From modest beginnings to national giant

More than 70 years ago, John W. and Alfred J. Billes (two brothers better known as J.W. and A.J.) used their savings of $1,800 to open Hamilton Tire and Rubber.At the time that the garage and auto parts depot opened in...

More than 70 years ago, John W. and Alfred J. Billes (two brothers better known as J.W. and A.J.) used their savings of $1,800 to open Hamilton Tire and Rubber.

At the time that the garage and auto parts depot opened in Toronto, on Sept. 15, 1922, the city’s 40,000 cars were just gaining acceptance as year-round transportation.

The modest enterprise, on the corner of Gerrard and Hamilton streets, stocked a small range of repair car parts such as tires, batteries and a homemade brand of antifreeze for the two most popular car makes of the day.

A portent of the future of the automotive aftermarket was the introduction of windshield wipers, an automatic starter and an improved car heater later that same fall.

During the remainder of that decade the company moved twice to retail-type buildings and installed its first gas pump.

The company was incorporated as Canadian Tire Corporation Limited in 1927, and opened two branch stores in Toronto.

That year, the retailer issued a one-page price list featuring tire values on one side and an Ontario road map on the back.

This was followed by the production of a mail-order list that was sent to car owners in southern Ontario and the state of New York.

The success of these two promotions gave birth to Canadian Tire’s first catalogue in 1928.

By 1930, this direct method of selling, and the sheer volume of sales enabled the company to advertise batteries below the manufacturer’s list price.

In 1931, the Billes brothers introduced an unconditional tire guarantee for their brand of Super-Lastic tires.

It was the first time in Canada that a tire had been guaranteed for other than manufacturing defects.

Just as important, it was a sure sign to the competition that Canadian Tire was an emerging force in the retail world.

Consumer response to Canadian Tire’s policy of offering quality merchandise at low prices allowed the company to grow and prosper during the Depression.

Many service stations had added Canadian Tire brands to their shelf stock, but, in 1934, the first associate store, the forerunner of today’s strong countrywide dealer organization, opened in Hamilton.

That year, the 24-page catalogue promoted Canadian Tire as ‘The Largest Direct Automotive Supply House in Canada,’ and a ’100% Canadian Company.’

Stores were now offering a wider range of car accessories, as well as radio supplies and camping equipment, many under its own brand names.

In 1937, President J.W. Billes and Vice-President A.J. Billes bought a vacant supermarket building at 837 Yonge Street at Davenport in Toronto.

At this, its flagship store, Canadian Tire’s innovative customer service methods gained a reputation, and much publicity, as ‘the store where the clerks wear roller skates,’ a reference to the fact that earlier stores were counter-service only, and clerks, who had to fetch merchandise from the stock shelves, were given the skates to help expedite service.

The merchandise range broadened even further after the outbreak of the Second World War.

Many products were in short supply, but by tightening its systems and introducing new products, Canadian Tire flourished when many other companies were forced to suspend operations.

The number of associate stores grew from 71 in 1939 to 116 in 1946.

On average, 57 tons of merchandise were being shipped daily from the Toronto warehouse by 1952.

By 1956, the requirements for the 156 stores throughout Eastern Canada outgrew the warehouse’s capacity, and a decision was made to build a new, specialized distribution centre.

Three days after A.J. Billes turned the sod for the new distribution centre, President J.W. Billes died suddenly.

During the 10-year presidency of A.J. Billes (1956-66), six additions were made to the warehouse building, taking it from 233,000 square feet to one million square feet.

Sixty-nine associate stores were added to the chain, raising the total to 225.

Milestones continued to be added to Canadian Tire’s path of success.

In 1957, the company introduced a Registered Profit Sharing Plan to its employees and published its first French-language catalogue.

Cash Bonus Coupons, known as Canadian Tire Money, were introduced to gas bar customers in 1958 and rolled out to store purchases in 1962.

Canadian Tire entered the computer age in 1959 when A.J. Billes had electronic equipment installed for inventory control and for the processing of invoices and general accounts.

In 1966, Dean Muncaster, a director of the corporation, succeeded A.J. as president.

Muncaster opened the first associate store west of Ontario, in Winnipeg, and integrated the credit card division, the Canadian Tire Acceptance Company, into the parent company.

The first long-distance hauling operation started in 1967, with two driver-owned tractor trailers.

Today, more than 90 Canadian Tire owner-operator trucks handle the transportation of about 60% of outgoing merchandise.

In 1973, a second major distribution facility was built northwest of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ont.

An 80,000-square-foot distribution centre was established in Edmonton in 1981.

The first of 16 Auto Parts Depots opened in Toronto in 1974 to provide the stores with fast daytime or overnight delivery of auto parts.

Canadian Tire entered the British Columbia market in Vancouver in 1979, and has since expanded to Vancouver Island and the interior of the province.

The corporation made its entry into the u.s. in January 1982 with the purchase of the merchandising assets of White Stores of Wichita Falls, Tex.

By the end of 1985, it was evident White would not become profitable, and it was sold to a subsidiary of Western Auto Supply.

Muncaster resigned in 1985, and Dean Groussman, former president and chief executive officer of White Stores, was named president in 1986 and ceo the next year.

In August 1992, Groussman left Canadian Tire to become president of Zale Corporation of Dallas, and Hugh Macaulay, chairman of the board, became acting ceo.