Winnipeg, since 1873 the capital of Manitoba, is at the geographic centre of Canada, one hour from the U.S. border and if you are looking at a map, right above North Dakota. It was in the fall of 1881, when Charles H. Wilson ventured west to make his fortune, together with his brother Robert J. Wilson.
It was real pioneer country. The Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet at Winnipeg, the centre of the old fur trading trails with the Assiniboine running far north to Hudson’s Bay. The brothers struggled as frontier farmers for two years. Their lack of success prompted C.H., who had apprenticed as a cabinetmaker, to start up a small furniture business. Two or three years later, Robert also deserted the soil and joined him in the enterprise.
Doughty Charles was President from 1883 until 1924. It was far from an uneventful passage. At their first location on Market Street they enjoyed considerable success until August of 1893 when the east wall of the Grand Pacific Hotel fell and flattened the store.
The brothers picked up and moved to the corner of Princess and Market Streets where "business grew apace". They were manufacturing their own sofas and chairs and bringing in rail car loads of other furniture from established eastern factories such as Knechtels of Hanover, Ontario.
Award winning displays of their wares in 1894 at the brand new Winnipeg Exhibition building and the following year at the Regina NWT Exhibition, prompted the release of Wilson’s first catalogue, dated 1896-97. Business was really booming and they moved to new quarters on Main Street, close to the McIntyre Building with warehouse facilities right across the back lane on Albert Street.
Unfortunately this ideal situation was short lived. In February 1898, the McIntyre Building was gutted in a spectacular fire. A wall fell, and for the second time in their long history, Wilson’s store was flattened.
Undaunted, they quickly found a new home at the southwest corner of Princess and William. Fred Humphries joined the brothers as General Manager in 1903, and both retail and wholesale divisions grew steadily under his able direction.
But World War I came along, and Charles Wilson’s dream of welcoming both his sons to the family business was shattered when the eldest, Claude, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corp, was killed in action. His younger son, George, joined the firm in November of 1918 and, in 1924, inherited the Presidency from his father.
It was in 1920, after World War I, that Wilson’s moved their retail outlet to 352 Main Street. During the depression, factories backed George Wilson and his associates and the firm survived. A flood in 1950 left five feet of water in the basement for almost six weeks. In family tradition, after surveying the damage, they underpinned the structure and installed steel reinforcing beams for the upper floors. A few years later, a smart new storefront was erected. Most of their hauling was still done by horses in the ‘20s, although they had one lorry for big jobs.
To quote from Wilson’s landmark 100th Anniversary History, put together 19 years ago, "Wilson’s have had many warehouses, including 79 Albert Street and the corner of Lizzie and Henry, with its adjoining stable and cream allowance for the cats!
"The most important warehouse for Wilson’s was 281 Rupert Street." A rental in 1914, they bought it from Great West Life right after the depression. The location was regarded as Wilson’s "salvation" during the ‘30s. In that "good old building" the busy team operated a moving and storage service, they crated and shipped, rented tables and chairs for banquets, reupholstered and refinished and operated a cabinet shop for furniture repairs and refurbishing trade-ins for resale, "all badly needed because there sure wasn’t a lot of new furniture being sold!"
It wasn’t a neighbouring wall this time, but in February 1958, disaster struck again. Rupert Street and its contents were destroyed and most of the Wilson family records were lost. It also put an end to celebration plans for the 75th anniversary.
The family saga continued when Dick joined the firm in 1948 and became President in 1966 at his father’s retirement. Claude took over as Vice President and Secretary Treasurer in 1966 and, in the fall of 1980, J. A. "Sandy" Wilson, Dick’s son, became a team member.
Said Claude, "Dick and I worked in the store during school holidays, stacking up nails and springs amongst other tasks.
Dick majored in geology and I studied business, but we both ended up in the firm.
"When Dad retired, he advised us to maintain our very close relationship with Gibbard Furniture Stores of Napanee and Bruce McPherson, Gibbard’s President. He said then you could do business with Bruce on the shake of a hand. That’s almost 40 years ago and it’s still true. Bruce phones us every couple of weeks to chat."
Although Wilson’s honour tradition, they are very much with the times. "We became computerized in 1993. My daughter, Liz, now the boss, arrived on the scene in April, 1995 and, together with our great staff, improved and upgraded all the systems."
Dick’s death in the early ‘90s was a great loss. Claude retired some time ago, but whenever needed he willingly deserts the golf course and returns to business. He was occupying Liz’s desk when we talked during her vacation in Britain. "All our financials, all purchase orders, all customer deposits and orders, are posted on a daily basis. And, of course, the computer holds our preferred customer list, very important to our operation."
On Liz’s return, she talked about Wilson’s marketing methods. Liz has a business degree from University of Manitoba and worked for a few years in a large corporation as marketing manager. Practice for real life! "Direct mail is a very important part of our promotional mix. We use it three or four times a year, sending post cards to our customers inviting them to pre-sale/customer appreciation events."
This spring’s newcomer on the block, Lynn Selman, is Liz’s first cousin and a talented professional interior designer. Claude commented, "Lynn has done an amazing job on the store. We used to display furniture in rows and by department. Now everything is in room groupings and looks absolutely beautiful."
Lynn added, "We define the groupings with area rugs and we’ve included curio cabinets and home entertainment centres so each grouping is really inviting. Store colours are a rich taupe sparked with a strong blue green, the floor a lighter taupe.
"There’s really a very different focus. The ground floor is one half upper end upholstery and quality casegoods, the other half a leather gallery. We wanted the furniture to be very visible, so we had platforms built to the height of the windowsills right at glass level. Especially at the entry, the furniture becomes very visible. We have great windows and as people are walking by outside they stop to look. They can envision the groupings in their own homes.
"We’ve featured a huge Hammary canopy bed. It’s really very large, rather flamboyant. It’s fun to watch people peeking at it through the window, then coming in to measure."
Lynn talked about their invitation cards. "We were promoting a special offer that really brought people into the store to see our redesign. There was a discount, refreshments, customers were delighted and they were there to buy."
Liz added, "It was a good opportunity to introduce them to Lynn. We truly have a phenomenal customer base. Wilson’s has always been known for excellent customer service, quality and value. We still see customers that used to deal with my grandfather and uncle. They’re interested to see how the store looks now, the change of management. There’s a real family connection. Grandfather was a fair and honest person."
Wilson’s offers a reupholstery and drapery service, with three professional designers on staff. "Yes, we go out to houses," said Lynn. "We do floor plans and wall finishes. One of the designers has been with us for 23 years."
Although direct mail has always been most effective for Wilson’s, print is part of the mix. They use The Winnipeg Free Press to support sales, and the national paper, The Globe & Mail, is now working in partnership with Barrymore 15 or 20 times a year across the country.
"We have a very popular radio spot, the 8 a.m. news on weekdays, commute time. We provide furniture facts and fiction, helpful hints about shopping for furniture," said Liz. "People sometimes make suggestions to us as to topics.
"We’re developing new television spots to be used this summer and winter, the two big sales periods. They’re 30-second commercials, store shots, four or five room groupings with voice over, both Lynn and me.”
High-end home magazines are also utilized; Style Manitoba, Western Living and Cottager both spring and fall.
Claude spoke of the firm’s suppliers. "Orville Mead of Durham is another of the greats, although he has now passed on. But over the years we have had a good relationship with him and with his company. Durham and Gibbard are the two major casegoods lines we carry. Simmons is the only bedding line on our floor and Pat Thody, now retired, was always good to work with.
"In most of my Dad’s lifetime we supported the Canadian manufacturers. When Free Trade came along, the U.S. improved their quality. We were the first Canadians to buy from solid wood Sumter Cabinet Company of South Carolina. In upholstery, we deal with Carlton House, Century, Hancock and Moore."
Liz reiterated, "What we have built in 119 years in business is a sound foundation of our beliefs, quality furniture at excellent value. We won’t deviate from that. In this next decade we will be working with a slightly younger demographic, so we’re tweaking product, looking at more transitional styles and more use of colour. Our vision is to keep our stylings looking very elegant, offering new groups to spark customer interest. The designers on staff contribute to the look and to the image. We are aware of trends and make our customers aware of trends and how they can successfully incorporate them into their own homes.
"We are the quality store in town, the leader, and we will maintain that in the future. We won’t forget our older customer in developing the new, younger demographic.
"We predict a strong year ahead. With September 11th came a real sense of family and home. We found we experienced an increase in sales just because people decided they wanted to focus on home and family values. They wanted to cocoon.
It really made people sit back and think what was important to them."
Claude commented, "Consumer optimism is at an all time high in Winnipeg. A poll shows that 80 percent of respondents are very optimistic about the future of the city." Low interest rates and their bullish impact on the local real estate market have led to housing values rising in dramatic fashion for the first time in decades.
Manitoba has the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 5.4 percent. Retail trade up to the end of March was up 7.6 percent from a year ago. Housing starts in all areas of the province are up 39 percent from a year ago. Average weekly earnings are up 2.4 percent, full time employment up 1.4 percent, double the national average.
John McCallum, an economics professor at the Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba said, "How good people feel about their economic circumstances translates into a willingness to borrow money to buy houses and cars and to spend money. There is nothing on the horizon to indicate anything but continued good news on the economic front."
News like that will keep the Wilson clan happy for at least another 119 years!