Canadian Tire Corporation’s CEO is looking forward to the next hundred years
Two storied brands, one hundred years of history
The year is 1922. You’ve bought a copy of The Globe and Mail (or The Globe, as it was called then). As you flip through its pages, you might come across stories about the Toronto St. Pats winning their first Stanley Cup, provinces switching from driving on the left to the right side of the road, and Toronto General Hospital becoming the site of the world's first insulin treatment.
It might not have made the headlines then, but another pretty significant event in Canada’s history also took place in 1922. That October, two brothers invested their money in Hamilton Tire and Garage, a small tire store in Toronto. (Located at the corner of Yonge and Gould, it was just a short stroll across downtown to King and York, where the newly amalgamated Globe and Mail paper would make its headquarters from 1937 to 1974.)
A lot has changed since then. The Globe and Mail, for example, has moved twice. Hamilton Tire and Garage has become Canadian Tire Corporation and grown exponentially, to say the least. One thing that’s remained the same? Both brands remain intrinsically woven into the fabric of Canadian life, part of the day-to-day life of millions of people from coast to coast.
This special content marks 100 years of Canadian Tire. And we detail some major milestones for the brand, celebrating its rich history and taking stock of its present, looking confidently towards the next century to offer a sneak peek at what appears to be a very, very bright future.
There is no Canadian Tire without Canada – and the same could be argued of the inverse.
The brand is so iconic in the Great White North that it’s hard to imagine one existing without the other. Today, about 90 per cent of the country’s residents live within a 15-minute drive of a Canadian Tire store. The company’s Triangle Rewards loyalty program is as popular in Canada as Amazon Prime is in the United States.
What began as a single garage in 1922 has since grown into a company comprising 13 brands and businesses – such as SportChek, Mark’s, Helly Hansen and Party City – ranking it among the top ten largest retailers in the country.
The company plays a significant role in our country’s economy: An incredible 1.8 million Canadians have worked at a Canadian Tire, Mark’s or SportChek store. Together with the Canadian Tire Associate Dealers, Canadian Tire Corporation (CTC) contributed an estimated $150 billion in economic activity in Canada over the last decade alone.
We sat down with Greg Hicks, president and CEO of Canadian Tire Corporation, to discuss Canadian Tire’s century-long history, and its strategy to not just compete but win in a rapidly evolving and increasingly competitive retail landscape.
Canadian Tire is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. What do you see as the significance of the milestone?
Reaching 100 years is a milestone few companies – especially retailers – achieve. I think our longevity speaks to the fact that, for one hundred years, we have played a very real role in the lives of Canadians.
When you tell someone you work at Canadian Tire, there’s a good chance you then hear a story about that first bike or pair of skates or Saturday mornings spent in the aisles with family. These moments of connection are why our brand has become part of the fabric of people’s lives, and through this, we have built and reinforced customers’ trust in us.
And through our rich history, this foundation of trust has shaped us. We have honed a clear understanding of who we are and what we are in service of and, earlier this year, we unveiled our evolved brand purpose: ‘We are here to make life in Canada better’. It’s simple. It’s true. It’s what we’ve done for one hundred years and plan to do for another hundred years to come.
What do you think the founders would make of the company today?
I think A.J. and J.W. Billes would be proud that, with the stewardship of A.J.’s daughter Martha Billes, we are continuing to bring their vision to life. Although they may have started with only a single garage, the Billes brothers had big plans for this company – they chose the name ‘Canadian Tire’ because it sounded big. This family company has grown considerably since 1922 to 13 businesses with 1,700 retail stores and gas outlets from coast to coast.
They’d also be proud to know that much of what they implemented has stood the test of time. We’ve built and expanded on many of their original ideas. For example, our private labels started with MotoMaster in the 1930s. Since then, our portfolio has grown into a multi-billion dollar business, representing 40 per cent of total sales at Canadian Tire stores. MotoMaster alone is a $500-million brand – that certainly fulfils their original dream of private label rivalling national brands and driving growth.
Another example is our loyalty program. Canadian Tire Money was the first loyalty program in Canada when it began in 1958. Exactly 60 years later, we expanded the program outside Canadian Tire stores to include all CTC banners under the Triangle Rewards loyalty program. What started as Canada’s oldest has become one of Canada’s largest loyalty programs.
As the country has grown and evolved, our business has, too. But through our evolution, we’ve remained true to the values instilled by our founders, including the fact that we are innovators and entrepreneurs at our core. We innovate to meet the evolving wants and needs of Canadians as life in Canada continues to change. We live here too so, in a way, this comes naturally to us.
How are you ensuring that Canadian Tire remains relevant with the next generation of consumers?
“Relevant” is a good word because it’s mission-critical in retail today. The retailers who have come and gone from this country over the last 100 years simply lost touch with customers.
Our founders, the Billes brothers, remained relevant by always putting the customer at the centre of everything they did. They expanded from one store selling tires and auto parts to sporting goods, tools, toys and seasonal assortments to meet Canadians’ growing wants and needs. Their credo, ‘strive always to make things better,’ still drives us today.
From coast to coast, our Associate Dealers live in the communities we serve, and they understand better than anyone the wants and needs of our customers. But the key to us remaining relevant in the future of retail is combining the power of that local know-how with the extremely rich customer data and insights we have from our Triangle Rewards program. Today, data and insights-driven decision-making are vital to enhancing customer experience and delivering value. No longer are we making decisions based on what “we think” we know, but rather, what “we know” we know, because we have the data to prove it.
We also have over 200,000 Canadians on our customer panel, and we engage with them on everything from what features should be included in a product to the pricing of that product to how we properly communicate our advertising messaging or improve our website.
How is the company evolving to meet changing customer demands?
As we emerge from the pandemic, there is no question that customers have adopted digital. But they crave physical shopping too. As we move into an increasingly digital era, inspiration and a better experience – an experience that recognizes and places importance on a customer’s loyalty – are key. Our $3.4 billion Better Connected strategy has fairly traditional investment focus areas, all of which ladder to a targeted outcome of a better experience for our customers.
We will accelerate new product launches across all our banners and introduce over 12,000 products before 2025. Each of these has been developed with our Tested for Life in Canada product evaluation program and our customer panel, so these products are by Canadians for Canadians, which we know is a key ingredient.
On the investment front, we have three primary areas of focus. The first is the core of the strategy: a $2.2 billion investment aimed at improving the connection between our digital and physical channels. We’re rolling out our new store format, “Concept Connect,” to approximately 225 Canadian Tire stores – in other words, 50 per cent of our current retail square footage will be refreshed.
This fall, we also opened two new large-format next-generation stores, in Ottawa and Welland, through our Remarkable Retail strategy. These stores offer more than 100,000 square feet of retail space and aim to wow customers by showcasing the breadth and depth of our product assortment, bringing meaningful brand experiences and technology to life. We’re targeting to open another Remarkable Retail store in Calgary in 2025.
The second investment area is our supply chain, where we’ll be investing almost $700 million to strengthen our fulfillment infrastructure. As part of this work, we’ll be funding automation and expanding our warehouse space across the country, which includes developing a 1.3 million square foot e-commerce fulfillment facility in the GTA in early 2023.
The third focus area is a $500-million investment to modernize our IT infrastructure to drive efficiency in how we operate. We need to be more modern, with increased agility. We need our systems to be powered by new technologies that will enable the experience and inspiration I mentioned previously.
On top of those areas, we know that issues of environmental, social and governance (ESG) are also of critical importance and require urgent attention. That’s why we built ESG directly into the pillars of our Better Connected strategy. We are here for Canadians, not only to provide them with the products, services and support they need but also to make life in Canada better for this generation and generations to come. The concept itself is not new to us: We have a century-long history of supporting community and social programs. But this year, we released our first enterprise-wide ESG Report, which is an honest assessment of how far we’ve come and our journey ahead.
For example, we know that tackling plastic waste and our products’ circularity is both a responsibility and an opportunity for us as a major Canadian retailer. We are committed to sourcing and designing our products with circularity in mind. As a founding member of the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP), we’re collaborating with CPP members to foster aligned innovation and investment in the plastics value chain to ensure we’re taking action to reduce plastic waste.
Canadian Tire is an iconic Canadian brand. How does that shape the company?
As one of Canada’s largest retailers, we believe we owe it to Canada – a country that has given us so much – to make it a better place for all Canadians. This belief is the crux of our brand purpose, which now guides every single decision we make, from how we show up for each other and our customers to how we plan to grow through our Better Connected strategy. And we know that making life better is about more than the products we sell and the services we provide – it also means stepping up for our communities through programs and support when they need it most.
Perhaps one of the best examples of our brand purpose in action is the work of Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, which Martha Billes founded in 2005. Jumpstart breaks down the barriers to sport and recreation so all kids can experience the benefit of sport and play, which makes life better for kids and families today while building stronger communities for tomorrow.
On a personal level, what makes you the most excited when you think about the company’s next 100 years?
As a team, we often talk about winning versus competing. The reality is that retail is a tough business, it’s very competitive, and we’re competing more and more with large-scale U.S. players and digital marketplaces. As we think about our strategy for the next 100 years, we know our ability to win will come down to how well our brand can build an emotional connection with customers.
When you think about organizations that have survived and thrived for as long as ours has, it’s about remaining true to who you are while also embracing change before it’s too late.
For me personally, it’s such a great honour to lead this company. The mindset of making life better for Canadians makes me most excited because “better” requires you to confront the fact that we’re not perfect, and we know we have work to do on many fronts.
We’re a strong company, and we’re focused on getting better for our customers, our communities, our team members and our investors. We have been here for one hundred years not simply to compete but to win. And trust me: We’re just getting started – because, in the pursuit of better, there is no finish line.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Canadian Tire Corporation. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.