Canadian Tire was an institution in my home growing up, as it probably was in yours.
It was ritual every Saturday morning: Dad and I would sit together at the breakfast table, him with a coffee, I with a hot chocolate, and we’d scan the Canadian Tire flyer for what was on special that week.
Then, it was father and son off to our local store to pickup whatever it was we needed, plus maybe a new power tool — or two, or three.
Today, much the same scenario plays out weekly around my house with my two sons. Canadian Tire’s become as much a part of our country’s commercial landscape as The Hudson’s Bay Company or Tim Hortons.
With Canadian Tire celebrating its 90th birthday this year, it had me wondering just how the company got its start way back in 1922. It turns out tires really were the first product it sold. But, as we learned from Sian Madsen, the company’s manager of archives, that only scratches the surface.
Brothers John William (J.W.) and Alfred Jackson (A.J.) Billes started the business that would eventually grow to become Canadian Tire Corp. Two of seven children, they were raised in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood.
“Their father was a butcher,” Madsen explains, “but he died early on… right out of high school they had to find jobs to contribute to the family.
“A.J. was in the bank industry [he started at Dominion Bank at 15 years old] and J.W. worked for tire businesses when he left school. He worked for Hamilton Tire & Garage [in Toronto’s east end at Gerrard and Hamilton Sts.] and built up experience and contacts. A couple years later, his boss said he was selling the location. They recognized the automotive industry was a burgeoning industry and jumped on it.”
With a combined savings of $1,800 the two brothers bought the business in 1922, but “didn’t sell many tires for the first couple months,” says Madsen.
“Within a couple of weeks, the Gerrard Street Bridge [that crosses Toronto’s Don River] closed. They lost business.” In a clever move though, “they rented the garage to doctors and lawyers to park their cars. [In those days they were largely the only people who could afford automobiles.] It was heated and manned 24 hours.”
Keep on moving
“They were leasing month-to-month and moved several times in the first year-and-a-half,” as their product lineup expanded, said Madsen. It was when the brothers housed their business at the corner of Yonge and Gould Sts. in Toronto in 1923 that its now-famous name came to be. “We chose Canadian Tire,” A.J. is quoted as saying once, “because it sounded big.”
“They actually closed down for the first couple of winters,” said Madsen, “because in those days winter driving really was not done very much. People would put their cars up on blocks [Canadian Tire says there were 40,000 cars on our roads then—today there are 13.5 million] and so the brothers went off and got other jobs over the winters, plus kept buying automotive supplies. In the fall of 1924 they had their first permanent store at Yonge and Isabella St. [where the famed House of Lords Hair Design shop is today].”
Ninety percent of Canadians live within a 15-minute drive of a Canadian Tire. Countrywide, the stores service over 10,000 cars per day and sell enough hockey tape annually to connect Victoria and Halifax nearly four times.
The medium, the message, Motomaster — and more stores
In 1926, Canadian Tire issued its first flyer. “I get excited because we have a copy of the oldest catalogue,” said Madsen. “It’s one sheet, with tire prices on one side and a map of Ontario on the other. It was distributed to car owners in southern Ontario. It was marketing genius. Printed to fit in a glove box and with an Ontario map, which were hard to come by in those days.”
The catalogue would grow to upwards of 80 pages by 1934. That same year, Canadian Tire’s first associate store opened in Hamilton, Ontario. Five years later, there were almost 100.
The 1930s also saw the birth of Canadian Tire’s in-house Motomaster and Mastercraft brands. Says Madsen, “according to trademarks, Motomaster’s been in use since 1933. There’s evidence in 1935 that its first product was spark plugs. Mastercraft was first seen in 1939 with sporting equipment: skis and skates, baseball gloves. Then it transitioned into a tool line.”
“The company weathered lots of storms,” says Madsen. “Surviving the Second World War was tough enough because supplies were low and tires were restricted. Consumers had to have a special voucher to buy tires, but the company also sent 50 employees to the front, almost a quarter of its workforce at the time. In 1929 Canadian Tire had six employees; ten years later, 200.”
What happened to the roller skates?
“The Billes again needed more space by the end of 1936,” said Madsen. “They bought Grand Central Market. It was in business less than a year, built to be fancier than St. Lawrence Market, but closed because of the Great Depression. It was at Yonge and Davenport Rd. There’s still a Canadian Tire there today.”
Fast forward to the 1950s. Madsen says, like many retail stores at the time, Canadian Tire used counter service. No browsing the housewares aisle here. “You’d go in and talk to the clerks and they’d get what you needed for you from the back.”
The issue was, with the company’s ever-going list of products, the clerks’ walking “took a long time,” said Madsen. “So A.J. decided to put them on roller skates. People would come to the store just to watch the clerks work.”
“A.J. would try all sorts of merchandising and marketing ideas,” Madsen added, “but also anything technical. At the Yonge and Isabella location it was a tight fit getting cars in and out of the garage, so he actually made a turntable like you’d see at a railway yard.”
“In 1954, the company started adopting basic computer tech for ordering products. By the late ’50s, the Yonge and Davenport location had a self-selection system. Consumers grabbed a coded card for merchandise that was run through a machine, which would print a list of goods to pickup. That lasted for a couple of years.”
Check your glove box, your underwear drawer or the kitchen cupboards. I bet you just found some Canadian Tire Money. As Madsen says jokingly, “You’ve never been able to get rid of it, because when you spend it, you just get more.”
Canada’s unofficial second currency was introduced in 1958 at Canadian Tire’s new gas bar at Yonge and Church St. Says Madsen: “A.J. wanted to get into the gas industry, but was also aware that he didn’t want to upset national competitors like Esso. The company’s mantra was always ‘the best products at the lowest prices,’ but he couldn’t do that with gas, because it would trigger a gas war.”
“So how do you get people into your station? Other companies were doing free plates and towels. He came up with discount coupons [that morphed into Canadian Tire Money]. If you paid cash, you’d get five percent back to spend in-store. He billed it as ‘profit-sharing with customers.’”
“There’s one story from a couple of years ago,” Madsen continues. “When he was 14, a young boy said he was going to buy the most expensive thing in the store [using Canadian Tire Money]. He saved for 15 years and bought a riding mower.”
Canadian Tire Money’s become so ubiquitous, it even appears in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as a noun defined as, “coupons having the appearance of play money issued in varying small denominations to customers by associate stores of the Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. for redemption on purchases.”
When Canadian Tire Money first debuted, it wore the company’s classic mascots: a running tire and dollar cartoon, with the slogan, “we make your dollars go farther.”
Perhaps no Canadian Tire Money mascot though, is as famous as Sandy McTire. The Scotsman appeared on the bills in 1961 and “represented frugality and making your money last,” Madsen says.
A vintage photo of one of Canadian Tire’s early gas stations. It was at these stations that five percent discount coupons were first offered to customers, the predecessors to Canadian Tire Money.
Still Billes in the business
J.W. Billes stepped down from his role as president of Canadian Tire in 1956. A.J. took over until 1966, before semi-retirement when he still dabbled in profit-sharing initiatives for employees. Both men have since passed on, but not before A.J. received the Order of Canada, “for his contribution to the community of business, his concern for his employees and the sharing with them his successes right from the very start.”
Today, A.J.‘s daughter Martha Billes is a majority shareholder of the company and her son, Owen, owns Canadian Tire’s Welland, Ontario store.
A word on the archive
Madsen’s been manager of Canadian Tires’ archive for a year-and-a-half now, after working in a similar role at HBC. Located at the company’s head office in Toronto, “it measures 300 linear feet, with records going back to 1926. It’s a testament to how seriously Canadian Tire takes its history,” she says.
“It’s a mixture. A multimedia archive of texts, photos, slides, audio and video… I have thousands of photographs that tell the story of the growth of the company… Old movies from the 1950s and 1960s. Great things like newsletters, and documents from the presidents. The archive is an organic being. I’m able to preserve documents of our past, and what’s created today.”
“We do have people contacting us offering old catalogues and oil cans. We also have a relationship with the Canadian Tire Coupon Collectors Club [they deserve a feature story all their own – Ed.]. People are passionate about all things Canadian Tire. Look on eBay or Kijiji. The amount of Canadian Tire memorabilia is amazing. The coupons will go for a lot of money.”
I asked Madsen what her favourite items are in the archive: “Objects that belonged to the brothers. A.J.‘s spectacles, his Underwood typewriter, his tire pressure gauge.”
Canadian Tire today
The Billes brothers venture has grown into the tenth largest employer in Canada today. Including the Sport Chek empire it bought in 2011, there are now 68,000-plus people under its various roofs. There are stores in every province and two territories now, numbering 480-plus.
Ninety percent of Canadians live within a 15-minute drive of a Canadian Tire. National customer traffic averages 3,000,000 people per week. Countrywide, the stores service over 10,000 cars per day and sell enough hockey tape annually to connect Victoria and Halifax nearly four times.
Some 11.5 million flyers are viewed by 85 percent of Canadian households each week and two out of three Canadian men read Canadian Tire’s flyer every week.
That’s three out of three at my house…
Photos courtesy the Canadian Tire Archive.