allowed to take it out of the building.” So what was posted was a cellphone snap.

“As soon as I posted it, it took off,” he says, adding he sees himself as a Luddite. “It’s not only what they did, it’s the way they did it. Did they not see that this would be a public relations disaster?”

Pickersgill is a machine operator, nearing retirement, with a good-paying job in a unionized shop, the kind of job that’s harder and harder to come by. He was coming off the night shift when he caught wind of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s response to the growing firestorm. Wynne didn’t sugar-coat her views in an interview with CBC News.

“To be blunt,” Wynne said, “I think it’s the act of a bully. And if Mr. Joyce Jr. wants to pick a fight, pick that fight with me and not the people who are working at the service window of the stores.”

Pickersgill’s response? “Incredible. Good for her. I’m so happy she did that.”

Predictably, the story grew and grew. More than one Cobourg resident has stopped Pickersgill with a “Hey, you’re famous” comment.

In this talk-of-the-town way, the coffee shop where James Pickersgill and his wife would wait out their daughter’s Girl Guide hours “renewing our relationship” (Pickersgill has a lovely sense of humour) has become a metaphor for the fight for a living wage and the deterioration of the brand resonance that accompanied the Tim Hortons banner.

As evidence, I cite the “Way Forward Bus Tour” agenda I have inexplicably held on to, five years after Kathleen Wynne traversed the province on a cold, snowy January weekend as she campaigned for the Liberal leadership.

The Saturday morning stop at the Timmie’s on Bridgeport Rd. E., in Waterloo was soon followed by a scheduled half-hour at the Timmie’s on Erie St., in Stratford and, subsequently, the Tim’s on Commissioners Rd. E., London. By mid-afternoon, she was meeting the nice folks in Exeter, at the Timmie’s at the confluence of Hwy. 4 and Hwy. 23. And then it was on to the Tim Hortons on Josephine St., in Wingham.

Sunday campaign stops included a Tim’s in Barrie, another in Lindsay and, finally, Whitby.

The optics offered the obviously right political notes, the Tim’s outlets positioning Wynne as a candidate attentive to the concerns of Main Street, Main Street being the proud heritage of the doughnut chain and its vaunted people-focused corporate culture. (Customers are not customers, they are Guests; minimum wage employees are Team Members.)

But by Christmastime 2014, all this had changed.

It is here that we must put the community focus on hold and turn, in a take-your-medicine way, to the corporate side of the tale. For in December of that year, a private equity firm that, safe to say, few in Cobourg would be familiar with, finalized its takeover of Tim Hortons.

The name 3G Capital still draws stares of nonrecognition, but the Brazilian-based private equity firm came on like gangbusters with its 2010 leveraged buyout of Burger King, followed by its takeover of H.J. Heinz with the backing of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. That second deal, Ontarians may recall, resulted in Heinz exiting the ketchup operation it had run in Leamington for more than 100 years.

The $12.5-billion takeover of Tim Hortons was finalized in 2014, which explains how Tim Hortons is now in a continentwide corporate mash-up with Burger King and the latterly acquired Popeyes chicken chain in the publicly traded Restaurant Brands International with 3G, which carries with it a reputation for swift corporate executions, as majority shareholder.

Happiness has not prevailed.

Ten months ago, a group of Tim Hortons franchisees banded together to form the Great White North Franchisee Association. The association’s list of complaints include cost-cutting measures that they say have resulted in lower quality, a lack of transparency and new costs downloaded to the so-called Ad Fund that is used to promote and preserve the Tim Hortons brand. The group claims a membership of 50 per cent of the franchised outlets in Canada. A proposed class-action lawsuit was launched in June and has not been certified.

In other words, even before the latest meltdown, Tim Hortons was a brand in crisis.

The letter to employees not only cited the increase to the provincial minimum wage as a rationale for the salary and benefits cutbacks, but a “lack of assistance and financial help from our Head Office and the Government.”

By Friday, Head Office was in full damage control mode, blaming the actions of “a reckless few”
restaurant owners for a story that, appropriately, has snowballed nationally. “Team Members should never be used to further an agenda or be treated as just an ‘expense,'” went the release from HQ.

Back in Cobourg, James Pickersgill has a few days off. In a state of wonder, no doubt. It is precisely perfect that the needed wage hike has caused a cataclysm in small-town Ontario and in, no less, the very heart of double-double Canadianness.

“If people are wrong, you fight them,” he says simply. The question is, will the Joyces reverse their decision?

“I don’t know that they’re brave enough to do that.”

Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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