By Jason Winders
It was only a two-door hardtop. But to Jack Cowin, BA’64, LLD’00, it was a rocket ship to another world.
Born in Windsor, Ont., Cowin remembers those family trips from his youth well. Mom and dad, two kids, grandma and grandpa, all piled into a car heading south to Florida.
"That was sort of like outer space to me. Growing up, my world was about a 100-mile radius – between my home in Windsor and my grandparents in London," Cowin said from his current home in Australia. "I had never set foot on an airplane until I graduated from Western. And then I moved halfway around the world."
Half a century later, Cowin, the Founder and Executive Chairman of Competitive Foods Australia Ltd., is one of the world’s most successful restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, as well as a civic institution Down Under.
And now, Cowin will bring his international perspective to Western as the university’s 22nd Chancellor, the Joint Senate/Board Electoral Board for Chancellor announced today. He succeeds Joseph Rotman, who died in January.
As the honorary and symbolic head of the university, the Chancellor presides at Convocation ceremonies to admit candidates to degrees, diplomas and certificates, as well as serves as an ex-officio voting member of the Board of Governors, university Senate and certain committees of both governing bodies. The position traces its roots to the founding of the university, and its inaugural Chancellor, Bishop Isaac Hellmuth.
Cowin will be officially installed at the Autumn Convocation on Oct. 22 when Western will officially welcome him into his new role.
"Western, in many ways, has been my anchor – back to family, back to Canada. I never really cut that link. My years at Western were significant in formulating what I wanted to do," Cowin said. "That’s never really changed. That’s been a constant for me. Western has been a theme through everything. To get this appointment is a real honour.
"My Western Experience was one of the great things in my life. I really enjoyed it, loved it and I have the warmest of memories from it. Everything has a real Western theme running through it for me."
The first in his family to attend university, Cowin, a two-sport athlete, had opportunities to play football at American universities, but a local coach talked him into coming to Western.
"He told me it was really important to understand that the people you get to know now will dictate the rest of your life – the contacts you make at this stage in your life will be your contacts for life. I bought that," Cowin said.
At Medway Hall, his interactions with international students piqued his curiosity in the wider world.
Upon graduation, he landed a job at London Life. But he wanted to go further – and farther.
"The only thing I knew about myself after five years was I wanted to get into my own business," Cowin said. "And then this opportunity in Australia came up. I followed that dream. And now, 45 years later, I am still here."
In 1969, a 26-year-old Cowin moved to Australia with his family to establish a business with the support of loans from 30 Canadians. He took the fast food industry by storm, beginning with Kentucky Fried Chicken, then his own burger chain, Hungry Jack’s, and next with Dominos Pizza. The business expanded into food processing and now exports to 29 countries and employs 16,000 staff throughout Australia.
The group is also a major shareholder in three companies operating in Canada and the United States with a joint venture in Malaysia. In addition to operating 350 restaurants in Australia, the company operates five manufacturing facilities producing frozen value-added meat products, as well as processing fresh vegetables.
"When you move halfway around the world like that, especially when you haven’t really been anywhere, it was an adventure. I learned what a big world it was out there," he said.
Today, Cowin is also a director of the Network Ten television business; Chandler McLeod, a listed recruitment company; Sydney Olympic Park and Fairfax Media. He is also Chairman elect and the largest shareholder of Domino’s Pizza (Australia) and the largest shareholder in BridgeClimb, a major tourist attraction in Sydney, Australia.
As you might guess, Cowin is a staunch advocate of internationalization within postsecondary education.
"(When I attended) Western, it was a Southwestern Ontario, local university serving that community," he said. "The thing in my head that I have been able to figure out is there is a big world out there. One of the things about this appointment that I am proud of is I can bring an international perspective to the party. For Western to be a significant university going forward, it has to increasingly have a global view of what is going on in the world."
He is a strong supporter of Western’s efforts in increase international student enrolment, and a financial backer of its efforts to internationalize domestic student education. Cowin and his wife Sharon, BA’64, established the Jack and Sharon Cowin Scholars Award, a partnership between Bond University and Western that facilitates academic exchanges between the two universities.
"Your business life, your personal life, your academic life, it’s all about relationships," he said of the opportunities provided by the scholarships. "If you can establish relationships then that will be the guide you follow through the rest of your life. That’s what this is all about – how do you establish relationships with people in other countries, how do you understand there is more than just what goes on in your back yard, what can you learn about life from other people with different backgrounds and cultures.
"That’s the transformation the international aspect of a university provides."
Cowin has contributed to numerous leadership projects on campus, including acting as Chairman of Western’s International Advisory Board. He was conferred with an honorary degree in 2000. One year later, Western's Alumni Association recognized him with the Professional Achievement Award.
Cowin was a graduate of the Faculty of Social Science (Psychology), but was heavily involved in extracurricular activities as a student, especially as a varsity athlete in both wrestling and football.
"Sport gave me a competitive edge. It teaches you those things – all those things you hear about – like doing the best you can, never giving up, keeping on, getting better," he said. "Those same attributes stick with you. The experienced I gained as an athlete was more than a physical thing. I developed a competitive spirit that didn’t go away. That spirit is the drive that pushes you to get more out of life, to achieve more, as well as help other people.
Cowin has served as both a donor and mentor through the Jack Cowin Award. Students in receipt of this award demonstrate athletic and academic excellence. The award allows the student to conduct a three-month internship with Competitive Foods in Australia. He and his wife also created the Jack Cowin/Lone Star Coaching Excellence Fund designed to support Western's efforts to retain and recruit top-level head or assistant coaches for its varsity teams.
"Sport stays with you the rest of your life. The reality of life seems a long way away when you’re, say, about to get beaten in a wrestling match yet to have to continue, hang in, do your best. Those same things apply in the rest of your life – whether it’s your relationship with your spouse, your kids or whomever. The ability to hang in, especially when it is tough, and enjoy and celebrate is a real life lesson."