Six Degrees of Separation


Your friends, your family, your co-workers: someone you know has worked for us. It’s what makes us unique.

There’s something about being part of a company that is fast approaching its 350th birthday.  And that something is more than just amazement at the last three-plus centuries of Canadian history that have unfolded along with HBC’s own. More than just simple longevity is the procession of people who have accompanied us along the journey.  

For many, the explorers, traders, and associates who people our past are their ancestors.  Thousands of people on both sides of the border can claim HBC roots dating back to the fur trade era.  In central and western Canada, we could say the same for pretty much anyone of Métis descent: your roots are HBC roots.

In the large urban centres, over a century of retailing by HBC and the companies we acquired means there are even more links to the lives of people who worked for us, supplied our stores or shopped with us.  Not so long ago HBC was the 5th largest employer in Canada, with over 70 thousand full and part-time associates.  That’s a pretty big payroll.

As a result of all this history, it’s perhaps not too surprising that it’s very easy to find links to HBC without a whole lot of effort.  And, usually, well within six degrees of separation.

Here’s a little game I like to play.  When I meet someone new and they ask where I work, I am proud to say I work for HBC.  Usually that’s the only prompt that’s required for the other person to tell me who they know who has worked for the Company.  In my own case, my sister-in-law’s first summer job was in the warehouse in Pointe-Claire, Quebec in the early 1970s. An aunt spent a decade as a sales associate with Simpsons. A close friend did a stint in after-sales service in Major Home in the 1990s.  A former co-worker in Heritage was actually a “return”: she put herself through university thanks to a part-time job with Zellers.   And a current co-worker from Alberta learned, after starting with us, that her grandmother had been an in-store buyer in Edmonton in the middle of the 20th.

That’s how pervasive HBC is in the lives of Canadians.  It’s part of our DNA.

Going Social with HBC Heritage


In the heyday of the fur trade, communication between the Company’s leaders in London and their post managers in North America was a once a year event.  Consequently, it was focused and invaluable.  Post managers kept daily journals of events which they sent, along with the year’s accounts, back to London with the outgoing furs.  In return London sent detailed directives to its managers, as well as news of results, strategic goals, promotions, and transfers.

Fast forward to today and communications between the Company and its associates, shareholders, and customers is nearly instantaneous.  Thanks to email, websites, and social media there are diverse ways to get in touch and keep in touch.

Social media is the new kid on the block, and one which provides a different experience for participants.  It allows for the creation of fluid, ad hoc communities of interest and spontaneous interaction between community members.  The conversations that ensue are often engaging, vibrant, and thought-provoking.  And the best of them lead to other types of contact that can be surprisingly powerful.

HBC Heritage launched our Twitter and Instagram accounts (@HBCHeritage) in February, 2015.  Since then our followers have grown steadily.  We post items directly related to HBC heritage, such as interesting facts, #DidYouKnow, #OnThisDay, amazing historical photos, quirky vintage products, and highlights of our art and artifact collections. Once a week followers can also find out what we’re up to in our collections room with our regular feature, “What is HBC accessioning?”

In April our Twitter account spawned a close encounter of another kind.  We were contacted by a teacher from St. Patrick Elementary School in Grande Prairie, AB, one of our Twitter followers.  Teacher Stu MacNeil was interested in arranging a live web chat with us and a few grade 4 classes.  We eagerly accepted.  We talked about the fur trade in Alberta and shared a few items from our artifact collection.  Best of all was the live Q&A that ended the session and allowed students to ask us their questions in real time.  There’s nothing quite like unscripted Q&A for sharpening your presentation skills! It was a positive experience that has got us thinking about other ways we can engage our audience.

We invite everyone to join us on social media.  We’re committed to engaging you, surprising you, provoking your interest, and answering your questions.  Let’s get together for some enlightening conversation soon. 

The Upside of Winter


It’s been a long, record-breaking cold winter here in Toronto.  Not what we’re used to, but we’ve lived to tell the tale.   But I can’t help but ponder the season in the context of HBC history and wonder at the impact winter has made.

Voltaire once famously dismissed North America – or more specifically, New France – as “quelques arpents de neige” – “a few acres of snow.”  And so it must have seemed at the time.  Our winter was a cruel revelation to the Europeans who laboured under the false notion that the climate here must be similar to their own, particularly at the same latitude.   A look at the latitude of Britain or southern France, compared to Canada, will quickly demonstrate the folly of this pseudo-science.

But the fact remains that winter was an essential feature of the fur trade.  The fur trade year was divided into two seasons: winter and everything else.  Those seasons were themselves demarcated by annual weather events, the self-explanatory “freeze-up” and “break-up”.   Winter was, in many ways, the most important time of the year.

The success of the fur trade relied on quality.  The furs produced in Canada were (and still are) top-notch, and that reality is directly tied to the extreme climate.  Animals respond to the cold by producing thicker, lusher, more dense coats.  The colder the temperature, the better the furs.   So harsh winters were a key element of HBC’s business success.

Meanwhile, what were the traders doing while Mother Nature was busy helping to create the commodity they sought? In fact, winter was the social season.  Work pretty much slowed down as the weather put a damper on most trade-related activities.  But frozen lakes and rivers were actually well-suited to long distance travel by sleigh, sled and dog team or snowshoe.  So, with more leisure time and less work to do, winter was the time for visiting, transferring personnel between posts, and catching up on paperwork.

One of the most colourful fur trade traditions, that of the Beaver Club, was born out of a need to fill the long winter days.  A creation of the North West Company, it was founded in Montreal in 1785 as an exclusive social club for the fur traders known as “winterers” – those who had spent at least one winter in the interior.  The Club’s primary function was to provide a venue for members to gather and reminisce. Members met every second Wednesday from the first week of December until the second week of April.  Meetings took the form of elaborate multi-course dinners, which lasted well into the wee hours and were notorious for their serious drinking and raucous revelry.  Invitations to attend were few, far between and highly sought-after.

Today, of course, the winter means something entirely different.   It signifies Holiday Season and that all important fourth quarter, wherein the year’s success or failure will be determined.

Just as in the past, winter brings closure on the one hand and the chance to recharge and reset for the new year to come.

Why Fifth may be Where You Want to Be …


So, fifth isn’t usually what most people aspire to.  Unless you’re talking real estate and New York City real estate at that.  Then fifth means Fifth Avenue, the shopping mecca that defines upscale retail in North America.  From the mid-19th century, when the retail heart of NYC arrived uptown, location has been a huge driver of success.

In 1869 Lord & Taylor opened at 901 Broadway, on the SW corner of Broadway at E. 20th St., in the middle of the district that would become known as “The Ladies’ Mile”. Between the Civil War and World War I, the district between 8th and 23rd Streets, Broadway and Sixth Avenue was home to some of New York's most famous department stores, including L&T.

By the 20th century the retail centre had moved north yet again, this time to Fifth Avenue.  Lord and Taylor was an “early adopter” of the trend, relocating to in 1914 when it moved to its current location: 424 Fifth Avenue on the NW corner of Fifth Avenue at W. 38th St., home of the chain’s flagship store.

Meanwhile, Andrew Saks, an enterprising retailer originally from Baltimore by way of Washington D.C., arrived in New York City and opened his first store, Saks & Co., at Herald Square in 1902.   His successors moved the store to 611 Fifth Avenue in 1924.  At that time “Fifth Avenue” was added to the name of the store, with the intention of leveraging the reputation and importance of the area to enhance the store’s brand.

As it turned out, over time Fifth Avenue would get as much of a boost from Saks as vice versa.  And with its recent acquisition of Saks Fifth Avenue, Hudson’s Bay Company now has not one, but two significant footholds in the heart of retail America.

Not bad for “The Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay”, eh?  Mind you, let’s not forget that New York lies at the mouth of the Hudson River, named, with delightful historical symmetry, for the very same Hudson who discovered the Bay.  And the city itself is named after James, Duke of York, 2nd Governor of the Company.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this was all meant to be!

Canadian ... or Not?


Well ... it depends.

Canadians are more than a little sensitive about our national identity.  Our historic and geographic place, falling somewhere between Britain and the United States, has meant this has always been the case.  We suffer periodic bouts of hyper-nationalistic fervour (N.B. that Canuck spelling!) every now and again.  The Winter Olympics in Vancouver saw the last really significant flare-up.  With the Sochi Games less than six months away, we can expect to see more of the same.

What this means is that we are very invested in our national symbols: hockey, the maple leaf, the canoe.  And HBC.  Yes: Hudson’s Bay Company is seen by many Canadians as part and parcel of the Canadian identity. If you doubt it, there’s scientific proof.

In 2011 the Martin Prosperity Institute named Moncton the most "Canuck" city in Canada.  Among the criteria, the number of HBC stores a community has:

"In honour of Canada Day, the Martin Prosperity Institute developed an index using a blend of eight quintessential “Canadian” metrics (per 100,000 residents) using a variety of data sources. They are: the number of breweries, the number of Tim Horton’s, number of syrup producers, number of fur stores, and the labour force share of the fishing, farming, and forestry class, number of Hudson Bay Company Stores (the Bay, Zeller’s, and Home Outfitters) as well as CHL and NHL hockey teams (we weighted NHL teams at twice a CHL team), by Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) and Census Agglomeration (CA)."

So the recent announcement that HBC will acquire American luxury retailer Saks by year end will be seen by some as a threat, a sign of the continuing loss of the Company’s Canadian identity.  But how accurate is this view?

HBC is Canada’s oldest company, right?  Yes and no.  Yes, it’s been here forever – or so it seems.  But how Canadian was the historic Company? Well, not very.  For the first 300 years it was a British company, owned and operated, for the most of that period, by British people. The profits as well as the pelts went overseas for a very, very long time.

Fast forward to 1970, and the start of HBC’s fourth century in business.  In its 300th year HBC became a Canadian company at last.  Head Office was relocated to Canada, the Charter was Canadianized under Canadian corporation law, and last but not least, the Company’s ownership changed from predominantly British (approx. 85% in 1970) to Canadian (approx. 55% by 1974).   And about time, too!  Hence the uproar in some quarters when the Company was sold to American owners in 2006.  Many Canadians lamented the loss of “our” iconic company to those dastardly Americans, a feeling many Brits would recognize from their own experience in 1970.

Today our American ties are greater than ever.  Not only our owners but increasingly our retail expansion is south of the border, first with Lord & Taylor, America’s oldest retailer, and soon with Saks.  We are becoming an international retail giant.  Firmly based in North America we are starting to build awareness around the world with our iconic Hudson’s Bay brand.  Our history and the spirit of adventure that inspires everything we do is our entrée to rest of the world.  But are we still Canadian?

Well, not if ownership is your only yardstick.  But if your take is broader, then yes, absolutely.  Hudson’s Bay remains a Canadian banner and brand, employs thousands of Canadians and is historically bound to this nation in a way that is unique in the world.  School kids across the country learn our history as part of the core curriculum, while our blankets – still made in Britain – remain the quintessential Canadian gift, given by the federal government to visiting dignitaries.  And last but not least our stripes, recognized around the world, say “Canada” to the rest of the planet.

All of which is to say that while you may be able to take HBC out of Canada, you can’t take Canada out of HBC.

The Once and Future Company


Welcome to the inaugural post of The Adventure Continues, a blog written by HBC’s Corporate Historian. What better way to celebrate the redesign of the HBC Heritage website than with the launch of a new feature!

So, already some of you are asking: Really? A history blog?  Well, why not? History is literally all around us, all the time.  Today’s news is tomorrow’s history.  But at HBC it’s also just the latest in a long line of events that leads back to 1670 and beyond.  If you think that +343 years of Hudson’s Bay Company history provides more content than would ever be needed for this site, you’d be right.  But our current history is at least as fascinating as any of the older material – and happening so fast that it’s sometimes hard to keep up.  

Last November HBC returned to the stock market after an absence of six years.  Six years is a relatively short time, especially in the life of an institution that is fast approaching its 350th anniversary (in 2020). Yet for all but those six years HBC has been publicly held.  That’s an amazing fact, and one that links the Company to the very beginning of modern business and the idea of the joint stock corporation.  Viewed from this perspective, HBC’s hiatus as a private entity seems almost a historical footnote.  And it would be, except for the changes those six crucial years have wrought.  

HBC has undergone a profound transformation, one that has touched every aspect of the business.  It’s leaner, smarter, more focused, more dynamic, more responsive, more accountable.  In a word, more businesslike. Moreover, there is a new and clearly articulated vision underpinning it all. Customers have noticed and are delighted with what they see.  They’ve always had a great affection for this company and its unique relationship with Canada.  Now, with more and more of what they want, it’s easier for them to demonstrate that affection.  Which they do all the time:  if you need proof, just check out the popularity of our stripes.

Along with offering brands like Topshop/Topman, Kiehl’s, Burberry and the hotly-anticipated Kleinfeld Bridal (debuting in 2014), HBC has also recognized the value of its historic roots.  A decade after the launch of its HBC Signature private brand label, the revamped HBC Collections are bigger, better and more widely available than ever: in-store, online, and now in specialty shops at the country’s two largest airports, Toronto and Vancouver.

What this means for Canada’s oldest business is simple: the spirit of the original Company is alive and well.  Truly, the adventure continues.

Joan Murray

Corporate Historian