Jack Cowin, BA’64, LLD’00, the founder and Executive Chairman of Competitive Foods Australia Ltd., was installed as the university’s 22nd Chancellor, at the Thursday, Oct. 22, morning session of Western’s 306th Convocation ceremonies. The text of his address follows:
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My thanks to the university and all those involved in presenting me with the honour of becoming the 22nd Chancellor of this great institution as part of the 306th graduate convocation.
I also congratulate the graduates and their parents on your achievement of receiving your degree and wish you a happy meaningful life.
I realise I am an unusual choice as chancellor, not only as I live half way around the world in Australia, but also because not many ex-wrestlers and football defensive tackles are given this opportunity.
The role of a wife and close friends is to keep your feet on the ground and tell you the truth in such a situation like this. A former roommate of mine recently said about me, “When I met this guy in 1963 his summer job was selling trees and shrubs from farm to farm, door to door. If someone had told me he would be a future chancellor of this university, I would have said, ‘Are you crazy?’” He later redeemed himself by naming me “the people’s chancellor” – which I liked.
Another learned friend says, that after 73 years of limited success, you can now pretend that you have belatedly become an intellectual as chancellor.
My own daughter, Jane, says, in responding to my installation as chancellor, “Being installed sounds like a new dishwasher being installed in the kitchen.” All this in an attempt to effectively keep me grounded.
My years at Western were from 1961-64, and I can remember sitting where you are today wishing the speaker would speak faster so I could get out into the real world. Aside from my studies, my football and wrestling participation, as team sports, played an important part in the learning experience that has stayed with me for the rest of my life.
My parents were from families of nine and eight kids and both grew up here in London, products of The Depression, having to leave school at an early age to earn an income to help pay the family bills. I was the first in the family to venture past high school and attend university. My first memory of Western was probably as a 10 year old standing on the hill behind the old J.W. Little Stadium watching Mustang football games with my dad in a world that seemed somewhat mysterious and not guessing that I would one day attend here myself.
One of my boyhood dreams was to somehow somewhere get into my own business and control my own destiny. As a kid, I had a paper route, cut lawns, shovelled snow for neighbours and, when I arrived at Western, I had a summer job selling trees and shrubs, as you have heard, from farm to farm, door to door.
I had never been in an airplane until I had a job interview on graduating. I made my first trip to Australia four years later to explore a business opportunity that a couple of high school friends alerted me to. I was married, had a house, 6-month-old child, mortgage and no money to speak of. I had paid $1,000 deposit on a food franchise business and was about to lose it if I couldn’t raise the money to get started.
I often reflect on the courage and faith of the 30 brave Canadian investors who put up $10,000 each to a 25 year old who had no relative business experience, no collateral and promised to pay it back between five and 10 years all going well in a business half way around the world. Thank God for those venture capitalists who were prepared to back someone with a dream. I am pleased and proud that four of those brave souls are here with us today.
Fast-forward 46 years from the start: We own a food service business that employs 16,000 people and exports food products to 29 countries. I am also chairman and largest shareholder in a public company that has a market capitalisation of $4 billion, has created another 20,000 jobs and does business in six countries. We have been in and out of the TV industry, wine business and, once, one of three owners of the largest cattle farm in the world. In recent times, we have been increasing our investments in Canada and the USA.
It is worthy to note that the great majority of my 30 backers were people I had met or were introduced to me through my Western contacts and I remain eternally grateful for the support and your faith in me, otherwise I’d still be shovelling snow somewhere nearby.
I loved my years here at Western and I look back on my fine memories with gratitude for what it has given me. Life is largely about relationships and how you make them work successfully.
I met my wife, Sharon, here in my second year and we have been married for 49 years. We have four kids I am very proud of and 12 grandchildren – we are sorry they are unable to be with us for this occasion, as they are good breeders and all have busy lives with their young kids. Sharon, who I pay tribute to, has done a great job of raising our family while I have been slaying dragons and chasing a dream without a complaint of our life Down Under, being somewhat of an adventurer herself as it was me or crossroads Africa – lots of complaints about me, but never about our relocation or about my being frequently missing in action. She has been a constant source of support, partner and companion.
I think it is important to remember where you came from and who helped you get to where you have in life. Although we live as far away from London, Ont., as you physically can, we never cut the apron strings with our Canadian friends and family and home will always be home wherever you wander.
As someone coming into academia from the world of commerce, I have learned some interesting things about Western. We have a number of stakeholders in the university community:
- Students and alumni;
- Faculty and staff;
- Administration and governance.
Whether a sports team, a business or academic institution, there needs to be alignment to achieve the shared goals and objectives of all three.
Recognizing my limitations, my primary objective as Chancellor is to endeavour to assist in gaining this alignment between the three groups so as to develop a culture of cooperation and with that a shared understanding of what we want this university to become, assuming all three stakeholders have a shared goal of the pursuit of excellence. Let me quote, “Excellence is never an accident, it is always the result of high intentions, sincere effort and excellence in execution. It represents the wise choice of many alternatives. Choice not chance determines your destiny.” That was written by Aristotle in 384 BC – not much has changed in 2,500 years.
Our challenges for Western going forward to achieve will need to be focused on:
- How do we attract the brightest students from around the world in a competitive market?
- How do we attract, recruit and retain the best faculty in the world?
- How do we fund the above to make it a reality?
As regards students, Western has been very successful at attracting the brightest with very high entry-level scores and retention levels through graduation.
Western has also been able to attract and retain world-class faculty. An example is Adrian Owen, a British neuroscientist, who came to Western from Cambridge in the U.K., with his team of people. The best talent and research funding will attract the leading players and enhance our offering.
Funding: We must develop increased financial support from our alumni and our business community partners if we wish to continue our pursuit of excellence. Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we make, we make a life out of what we give.”
We have made substantial increases in the endowment funds of the university and the number and increase of income from foreign students.
If we are to become a world-class institution, we have to have an increased awareness of what goes on in a growing competitive outer world.
We can’t just be a southwestern Ontario school doing business in our own backyard, as we need to develop skills and knowledge to successfully participate in a global community. I am hopeful of bringing an international perspective to Western with my experience in the global business world.
As I indicated, the choice is ours if we are going to continue to raise our standards to educate future generations and equip them to be able to better adapt to a changing world.
Now, for a few worlds of instruction to the graduates on this important day, there is an expression that says whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are probably right.
I have set out a few what I call life’s lessons – if I knew then what I know now.
Here’s my Top 10:
- Look after your health, if you lose it nothing else matters;
- If you lose your integrity, no amount of success will be meaningful. If you are unable look yourself in the mirror you’ll never be happy with the results;
- Control your own destiny. The most satisfied people I know have control over their own lives and affairs. We are all seeking independence to do what we want to when and where we want to. Have a dream of where you want to go;
- Be prepared to take some risks in life. Life is an adventure and challenge. When you are young, you can afford to fail; when you are old, you need the stimulation. Some caveats to risk: You don’t have to bet the farm; spread the risk; home runs are not necessary; singles and double will get you there; don’t wait until the dogs are barking at the door to do things; banks don’t hand out umbrellas when it is raining; when they pass around the cookies, take some, as they will not be passing them around when you want or need them;
- Make saving some money a compulsory habit. Keep some powder dry. Have an opportunity fund or capacity to raise money so that you can move when the right deal or proposition presents itself. With new ideas be prepared to test, model prior to boots and all commitment – step by step rather than all on the nose to win;
- Never, never give up if you think you are right. Showing up eventually eliminates 85 per cent of the competition who won’t go the distance. The flipside is don’t die on your sword on mission impossible. Be prepared to cut your losses;
- Don’t get caught up in your own self-importance. Try and be humble, even if you don’t believe it. Be able to laugh at yourself;
- Have a bias for action. If you don’t swing the bat you will never hit the ball. Back yourself and your abilities. Be the best you can;
- Focus. Be a rifle not a shotgun and be aware of diversions and distractions from the main game. Pay attention to the big stuff. Delegate the mundane – delegate but don’t abdicate;
- Life is about dealing with people. You can solve you biggest problems if you can maintain a smile and a sense of humour. Try and surround yourself with smart people who compliment your skills.
Finally, find a tolerate husband or wife who can appreciate your search for success and fulfilment and not be threatened by it but rather rejoice in your effort to succeed.
In closing, I have two final wishes:
- For Western to win the national football championships to celebrate their new Chancellor’s appointment. Go, Stangs.
- My mother died 15 months ago at the age of 94. She would have been very proud to be here today. I hope she has tuned in from Heaven and has enjoyed it.