While George MacKay was building his family-run parking equipment business into a global powerhouse, he preferred to keep it relatively inconspicuous. Despite the fact the company manufactured and installed over 500,000 parking meters in 40 countries, the plant in Abercrombie, outside New Glasgow, didn’t even have a sign until recently.

But now, James MacKay, who assumed the presidency of J.J. MacKay Canada from his father in June, says the company’s low-profile days are over. “We are industry leaders owning numerous patents, with a diverse and international client base, but our public presence has been minimal on the home front. That’s about to change.”

James, a 42-year-old father of two, grew up in the business. His transition
to the top role, after serving as vice president of sales, has been in the making for five years. He emphasizes the importance of succession planning, not just for himself but for the entire leadership team.

“Succession planning isn’t just about you. It’s also about the CFO, the CTO and others. You must ensure that the right people are in place to manage inevitable changes.”

James represents the third generation of MacKays to lead the company. His grandfather launched the firm in 1960 when twist-handle parking meters were the norm. Sadly, the firm was briefly thrown into chaos when its founder died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50.

George, the eldest of his three children, dropped out of Acadia University to return to Pictou County. Managers and staff helped keep the business operating while George got a crash course in “real- world business.” Within two years, he took on the presidency and relocated the head office from Ontario back to New Glasgow.

An inventor at heart, he also transitioned the company away from a distribution model and towards the manufacturing of parts and fully operational meters. For 40 years, he focused on introducing more and more sophisticated technology into parking equipment.

Industry analysts suggest the company is ranked among the top 10 parking equipment firms globally.

When he was growing up, James worked alongside his parents at the plant, but he never imagined it would become a full-time job. In fact, he had his sights set on something else. He graduated from Dalhousie University and moved to Maine, where he trained as a teacher and, upon graduation, returned to Nova Scotia, anxious to get into a classroom.

With even substitute positions scarce at that time, his dad invited him to try a year in the family business. If it didn’t suit him, he could resume his teaching career the following year. Sixteen years later, James is still there.

His transition to the role of president has been gradual. Working behind the scenes, he has advanced his father’s innovation agenda and is recognized as the force behind improved hardware and software solutions.

“I’m a bit of a green tech geek, so we’ll be seeing solar harvesting and green energy infused into more of our product offerings,” he says.

The company is currently engaged in the world’s largest parking meter deployment: a three-year effort that will cover 26,000 spaces in San Francisco.

His move into the role of president as well as the day-to-day running of the private family-owned company have necessitated “big boy” conversations. Regular “kitchen
board meetings” with his father and brother, John, a successful Toronto entrepreneur, have been instrumental. James’s sister, Meghan, a veterinarian in the U.S., is not directly involved in the business.

“The family is not shy with sharing their opinions,” he chuckles. “They keep me grounded.” The protection of family values and a deep respect for the staff permeate those conversations.

While some organizations involve armies of lawyers and accountants to work out the financial implications associated with succession, J.J. MacKay used outside sources sparingly and primarily as sounding boards or a sanity check.

“With enough conversation, you know what the end goal is and it becomes a matter of how much you need to pay others to get there.”

James acknowledges that succession planning often takes a back seat for many companies due to the time and energy it requires — especially since there is no immediate impact on the bottom line.

However, he asserts, “It’s a responsibility that comes with ownership. Businesses aim for continuity, and without a clear plan for the next generation, you’re short-changing yourself and your staff. It’s never too early to think about succession, but it can certainly become too late.”

For more information about business succession, consider these resources:
Family Business Planning Atlantic
The Cape Breton Partnership: Exiting Your Business
Canadian Federation of Independent Business: Preparing for Succession

Business succession is critical to the growth and future development of Nova Scotia communities. In future issues we will be exploring various aspects of the process through stories with entrepreneurs who’ve successfully navigated the journey.

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