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Canadian Tire: Fort McMurray Proud

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It's easy to spot Ray McDonald in Fort McMurray's Canadian Tire. He is tall and affable, and with his silver hair he is easy to see on the floor of the store. He uses an analogy that his job is "spinning plates" and that takes him to every part of the business including the salesfloor, auto service, warehouse, the office and buying meetings.  He says "the most important plates have to do with customer satisfaction, being in-stock and keeping the business fresh and exciting".

Ray and his wife Brenda bought their first Canadian Tire store in Toronto. Their next one was in Niagara Falls, followed by Sarnia. Now they own the store in downtown Fort McMurray, but if that sounds like they are empire builders, well, nothing could be farther from their minds. Think of them rather as upgraders. "The Canadian Tire franchise system strongly encourages owners to be active operators in their stores and multiple stores are not part of their model. We traded up in volume and circumstance for more interesting challenges. Fort McMurray is one of the company's highest volume stores, so we definitely wanted to be here."

Canadian Tire was founded in 1922 by the Billes brothers, John and Alfred. Originally the Hamilton Tire and Garage Company, the brothers honed in on the newfangled invention that everyone was buying, the motorcar, and realized that there would be good business in spare parts and repairs. They weren't wrong. A year later they opened the first Canadian Tire branded store, also in Toronto, and it wasn't long after that they opened an associate store in Hamilton. This step started the dealer-operated network that was to make the business such a success.

John died in 1956 but Alfred was well into his nineties when his daughter Martha succeeded him, and much of his gentlemanly views shaped the way that Canadian Tire has done business from day one.

Today Canadian Tire has become so much more than an automobile centre. While the service and parts department of the stores are still a core part of the business, over the years they have added more and more departments, based on customer's needs and wants. It's not just the name that helps Canadians identify so readily with the brand. The Canadian Tire shopping experience is different because at its heart every single branch is still the community corner store of old, serving the needs of the people. Everything is just a little bigger.

"Canadian Tire listens to what the customers say and try to stock what people want," says Rob Martin, the store general manager. He should know. This is his second store as General Manager, and he has been with the organization long enough to learn everything from the bottom up. Canadian Tires are the shop that you don't need to make a shopping list for, as they seem to stock everything. They are true lifestyle shops, and they seem to have all your needs for inside the home as well as the exterior. And now they are offering even more. By the time you read this, the new CANADA'S OUTDOOR STORE will be open next to the main post office downtown. "It makes sense for us," says Ray. "We're looking to the future in Fort McMurray, and this is one of the most outdoorsy communities in the country and a market underserved by retailers."

He's right about that. The region is a full four-season adventure park just waiting to be discovered. The extra space the new store offers will allow the McDonalds to offer so much more to their customers. Which is a good time to mention the other owner, Ray's wife Brenda is a chartered accountant by profession so she keeps a keen eye on the bottom line. Perhaps as testament to the outdoors lifestyle Fort McMurrayites lead and the nature of employment in the oil sands, this store has been at the top or near the top of company sales volumes for the last five years. As a medium size store in Canadian Tire Land, it frequently outperforms branches much larger.

Accidentally the economy may be playing into their hands. As the downturn has taken a hold, the frenetic lifestyle up here has slowed a bit, allowing families to spend more time at leisure. Hunting and fishing have always been popular in the region and Canadian Tire makes sure you have the largest selection of stock possible to choose from, winter or summer. As well as camping, canoeing, kayaking, angling, shooting, skiing, hiking, biking, cooking or just looking, they also keep the best selections of leisure outdoors merchandise as well, patio loungers and hammocks among them for the less energetically inclined.  

And to make life even easier, the catalogues (Wow Guides) are organized by activity,  so you can look up backyard fun or grill masters; camping and on the water, cycling, outdoor living, tools that work, road trips and many more.

Canadian Tires operate differently from all other retail operations. Instead of business growth, or profit, its first rule is and always has been about integrity. "We aspire to be Canada's most trusted company," it says on their website. To that end they have a code of conduct for their employees as well as one for their suppliers. Does it work? Well most companies are proud if they are recognized for one or maybe two national awards. The Canadian Tire Group, which also includes Mark's, Sport Chek and Atmosphere among its brands, had 33 of them, in 2015 alone. A sampling includes being listed as one of Canada's best managed companies, top 100 employers, top employers for young people, excellence in retailing and most socially responsible. There were also several sustainability awards and one that isn't quite national but is maybe more important, Alberta's most respected brand.

In answer to that question, does their philosophy work? It does indeed. Original owner A.J. Billes became a member of the Order of Canada specifically for "his contribution to the community of business, his concern for his employees and the sharing with them of his successes right from the very start." His founding business principles are still key to the way Canadian Tires are run. Customer service, fair deals, and most of all integrity.

There have been many initiatives from Canadian Tire over the years to keep involved with the community, but perhaps the biggest and most important one has been Jumpstart. National in its reach but aimed at local communities, Jumpstart raise funds so that children in financial need can play organized sports, regardless of the cost of equipment and fees. It's a novel idea that reaches right into the heart of Canada and its residents, and is unique to Canadian Tire in its scope and size.

Make no mistake about it, Ray and Brenda McDonald are smart business people. Canadian Tire franchises are a lot of work - our local branch at 1 Hospital Street is open to shoppers for nearly 90 hours per week and 364 days a year. So they knew, when they took the next step from Ontario to Alberta, that they would still have the potential for long hours and seven day work weeks. "We originally came because it was a good store for us with a solid team in place, and the community has been fantastic," says Ray. "We love it here."