Zellers store front, ca. 1942
Walter Zeller was hard-working, smart and above all, an optimist. He had to be. After all, who but an optimist would embark on a new retail enterprise in 1931, when the world was still pulling itself out of a depression? In a letter to associates over 20 years later, he explained his motivation: "It was my conviction that endowed with immense natural resources and a courageous and hard-working population, Canada was bound to emerge into a period of prosperity." He was right and Zellers Limited profited right along with the nation.
The story of Walter Zeller and the formation of Zellers is a fairly straightforward one, but no less interesting for that. Walter Philip Zeller was born on October 21, 1890 on the farm in Waterloo County, Ontario that his great-grandfather had purchased shortly after arriving in Canada from Germany. He remained on the farm until his family moved to nearby Berlin (now Kitchener) where he attended high school and worked as a delivery boy. Realizing that he didn't want to move packages as a career he sampled a number of different positions over the next few years before he hit upon something he felt had great potential - retail.
In 1912 he began working for the F.W. Woolworth Company as a stock boy but soon progressed to other positions. In 1914 he made the move to Kresge's, where he made less money but felt that he could learn more. His job entailed a move to the United States but he was back in Canada working for the Metropolitan chain of stores by 1923. In 1926 the Company moved him back to the States, this time as General Sales Manager for New York.
Walter P. Zeller, n.d.
By 1928, Walter Zeller was ready to come home to Canada and be his own boss. He opened his own group of four stores in Ontario, operating in London, St. Catherines, Fort William and Guelph. His success was quickly noticed and the American firm Schulte-United Ltd. promptly bought him out. The story is that they weren't interested in obtaining the Canadian real estate, but in getting their hands on Mr. Zeller. The depression of 1929-30 took its toll on the retail industry however and Schulte-United went bankrupt. Rather than viewing this as a set-back, Zeller saw an opportunity. He bought back Schulte-United's Canadian properties, now numbering 14, closed 3 of them, and in 1932, Zeller's Limited opened once again.
What was the reason for the Company's success? As with most ventures, it was a combination of factors. Most important was Zeller's focus on popular-priced trade and an emphasis on bringing Fifth Avenue fashions to Main Street. Then there was choice of staff. Mr. Zeller had a knack for finding and keeping the best and the brightest, to the degree that Canadian Business Magazine commented on the attitude and ability of the staff from manager to sales clerk in an article in 1944. Walter Zeller himself attributed much of Zeller's success to his staff, stating that their morale was his Company's best asset. While he may well have believed this, it seems obvious that he himself was the Company's greatest asset..
Descriptions of Walter Zeller frequently include the following adjectives: energetic, forthright, magnetic. His drive in life was once likened to that of a man on an escalator who is impatient to get to the top: rather than waiting to be carried to his destination, he still takes the steps 2 at a time. With all of this energy, he was frequently seen in the stores and always had time for those who worked for him. He wrote letters to associates and Christmas messages each year. In 1942 his message included a heart-felt tribute to "four of the gallant company of Zeller's Employees on Active Service" who had died, naming each of them. This must have been especially poignant as both of his sons were at the time enlisted in the war effort, with one already serving overseas.
Despite the active role he took in his business, he also had time for others. During the war he was Director-at-large of the National War Savings Committee and also served as a special advisor to the Chairman of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board. He was also heavily involved with the YMCA, serving as their Montreal Director, and with the Kiwanis Club, which he served as Montreal President and Governor of the Quebec-Ontario-Maritimes District.
Zellers visual identity, ca. 1962
With all of these responsibilities, Zeller also had time for his family. He married Nettie Lewis in 1912 and together they had 2 sons, C. Edward, named for Walter's brother, and Warren.
In accordance with Company policy Walter Zeller retired in 1955 at the age of 65. He died in 1957 and was buried in Montreal where Zellers head offices were located and where he had been living for some time. His influence remains however, especially in the region of his birth. There is a memorial window in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Kitchener, Ontario dedicated to him and in 2000, the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest coin, worth $2 during the Oktoberfest festivities, bore his likeness. And, of course, his name graced stores and shopping bags all over Canada for many decades after.