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Canadian family business profile: Canadian Tire

Canadian Tire does much more than what it says on the tin: the hypermarket retailer sells hardware, leisure, automotive accessories, even clothing (oh, and tyres). While the group also owns industrial apparel store Mark's and a financial services arm, it is the namesake business that is considered a Canadian icon.

Originally sidelined from succession plans due to her gender, second-gen Martha Billes fought her two brothers for a decade before taking majority control of the company. The family battle caught national headlines and the female second gen has been described as demanding and disciplined, and certainly not someone to be messed with.

It was her father and uncle, Alfred J and William Billes, who started the family business in 1922, with a small tyre shop based in Toronto. Over time the business evolved from a mom-and-pop shop to one of Canada's major retailers – the company boasts that more than 80% of the population shops at their stores each year.

Today Martha Billes is the largest shareholder, with a 40% stake, while her son Owen Billes, owns a 20% stake and has been a director since 2004.

For a company with such a no-nonsense (albeit slightly misleading) name, Canadian Tire has done well to capture the imagination of its home country. According to its own website, 90% of the population lives within a 15 minutes drive of one of their stores, and its red triangle logo is as recognisable to Canadians as Tim Hortons coffee or the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The retailer's loyalty scheme, Canadian Tire money, has been a huge success for over 50 years, even having its own Wikipedia page. Some privately-owned Canadian companies even accept the coupons, which resemble legal tender and were the brainchild of Muriel Billes, the wife of Alfred J Billes.

Looking ahead
When US rival Target announced in 2011 that it was coming to Canada, stock in Canadian Tire slumped. The following year the company rebranded itself as “Canada's store”, and pumped up the nostalgia in its advertising. Jump ahead to early 2015, and Target's expansion north of the border turned out to be a failure. It declared bankruptcy in January and racked up losses of $2.1 billion. Canadian Tire has since picked up 12 of its vacated stores.

The company's share price almost tripled during Target's failed expansion. Martha Billes and her son are Canadian Tire board members, and are firmly in control of voting stock. Martha came head-to-head with activist investor Bill Ackman several years ago and came out on top when he tried, and failed, to get the company to spin off several subsidiaries. 

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