e make it a point to expand every 100 years," Neil Johnston told us with a twinkle in his eye. The current Grand Opening of John Thomson & Son Furniture Ltd., adds 11,000 square feet to a family enterprise founded by his maternal great-great-grandfather, John Thomson Senior, way back in 1872.
But Neil is right with the times, our times, circa 2001. If you haven’t already detected it, there’s a noticeable switch in the past several months away from the impersonal big box stores back to hometown independents. It’s a consumer driven trend, part of new millennium nostalgia for the best of previous centuries, for warm and fuzzy feelings of trust, comfort and security.
Fergus, Ontario, with a population now of about 20,000, is prosperous, bustling, located a few kilometers from the cities of Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge and an hour’s easy drive (when the weather’s good) from the Greater Toronto Area. The spectacular Grand River with its waterfalls and rapids bisects the town. Sportsmen revel in some of the finest trout fishing in North America.
Early pioneers flocked to the region from Scotland, England and Wales, the northern United States, Germany and Holland. Many of them, like John Thomson’s stepfather, James Beattie, came to farm the lush rolling countryside of Wellington County. There’s a proliferation of beautiful limestone and brick heritage homes and business establishments, all cherished and well maintained.
It’s a town steeped in tradition. Every year, people come from miles around to attend the Fergus Scottish Festival, complete with pipe bands, fiddlers, dancers, a taste of haggis and single malt, and the age-old sport of the throwing of the caber.
John Thomson Senior at age 13 must have felt at home when his family came to Fergus from Aberdeen in 1839. His mother, Ann Glennie Thomson, had remarried after his father’s death, and her new husband, a widower, had three children from his previous marriage. They were "set up with a farm" and, as he grew, John Thomson discovered his talents as a carpenter, cabinetmaker and man of business. John met and married Margarette Foote, and they had four children, one of them John Thomson Junior.
A small but rapidly growing community is, of necessity, close knit and, like many furniture manufacturers and retailers, John Senior realized that the services of a coffin maker and funeral director should be part and parcel of his trade. He became well known, not only for his "genial and sympathetic service" but also his "splendidly matched team (of horses) and new hearse".
John also operated his own lumberyard. In keeping with the era, this remarkably versatile entrepreneur then established the Ontario Pump Factory, supplying "wells sunk and pumps put in", according to an invoice of 1876. Thomson’s also provided headstones to the bereaved and, to round things out, represented an insurance company. At the furniture store, as well as casegoods and upholstery, they carried "a splendid stock of wallpaper in the latest designs, as well as an excellent supply of pictures and picture framing".
At the family’s first location on St. David Street, the operation included both the furniture store and funeral parlor. Later, John moved the furniture division to St. Andrew Street. The funeral home continued to prosper on St. David as it does to this day, since 1988 under the ownership of James and Laura Jeffrey. The enterprise has been renamed, the Thomson-Jeffrey Funeral Home, a link to the past.
Many of Neil’s customers are also direct descendents of original settlers, generations who have shopped at Thomson’s in good times and bad, their loyalty based, Neil believes, on a "sound reputation of honesty, exceptional service and a policy of consistent, fair pricing. Many of the big stores are pounding the ‘no tax, no payments, no interest and sale, sale, sale approach’. I believe credibility is lost through unrealistically inflated prices, then hugely discounted sales plus all the after sale hidden costs."
John Thomson Junior inherited the business, then William Thomson (Neil’s great uncle) took the reins. In 1954, when William went to his reward, it was Mary Thomson’s turn. She cut a swathe all her own.
Mary was an unusual woman. Born in 1917, she was a determined, hardworking individual, not easily daunted by challenge. She thoroughly understood the furniture business, but realized she needed training to qualify as a funeral director. Mary went back to school and after two years’ study obtained her license. She was quoted in C & S, a funeral trade magazine in the ‘70s, "My great-grandfather in his wildest imagination could not have pictured a woman getting into this profession. But it’s only occasionally now that someone from outside our area appears to be thinking ‘What the Sam Hill is a woman doing here’".
Mary believed that funeral service is "a highly personal thing, the most personal of all". She carried this philosophy into home furnishings, "helping Ontario families create comfortable and beautiful environments in which to live". Her twin sister, Helen, "did the books" for many years, and Neil’s mother, Mary Evelyn, perpetuated the tradition from 1974 until 1991.
In the late ‘80s, Mary became ill, the funeral home was sold, and the furniture business placed on the market. Neil, after attending school in Fergus, had worked as far away as Thunder Bay and Edmonton, building trains and streetcars for Bombardier. Also talented in cabinetry, 35 year old Neil came home to Fergus at Mary’s request, at first to "fill in". Neil’s father, Edward, helped him with much of the necessary carpentry work, "We helped each other," said Neil.
When Mary died, Neil had a big decision to make. Once he made up his mind, he "never looked back". His principal concern at the time was "the big boxes". During Mary’s illness, "things had slowed down somewhat". He knew that to compete successfully, he would have to engage in intensive research, seek out new product lines, reactivate promotions. Thomson’s had "always carried good quality, and Mary had a following, not only from Fergus, but from well outside the County".
Neil began to attend both furniture and gift markets and carefully selected new suppliers, companies that shared his family values and had earned reputations for quality, service and integrity. He chose Décor-Rest and Berkline for upholstery and leather, Canwood, Buhler, Ideal and Bogden & Gross for casegoods, and Sunset Lamp to fill all his lighting needs. In bedding, he carries Bay Rest and Ther-a-Pedic and, soon to be added, Spring Air. Capel supplies rugs, and accessories and prints come from virtually everywhere imaginative artisans are producing unique and well-crafted work.
During a recent visit to Fergus, Canwood’s President, Mel Kemp, told Neil that "Thomson’s sold more Canwood product per square foot than any other retailer." Nice to hear.
"Customers breathe a sigh of relief when they are told we are a non-commissioned store. Personally, I don’t see the benefits of a commissioned sales staff, especially since we are a small operation. It’s a conflict of interest with our philosophy of a no pressure approach to sales. We ensure the customer makes an appropriate buying decision with mindful guidance and product knowledge. I’ve discovered that other forms of compensation and incentives can be used effectively to internally motivate staff to increase business.
"Customer service is key to keeping the business edge over rivals and the big box proliferation. Specialty and custom ordering represent approximately 70 percent of our business and are available throughout the store at no additional cost. We really work at establishing trust and loyalty through a firm, everyday low price, free delivery, set-up and removal of any old items being replaced by the purchase. We give special attention to deliveries, to ensure they arrive at the customer’s home in perfect condition and that the customer is completely satisfied. If not, we have an exchange or full refund policy.
"Service after the sale is another key ingredient to total customer satisfaction. If a problem arises after the sale, even beyond manufacturers’ warranties, it is dealt with as quickly as possible at no extra charge to the customer."
Neil hired Garry Cantlon as his Assistant Manager a year ago, and Joanne de Ruiter just recently to help him in sales and with "all that paperwork". He has a team of very pleasant young men who assemble, deliver and set-up, all of them as enthusiastic, if that’s possible! as Neil. They are Curtis Kramer, Matt Raine, Ryan Zulouf, Justin Colwill and Tyler Morden, The Thomson Team!
They’re all excited about the upcoming 130th Anniversary celebration. "In some ways, especially with our new premises, it feels as if the business is just starting out! There are so many as yet unexplored sales tools and merchandising techniques to be implemented." Presently, Thomson’s advertise "10 to 15 times each month in the local papers, more if business is slow". They have no radio exposure, but Neil is seriously considering television down the way on Kitchener’s CKCO. The station reaches all of southwestern Ontario.
Neil told us that customers hail from not only the surrounding towns and countryside but also from Toronto, Hamilton, Burlington and London. "Fergus is a busy tourist destination," he explained. "When people are in town they stop by to shop. And then they remember us."
As yet there is no formal preferred customer list. "It’s all in my head", said Neil. But as soon as the office renovation is complete, the stores will become completely computerized, a convenience that would certainly have intrigued and delighted John Thomson a hundred years ago.
Renovations are in progress everywhere you look in both heritage locations at 173 and 157 St. Andrew West, Fergus’ main street. "The original store will become the centre for upholstery, leather, motion, curios – all living room furniture. The new store will house bedding, bedroom and dining room suites. Accessories, framed art, carpets and lighting will be scattered throughout both stores."
Next to the old office at 173, his great-grandfather installed a very solid looking steel safe. Neil will leave it in position, and plans to gather together Thomson historical artifacts in a carefully mounted display in this area. This building has several floors, all to be utilized for showrooms or storage, and at the very top you can see the hand hewn tamarack logs that support the roof, two feet thick limestone walls and flooring fabricated from wide plank red pine. There’s a hand crank elevator, too, still in use, that Neil believes was installed around the turn of the century. He will "expose and clean all the brick, limestone and beams and sand, then lightly lacquer, the ancient flooring."
Because there are many interesting spaces in both buildings, Neil is considering "theme-ing them as separate rooms", a really great idea. The flooring of the upper story of the new store is metal roofing. "This was an early expansion, before 1900!"
The sensitive alterations made thus far have revealed even more fascinating details. "There’s history literally lurking behind every wall," Neil said. "We tore off some old dry wall and found more than 50 post cards tacked to the original wall, the oldest dating from 1911, addressed to William Thomson. We also discovered a real estate deed dated 1888 and ledgers going back to1903. There are many references to Fergus residents bartering for goods, exchanging hay, wood, doors, apples, cauliflower and broccoli plants to pay off accounts. For example, 300 broccoli plants cleared a $2.50 account. During the Great Depression, there was a huge increase in such bartering."
Another find was a diminutive pair of children’s shoes, also tucked into a wall space. Neil plans a special ceremony to replace them when renovations are complete. "It was a custom 100 years ago. It was believed that the shoes would ward off evil spirits.
"Hard work, dedication and the gratification of challenges well met, have brought us through 129 years of successful business. Past experience and new opportunities will promote future growth," said Neil.
An enterprise with a history as long as this can only be doing things right. Neil has a lot to be proud of, as do Fergus and its citizens. We’ve promised to cover Thomson’s next expansion, October 2101!