News / Kitchener

Co-founder Mac Voisin will remain consultant after selling M&M to Toronto equity firm

KITCHENER — From the corner of Victoria Street and Lawrence Avenue, Mac Voisin built a cross-country chain of M&M Meat Shops.

Now that chain has been sold to Torontobased Searchlight Capital Partners of Toronto.

Voisin, 65, plans to do more golfing, fishing and scuba diving. He will continue at M&M as a consultant and ambassador.

“I am (feeling) sensational because I am now retired,” Voisin said.

Voisin opened the first outlet at Victoria and Lawrence on Oct. 10, 1980. He went into business with his brother-in-law, Mark Nowak.

When the deal with Searchlight was announced there were about 400 M&M Meat Shops across Canada.

“We have been working on it for some time and we are thrilled with what’s happened,” Voisin said.

“They bring with them a ton of experience and new ideas, new energy,” Voisin said. “I am really excited that we found the dream team.”

The sale of M&M Meat Shops is another milestone for a family of bare-knuckle entrepreneurs headed by Frank Voisin. He had three sons — Greg, George and Mac.

Frank owned almost all the land that would become Forest Hills and Forest Heights.

He started developing property in those areas before anyone else.

He built roads, sidewalks, storm sewers and then sold lots to home builders. Many years later he built the Sunrise Centre on Ottawa Street South. Greg is a partner in the massive big box retail centre that straddles the Kitchener-Waterloo border on Ira Needles Boulevard — The Boardwalk. He is also a partner in the commercial redevelopment of the former Budd Plant site on Homer Watson Boulevard.

George, a lawyer, was involved in many charities in the area. He died suddenly playing golf several years ago.

Mac Voisin said the idea for M&M Meats came out of his search for restaurant-quality steaks in supermarkets. He checked with a restaurant-supply company and learned that restaurants typically age steaks for 21to 28 days.

“So we said: ‘You know what? That’s what we are going to do. We are going to sell restaurant-style foods to the average, everyday consumer,’ ” Voisin said.

It caught on right from the beginning. Voisin thought maybe the company would one day have 50 to 100 outlets across Canada. At one point it had 456.

“The market was way bigger than what we imagined in 1980,” Voisin said.

The company focused on suburban locations along arterial roads. Customers could park right in front of the store and get personal help at a counter. The outlets stocked all-manner of frozen meals, from steaks and burgers to chicken breasts and meat pies. Annual sales peaked at about $475 million in 2008. Since then, it closed about 75 outlets.

Voisin graduated university with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1973, but he could not find a job in that field. So he sold real estate for three years. Then he and his brother Greg started Voisin Homes that built about 100 homes in Kitchener, Baden and New Hamburg as general contractors.

Then in 1980, Mac and his brother-in-law Mark Nowak started M&M Meat Shops.

“We said, ‘Should we call it Mac and Mark’s, or Mark and Mac’s? Let’s just call it M&M Meat Shops.’ Two-minute decision,” Voisin said.

In 1985, the company had 11outlets and Nowak returned to his first love, courtroom litigation. By the late 1980s, the company was opening up to 20 new stores a year.

In late 1989, the company hired James Petrozzi, the vice-president of Schneiders, to oversee the rapid growth. When Petrozzi started, there were 55 stores.

“He said, ‘There is a place for M&M in every community across the country,” Voisin said.

M&M Meat Shops raised millions for charity. It helped the Waterloo Region Food Bank get a larger, permanent home. It helped the House of Friendship build social housing in downtown Kitchener.

“My belief is the community is great to me, they have put me where I am today and I feel a responsibility to give back to the communities right across the country,” Voisin said.

In 1989, the company looked for a national charity that had no profile and no money, but represented a lot of suffering people. It found the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada. The company started the first of many annual charity barbecues that year for the foundation.

“We raised $50,000 in the first year, $100,000 the next, then $200,000 and it just kept growing. Today, I think we have raised $24 million for the cause,” Voisin said.

Voisin said he and his siblings learned from their father Frank that successful businesses give back to their communities. “I was raised that way,” Voisin said. Voisin has a cottage in the Kingston area. He sits on the board of a hospital there. He also sat on the board of the St. Mary’s Hospital Foundation in Kitchener for 14 years.

Erol Uzumeri, a founding partner at Searchlight Capital Partners, said the private-equity firm bought M&M Meats because it believes it is a real growth opportunity.

“What we love about the company is that it is an iconic Canadian food brand,” Uzumeri said.

Under Searchlight’s ownership M&M will adopt the “flash-frozen” approach. That’s when the foods are frozen at the peak of flavour and nutrients.

Store interiors will be changed to make it easier to find both established and new products. There are no plans to move the head office out of Kitchener. There are no plans to close outlets either.

“Ultimately, it is a growth story,” Uzumeri said. “Why we invested in M&M is we saw an opportunity to grow the business. Over time we would expect the number of stores to grow.”

When the frozen-food empire started at Victoria and Lawrence, regional Coun. Geoff Lorentz recalls, Voisin would load up a curbside barbecue with frozen meats and let the wafting smoke do the talking.

“It is an amazing company that grew from our community,” Lorentz said. “Mac’s philosophy always was, ‘The best way to be successful is to surround yourself with really smart people.’ ”

Ian McLean, the chief executive of the Greater Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, said M&M Meat Shops is an amazing company.

“I think that’s a reflection of the support the community gives to local companies like that, but also the world-class nature of the entrepreneurs and business leaders in the community,” McLean said.

As part of the purchase, Searchlight appointed Andy O’Brien chief executive officer at M&M Meat Shops. O’Brien has decades of experience in the food business. He previously headed The Works Gourmet Burgers and Bistro, Kelsey’s Bar & Grill and Montana’s Cookhouse.

“This is what I do, I love food,” O’Brien said.

The frozen-food sector in Canada is growing, representing $7 billion annually in sales and 34 per cent of all food purchases. “It is growing at two per cent a year,” O’Brien said.

A staggering 94 per cent of Canadians are familiar with the M&M brand, and the company posted growth for 31of its 33 years.

“That is a record that is almost unmatched,” O’Brien said.

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