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Woodward's Stores Limited

The story of Woodward's, the famous Vancouver retailer, begins in 1875 on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. It was there that Charles Woodward opened his first store with his brother-in-law, in a bid to break away from farming. The small store catered to newcomers to this fledgling farming community but did not fare well: its inexperienced 23 year-old owner was too trustful and as a result quickly acquired a heavy debt load. The following 18 years, until he set up shop in Vancouver, were hard on Charles and his family. He would learn the retail trade the hard way, moving around Northern Ontario and opening several stores with various degrees of success. Two lessons would serve him until his death: never sell on credit, and always monitor store activities closely.

Woodward's first store on Manitoulin Island, ca. 1870

Woodward's first store on Manitoulin Island, ca. 1870

A fire, allegedly criminal, destroyed Charles Woodward's store in Thessalon, Ontario, in April of 1890. This blow was the last straw for Woodward's ambitions in his home province. Discouraged by the many setbacks he suffered, he headed west, with the wave of fellow travellers hoping for a better life. He arrived in Vancouver in 1891 and immediately began scouting possible locations for a retail store. His new store opened at the corner of Harris Street (now Georgia) and Westminster Avenue (now Main), the main thoroughfare leading to the rapidly growing town of New Westminster, in March 1892. Laden with debt, Charles struggled for the first few years to meet his monthly payments but, despite a recession and the loss of his wife and 2 of his children to tuberculosis in the summer of 1892, he managed to make it through the tough times, emerging as a healthy retailer

In 1902, Charles Woodward was ready to take the next big step. Following the advice of his lawyer, he took six associates and incorporated a new company: Woodward's Stores Limited. The new company opened its store at the corner of Hastings and Abbott streets in Gastown the following year. The partnership quickly soured, however, and Charles decided to sell his original store and use the proceeds to buy out his partners' stakes in the new company. Thus, by 1904 he was, again, the only master in his store.

Business grew tremendously in this first decade of the 20th century, in parallel with the growth of the city. Vancouver's population was about 14,000 when Charles Woodward opened his first store in 1892. 15 years later, it was already 60,000, and would reach almost 130,000 by 1912. It is no surprise, then, that established retailers with a strong work ethic were to reap the benefits of this growth. Charles Woodward finally achieved the success he had been seeking since starting in business.

Woodward's 1892 store

Woodward's 1892 store

Eager to involve his family in business matters, Charles' sons all joined the company: John N. ("Jack"), the eldest and a druggist, in 1895; Donald shortly before 1900, as bookkeeper, although he quit in 1909; William in 1907, as a bookkeeper; and finally Percival in 1907, as a salesman. Despite John's untimely death from tuberculosis in 1900, Charles was greatly comforted by the fact that his sons were eager to take up the business. When Jack joined the business in 1895, Charles allocated space previously devoted to groceries to a drug counter offering quality product at low prices. Charles purchased the stock and fixtures of a former druggist, and opened the pharmacy despite the concerted opposition of free-standing drug stores and the medical profession in general whose perception of low priced drugs was very negative. Problems with acquiring supply persisted until provincial legislation prohibited price fixing and restraint of trade. Woodward never regretted the decision, however, acknowledging that from that time forward "I began to go ahead."

By the time Charles was considering retirement in 1911, his company had gained much respect and recognition in the city. The 25-cent Days promotion, introduced in 1910 (and changing to 45-cent, 95-cent, and finally $1.49 Days over the next decades) certainly played a role in that recognition. Retirement did not suit Charles very well, however, and he soon returned to his position of President of the Company, where he stayed for another 6 years. While he never fully retired, starting in 1919 Charles felt comfortable enough to allow his sons complete operational supervision of the store's activities. He did not agree with every decision they made, far from it, but in the end was usually convinced.

At this stage of his life Woodward often travelled to California, spending long stretches of time there. After a few months away, he would come back and see that things were under control. One of the first times he returned from California, in 1919, he was horrified to discover that the unthinkable had happened: the counters in the "groceteria" department had been removed and clients were helping themselves to products! It took a lot of convincing on the part of his sons before he grudgingly gave his assent. Soon enough, this was proven to have been the right decision: never before had the store seen so much business!

Woodward's store, 1903

Woodward's store, 1903

Feeling somewhat left out, in 1922 Charles Woodward decided to visit Edmonton to get a feel for the city. He was impressed with what he saw, and registered C. Woodward (Edmonton) Ltd. In June of that year, with himself and his 2nd wife Alice as sole directors. Four years later a store would open downtown Edmonton, and engage in a fierce battle with local retailers.

While Charles kept busy with his business, politics (he was a M.L.A. for Vancouver in the 1924-1928 period) - and his frequent trips to California, his sons consistently improved the business in the Vancouver store. Between 1924 and 1928, the numbers of customers the store served increased from 5 to 9 million! Numerous enlargements and additions were made to the store over a relatively short period of time. The store first occupied a full city block in 1925, and already by 1927 had been expanded to 7-storeys. Meanwhile the Edmonton store grew in parallel with the Vancouver store, although it was not until Charles' death in 1937 that it would be combined with the Vancouver business under one unified administrative structure.

The 1920s and 1930s were years of rapid growth on all fronts. While the Vancouver and Edmonton business grew tremendously, the company's Mail Order Department made sure that every community in western Canada not served by one of its stores could nonetheless shop at Woodward's. Upon his father's death, William (Billy) was named President. He served in this capacity for a short few years until the beginning of the World War II, when he went to Ottawa and served as a "dollar a year man", assisting in the war effort, for the next 2 years. Upon his return to B.C. in 1941, he was appointed Lieutenant Governor. He completed his term in 1946, refused a second one, preferring to retire to a farm he bought on the Saanich peninsula, north of Victoria, while running the company.

Billy's son, Charles Namby ("Chunky"), also contributed to the war effort: he fought with the 12th Manitoba Dragoons from 1942 to 1945. Chunky had a wild streak: he wanted to be a cowboy rather than work at the family store. However, upon his return from the war, he joined the company as an apprentice to John Haddock, one of the company's directors, with whom he toured England and continental Europe in an effort to re-establish pre-war business relationships. In 1946, he made the decision to commit himself to the company, which meant he would eventually run it. Despite being the boss' son, Chunky was not given the preferential treatment one might expect. When the company's third store opened in Port Alberni, in 1948, Chunky worked there. As a result he experienced first hand every job required to make a store operational, a matter of pride in his later life.

Charles Woodward, ca. 1910

Charles Woodward, ca. 1910

While Chunky was learning the ropes and climbing quickly in the hierarchy, his father and uncle, Percival ("Puggy"), remained the driving forces behind the company. They drafted ambitious expansion plans. The Port Alberni store had been opened specifically to pilot new concepts which would assist the development of new stores in new locations. Park Royal was the first of those stores, and what an innovation! Woodward's gambled that malls were the wave of the future and was the driving force behind the Park Royal Shopping Centre, in West Vancouver, which opened in 1950.

The 1950s was perhaps the most eventful decade in Woodward's history. The Company began to roll out its expansion plan, opening 2 shopping centres and 2 free standing stores. In 1955, Percival retired from the store. He and his wife established the "Mr. and Mrs. P.A. Woodward Foundation" to endow worthy causes. Their largest contribution was also their last: a gift of $3.5 million to assist UBC in building its Health Science Centre. In 1956, Billy left the President's job to his son in order to spend more time on his farm. The following year, Billy died. Change at the top could not have been more complete or radical, nor so rapidly effected.

For the first 25 years of Chunky's rule, Woodward's blossomed into a major player on the retail scene of Western Canada. No less than 18 stores opened in cities throughout B.C. and Alberta, often as anchors in very important shopping centre such as the Chinook Centre and Market Mall in Calgary, or the Southgate Centre and the Edmonton Centre in Edmonton. Sales increased by a factor of more than 10, from under $100 million to well over $1 billion, thanks to unprecedented favourable economic conditions.

Woodward's mail order price list, April 1940

Woodward's mail order price list, April 1940

The arrival of the 1980s put a stop to all that. The recession hit Woodward's harder, perhaps, than any other retailer. The rapid expansion of the preceding years, including the opening of 4 stores in 1981 alone, left the Company financially fragile at a time when a combination of high inflation, high interest rates and large debt exerted pressure on customers as well as retailers. In a bid to improve its situation, Woodward's immediately began disposing of assets to lower its liabilities and improve cash flow. Some surplus land and buildings were sold, and various cost-saving measures were implemented. Examples included the 1983 strategy to invest more in inventory, and the Take-A-Break program, allowing staff to take voluntary leaves of absence as well as the introduction in 1985 of a sharp focus on the expansion of fashion and soft goods markets. Stores were re-located to better and cheaper locations, buildings were sold and leased back, but as the tough years stretched on, more radical measures were required. The Company's Furniture stores closed in 1984. In 1985, all of Woodward's real estate was sold to a subsidiary of Cambridge Shopping Centres Limited, and leased back. In 1986 the Company took the radical step of selling its famous Food Floor operations to Safeway Canada. In 1988, it sold its credit card receivables and operations to General Electric Capital.

While the company was being downsized and reorganized, it nonetheless pursued an aggressive expansion program, introducing Abercrombie & Fitch's exclusive eponymous stores to Canada in a few select locations across the country. The chain did not do well as expected, however, and was folded after only a few years of activity. More successful was the introduction of Woodwynn stores, named for Billy Woodward and his wife Ruth Wynn-Johnston . Woodwynn was Woodward's bargain retail banner store, albeit in an upgraded format. Introduced in 1985, only one year after the first Canadian Abercrombie & Fitch, the Woodwynn chain had 2 dozen stores in 1988.

Giant W on top of Woodward's store, Vancouver, 1927

Giant W on top of Woodward's store, Vancouver, 1927

In the final analysis, however, all these efforts could not save the company. In 1989, management passed from members of the Woodward family into the hands of professional managers. But hindsight demonstrates that this was a symptom not a cause of the company's decline. The demise of the Company became reality in 1992 when it filed for bankruptcy. In a last ditch attempt to regain financial health the Woodwynn stores were put on the block but did not sell. Instead all locations were closed down except for three stores located in Vancouver which liquidated merchandise coming from the 30 closed stores. That same year Hudson's Bay Company announced that it was purchasing most of the company's assets. The acquisition, which took effect June 11, 1993, helped Hbc strengthen its position in the far West. In fact, the Woodward's stores were so well located in their respective markets that most of the company's 26 stores were converted to Zellers or Bay stores. The net gain to Hbc was 11 Bay stores and 10 Zellers stores in B.C. and Alberta.

Today, Woodward's is a fond memory to the people of Vancouver and Western Canada. When the once great department store on Hastings Street closed it doors on January 15, 1993 the general feeling was that of the end of a great tradition. For generations, Vancouver families had been visiting the store for all their needs, from food to clothing. But changing times and relentless competition saw the final unravelling of the Company - an organization that remained very much a family business until the very end.

 

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