Lunch with Ron Joyce, superyacht owner and philanthropist
Ron Joyce's grand home on the shore of Lake Ontario is a very long way from his humble origins in Nova Scotia but a passionate appreciation of the country in which he made his fortune runs as a constant narrative through the different chapters of his life.
Twenty years ago, when Joyce built his home, he was able to make it an embodiment of that passion. It is filled with a mix of art and hunting, shooting and fishing trophies, each floor themed for one of Canada's provinces: 'Upstairs, French Canada Quebec,' he explains over a fabulous lunch of shrimp made by his chef and housekeeper of almost 30 years, Vi. 'The swimming pool is Atlantic Canada. Downstairs is Western Canada. My room is the Arctic.' And out through the picture windows are the boat dock and the lake.
If he was American, Joyce would be a living embodiment of the American Dream but 'Canadian icon' is equally as fine. He built the chain of Tim Hortons doughnut and coffee shops from a ground-floor investment in a single franchise, and the restaurants are now threaded through Canada and Canadian life like a hybrid of Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts.
'It's all part of the learning curve of life' Joyce says. 'I had grade nine education (to age 15). I had no high school, there was no university training. The one thing I had was a work ethic. I've been very fortunate really.' That work ethic probably came from his mother: 'Raised three kids on a widow's allowance. She worked very hard,' he says.
Joyce was born in 1930, right into the teeth of the Great Depression. 'My mother was nine months pregnant with my sister when my father, her husband, was killed in a motor vehicle accident,' he explains. Joyce was three years old. His widowed mother retreated to her family's home in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, bought a tiny house with the life insurance and struggled on without running water, plumbing or electricity.
Destination Fox Harb'r racing at the St Barths Bucket regatta
According to his autobiography, Always Fresh: The Untold Story of Tim Hortons by the Man Who Created an Empire, Joyce was self-conscious about the family's poverty when he was young, but despite the tough circumstances, it sounds like a good place to grow up. He spent his free time at the wharf, fishing and swimming in the summer. 'When we were kids we used to steal the fishermen's row boats, but we always put them back,' he recalls.
He decided early that he would leave school for the world of work. But at the end of WWII, with servicemen flooding home, it wasn't easy to find a job. After a year of struggling in Tatamagouche, Joyce joined the many Canadians seeking their fortune in Ontario. He picked Hamilton, having heard that it was the centre of Canadian industry.
'I saved up $35 and it cost me $30 for the train fare. That left me $5. We took up a collection to buy beer and sandwiches. Got to Hamilton and I didn't have a nickel.' He was taken in by a lodging house and given three days to find a job; it took Joyce just two days to find a spot at the American Can Company. Other jobs followed in tobacco fields, and at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, with Joyce working double shifts and weekends to bring the money in.
He was married at 19, and 21 when the sea properly entered his life. 'In 1951 I joined the navy with a view to going to Korea. I had tried to join the police before I went to the navy and was turned down. That was the only reason I joined the navy,' he says. On leaving the navy, he achieved his original ambition and joined Hamilton's police force, staying in for nine years. During the latter part of that period, he started up in business. 'I enjoyed being [in the police force]. I enjoyed the work, but the problem was terrible salaries, you're making very little money. I was married with four children, so had to work a whole lot of part-time jobs. Then I ran into an old navy buddy; the guy owned a Dairy Queen an ice cream franchise he said get yourself one of these, so I started up my first business with the Dairy Queen.'
Joyce's foray into the food service industry proved a success and soon he was looking to expand. Frustrated at attempts to buy another Dairy Queen franchise, he took over the first shop for Horton and soon after opened the second-ever Tim Hortons doughnut shop it was the first step on the way to making his fortune. Tim Horton was a famous Canadian hockey player who had started the business as a means of supplementing his income. After a series of twists and turns including the 1974 death of Horton in a car accident Joyce assumed control of the business and turned it into part of the Canadian way of life.
By the late 1960s, Joyce was doing well enough to buy a small holiday home in Northern Ontario. 'I got a Sunfish, then a Laser, which is a little bigger, then I bought a 16 foot (4.8 metre) Hobie Cat. I bought a 15- or 17-foot motor boat and had that for quite a while. From there I went to a C&C 40 that would be in the early 1970s, probably.' Joyce learned to sail in those boats something the navy had failed to teach him eventually sailing the C&C 40 far afield, including a passage from Hamilton to Fort Lauderdale and back.
The next boat was a powerboat. 'I can do it alone,' he says, explaining the switch to a diesel engine. 'No sails to pull down. I wanted to try power for a while, so I bought a 39 foot (11.8 metre) Sea Ray.' The next boat was bigger still, a Wellcraft high-performance powerboat that could go 60 knots, and was used as part of Tim Hortons marketing. 'I called it Timblitz. We had a crew taking it all over the place. We stopped along the way and took people out for a ride. It had its own tow truck. I had it painted the same colours [as Tim Hortons livery], red, black and white. It was really quite a sight, caused traffic jams. I had that about two or three years.'
Joyce's boat ownership accelerated quickly at this point. 'The next boat was a pretty 63 foot (19 metre) Ferretti. I had a home in Fort Lauderdale and parked it outside my home; it was a beautiful boat. Then I bought a Donzi sports-fishing boat, a 73-foot (22 metre) and took that all through the Eastern Seaboard. We went down as far as Grenada. We were in [fishing] tournaments and won a few.' He adds with a smile: 'I got a 955-pound marlin one time.'
Joyce still co-owns the Ferretti, which he keeps on Lake Ontario for summer use. 'By that time I had a sailboat, too,' he says. The sailboat was a 41 metre sloop, a Dubois design, his first yacht since the C&C 40 and bought after he sold out of the doughnut and coffee business. She was named Destination Fox Harb'r, and built at Alloy Yachts in New Zealand, originally for Neville Crichton.
Ron Joyce aboard his latest acquisition, a Trinity 49m called Destination Fox Harb'r Too
The latest addition to his fleet came after a visit to the Trinity yard in Mississippi. 'It was six years ago and I was [there] specifically to see Trinity Yachts. There was a new one being built at the yard. I saw the yacht under construction and fell in love with the plans. It was nothing, just wires, but I saw the layout, especially the décor. I loved it and so I did the deal. I had input on it, but it had a dynamite interior decorator from Florida and he did a great job.' The 49m motor yacht Destination Fox Harb'r Too is now being refitted in Fort Lauderdale, and will travel north when finished. 'She'll head up this way. We'll go to Fox Harb'r, to my golf course. I'll probably meet it in Newport. I may come up with it.'
Fox Harb'r Golf Resort & Spa is Joyce's development in Wallace on the Northumberland Shore of Nova Scotia, his home territory. Opening in 2000, it includes a championship golf course (for which Tiger Woods holds the record), designed by Canadian Golf Hall of Fame architect Graham Cooke. Fox Harb'r has its own airstrip, and Joyce's business interests include the aviation charter business Jetport. Joyce says Fox Harb'r was developed as a way of giving back something to Nova Scotia it's clear he hasn't forgotten those tough early years.
Fox Harb'r Golf Resort clubhouse
That's also evident with his charitable involvement. After the death of his hockey player friend and business partner, Joyce started the Tim Horton Children's Foundation. It now provides free holidays at six camps for underprivileged children. While he is still the honorary chair, Joyce no longer takes an active role in the Children's Foundation; instead, The Joyce Foundation administers his philanthropic work, and is largely focused on providing access to education for children and youth with significant financial need.
These charities are just the kind of thing Joyce himself might have benefited from, had it been available back in the 1940s. Although, as I take my leave of his gorgeous house and charming company, it's easy to feel that he doesn't seem to have done too badly without it.
This ia an abbreviated version of a feature that appears in the October 2013 issue of Boat International