As Bruce McPherson peacefully died of pneumonia, on June 24, at the age of 88, he was untroubled by the fact that, just blocks away, an auctioneer was taking bids on his beloved wood-working equipment at Gibbard Furniture, the company he had inherited from his father, built into a global brand, and been forced to close down under financial pressure more than a year ago. The auction seemed like cruel coincidence, but the timing may have been merciful, according to some people in the Eastern Ontario town of Napanee, where Gibbard made wood products for 175 years and the plant is a formidable downtown landmark.
"I don't think he was aware of it," says Bill Roffey, his first cousin and former sales manager, the man who had watched McPherson's health go rapidly downhill from the day, in September, 2008, when he announced he could not find a buyer for the sprawling plant and that it would have to close.
At one time, people like McPherson were common in the small communities of Canada. They owned the factories that built quality stoves, toys, garments, or food products and sold them around the world. They employed the most people in the area, often generations of the same families, they owned the nicest houses, drove the biggest cars, and contributed generously to local charities. Even though they dominated local affairs, they weren't so high and mighty that when you met them on the street, they wouldn't say, "Good morning," and know your first name, or your father's first name. He was one of the last of that dying breed.
With McPherson's passing, the industrial geography of Napanee changed forever, as it has in much of rural Canada. The biggest employer in the Napanee area is now a multinational tire company; the most bustling spot in town is the Wal-Mart out among the strip malls and mega-stores near Highway 401. The Gibbard plant, once the oldest furniture factory in Canada, sits shuttered and lonely in a declining downtown, its future uncertain.
It's a far cry from the 1830s, when a young John A. Macdonald practised law in bustling Napanee, just 40 kilometres west of Kingston, and often stayed with a family that lived along the Napanee River. Nearby, John Gibbard, the son of an English millwright, was starting up a sash and door and coffin-making business on the same river.
Macdonald went on to become Canada's first prime minister and the Gibbards, through the 19th and early 20th century, became the leading business family in Napanee, shifting their focus from window sashes to fine furniture. Over the years, they watched as the plant erupted in flames - sometimes, just a section, occasionally the whole building - a common fate in the years before sophisticated fire-prevention. Each time they rebuilt the factory, but they could not revive the entrepreneurial genes of the Gibbard clan.
The company fell on hard times in the 1930s, and slid into bankruptcy. It attracted a saviour, however, in the form of Jack McPherson, the company's former sales manager who had moved to Montreal, but believed, as Gibbard's new owner in 1940, that he could revive the failing enterprise.
He did begin to breathe life back into Gibbard, laying his sales charm on retailers, but he died of a massive heart attack in 1944, leaving his wife Janet, his brother in law David Roffey, and son Bruce to continue his restoration project. Six years later, his son took over the company.
At 30, Bruce McPherson was an energetic, athletic guy who had been a hockey player with the McGill Redmen. He was a great salesman, like his father, but with a gentle touch and a deep-seated love of the art of furniture making.
He could go on for hours about an ancient double-end tenoner, a machine that the family was still using in 2009 after more than 70 years of service. It could do some jobs better than modern devices, although it was complemented by newer computer-controlled machines. It was a metaphor for Gibbard and McPherson, himself, practitioners of painstaking craft in an age of brutal efficiency, mass volume and transient capital.
McPherson believed quality production was an all-or-nothing commitment that could never be compromised. While more modern factories had air-tight finishing rooms, the dusty old Gibbard plant relied on vigorous hand-rubbing to draw out the finer properties of the wood. McPherson employed as many as 15 people just rubbing furniture.
When asked why he kept so many people in this job, he emphasized he would not bend his principles, either you believed in quality, or you surrendered. Also, McPherson saw his role as providing jobs for local residents.
In the end, the company was all about people. David Peterson applied at Gibbard as a 19 year old, and the supervisor asked, "Have you done farm work, Dave?" When Peterson said he had hoisted hay for a local farmer, he got the job. If you could do back-breaking farm work, you had the right stuff for Gibbard. Peterson started in the sanding room and rose to become plant supervisor, the job he held when the company closed.
"He wouldn't let you cut people," Peterson says. "He'd say, 'That's just how we do it.'" It was an attitude that worked well in the good years, but in the end, became as anachronistic as that double-end tenoner.
Bill Roffey became sales manager under his cousin, and eventually helped land a great assignment: to produce furniture for Canadian embassies around the world. But the local market was also important. It seemed every family in Eastern Ontario owned, or aspired to own, a Gibbard piece.
Even as president and owner, McPherson personally handled sales regions in Western Canada and around Ottawa. His son Bruce Jr. says his father never introduced himself as boss of the company. Instead he'd simply say, "I'm Bruce from Gibbard Furniture." He had no airs of self-importance.
The best stores carried Gibbard, including Eaton's locations across Canada. So when Eaton's died in the late 1990s, it was a huge blow to Gibbard, erasing 30 per cent of the company's sales. It was also symptomatic of the passing era of the family retailer, as more and more independent stores closed - the markets that McPherson had cultivated with his close personal relationships.
He had responded to Canada-U.S. free trade by trying to capitalize on the open borders and actually expanded the plant, expecting to attract U.S. sales. But the sales never materialized and within a few years, new threats loomed. Gibbard suffered from the same malaise as many other Canadian manufacturers: the challenge from low-wage manufacturers in China, and the stunning rise of the Canadian dollar over the past decade.
The flimsier products being peddled in Canada did not have the quality of Gibbard's fine mahogany and cherry pieces, but they fit the pocketbooks and tastes of a more disposable culture. "The generations changed," says George Kirkham, a 43-year company veteran. "They wanted furniture to last five or six years and then they'd replace it."
"We made beautiful furniture, but people quit buying it," he says.
When Kirkham joined Gibbard's in the 1960s, there was the sense that "you got the job and you were set for life." But as the sanding supervisor, he could see the business shrinking before his eyes, as the furniture production runs declined in size and frequency.
On June 5, 2007, the family put the plant up for sale. "It's a way of saving the company and saving the jobs. We think there are others out there who can do a better job," said McPherson, adding that he and his three sons, Jack, Bruce Jr. and Tim, by then, all in their 50s, were "getting a little long in the tooth. Health isn't that good for either my sons or myself." As well, his wife Aileen had died a decade earlier, in 1997.
The employees and the town waited nervously as rumours floated about a new owner. It was not to be. In September, 2008, in the middle of the global financial crisis, workers were called to a meeting in the plant. Only 85 were left, from a peak of 175, and a third of them had been there for 30 years.
Bruce McPherson Jr. spoke first and announced the imminent closing of the factory. As his father began to talk, the place was eerily quiet as people leaned forward to catch every word. The senior McPherson thanked the workers, but he became so emotional he had to leave the room.
When he commented a few days later, there was little talk about his own misfortune, but about how he had let people down. "The last thing you want to do is shut the plant down, but I guess all good things come to an end. We had our good years, and some tough years. The industry was badly hit and the timing wasn't good for putting the place up for sale."
He said he felt bad for people who had been buying the furniture over the years, for the town and the industry. "We're sort of letting them down, but we've done our best." For McPherson, the biggest tragedy was losing the craft skills built up over decades. "It's a bit like breaking up a great ball team," the old athlete said.
It was surprising to many that a brand as venerable as Gibbard no longer had a big market value. But the company's reputation was always bigger than its footprint. It was a small business that grossed sales of less than $15-million a year.
For all McPherson's kindness, he was never able to give his sons the reins to run the company. They had grown up in the factory and knew all aspects of production and sales, but he kept things under his own thumb for so many years that when the business turned bad, he was too tired to tackle the challenges and his own sons had grown older, too. The company, in its downward spiral, couldn't afford to hire young talent and in the end, there was really no one left.
As the Gibbard inventory was sold off, things went downhill for its owner. Bill Roffey noticed how confused McPherson sometimes became. He had breathing problems and a blood disorder, and broke his pelvis just before Christmas last year. He was in hospital for a period, came home, and went back after a bad spell.
Bruce Jr. said family was always important to his father. Along with the factory, he said, "the grandchildren were No. 1." For former employee George Kirkham, the death of his "great boss" means all he has left are memories and some pieces of fine furniture. Every once in a while, he looks at his Gibbard tea wagon and thinks, "I worked on that."
Bruce Roffey McPherson is survived by his three sons, nine grandchildren, three great grandchildren and his extended family.