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Billes family feuds over Canadian Tire ownership

The Story

"It was like Wrestlemania, you know, but it had real characters and it was taking place on Bay Street." This is how author Ian Brown describes the Billes family feud over Canadian Tire. It begins with a dispute between Martha Billes and her brothers Fred and David, who want to sell the company. Aging cofounder A.J. publicly accuses his sons of being greedy, and soon dealers and shareholders are fighting over a proposal to sell the company. In this 1989 clip from Midday Brown provides some insights into the family and the empire.

Medium: Television
Program: Midday
Broadcast Date: Dec. 5, 1989
Guest: Ian Brown
Host: Ralph Benmergui, Valerie Pringle
Duration: 7:46
Photo: Credits for still photos in video: A.J. Billes by J. McNeill, Martha Billes by E. Christensen, and Fred Billes by H. Deryk. Globe and Mail.

Did You know?

• The origins of Canadian Tire date back to 1922 in Toronto, when brothers John W. and Alfred J. (A.J.) Billes used a combined savings of $1,800 to buy the Hamilton Tire and Garage Ltd. outlet at the corner of Gerrard and Hamilton Streets. They sold the store a year later and moved operations to the corner of Yonge and Gould under the name Canadian Tire Corporation. According to A.J., they chose the name "because it sounded big."

• The first Canadian Tire catalogue was produced in 1928 and allowed customers to order by mail. Even through the Great Depression, the company continued to build as the result of a business plan that focused on low prices and customer service. The first associate store opened in Hamilton in 1934 and by the end of the decade the corporation had stores in New Brunswick (1936), Nova Scotia (1937) and Quebec (1939). In 1937, the main location was moved to a vacant supermarket at Yonge and Davenport.

• A.J., the marketing whiz, introduced the first of his customer-pleasing innovations: clerks on roller skates racing to fill orders. His most famous innovation took place in 1958 with the opening of the first gas bar at Yonge and Church Streets in Toronto. Customers begin receiving coupons that were redeemable at the company's store. The coupons gained prominence as Canadian Tire "money".

• Ian Brown says dealers who submitted the bid to buy Canadian Tire were being unethical in cutting out nearly all of the company's shareholders. The shareholders took the issue to the Ontario Securities Commission, who nixed the deal. By 1989, Fred and Martha reached a truce that put an end to various lawsuits. In 1997 Martha Billes bought out her brothers' stakes in the company for $45.4 million, boosting her holding to 61.2 per cent.

• A.J. Billes died April 3, 1995 at the age of 93. His professional accomplishments include being invested as a member of the Order of Canada (1976) and being inducted into the Canadian Hardware/Houseware Hall of Fame (1986). J.W. Billes predeceased him in 1956 and left his shares of the company to 23 charities.

• Canadian Tire has had several memorable TV commercials, most notably from the 1980s. The ad featured in this clip - dad gives his son the bike he's been dreaming about - is one of the most unforgettable. Other famous spots include the "Albert" ad about a young boy who was always picked last in pick-up hockey but grows up to be a superstar, and the Scrooge Christmas ads ("Canadian Tire lets you give like Santa and save like Scrooge.")




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