Wednesday, February 19, 2014

CLOTHING CHAIN BUILT ON VALUE FOR MAN ON THE STREET AND A FRIENDLY IRISH HEART

Photo of Jack Fraser's Pape & Danforth store taken by me in 1958.
The side entrance to the store at the corner of Pape and Danforth avenues in Toronto's east end burst open revealing the imposing, bigger-than-life figure of a man in a black overcoat and homburg hat. He dwarfed the uniformed chauffeur following a few feet behind. "Here comes Mr. Fraser!" someone announced.

As he made his way with short, choppy strides of a gentle giant to what was his traditional first stop at the central cash counter, he exchanged "good morning" greetings with store staff members who literally dropped everything they were doing for a daily ritual that befitted royalty.  He called everyone by their first names.  He looked older than his 64 years of age as he stubbed out the butt of a trademark cigar in an ashtray that the cashier, a Mrs. (Alice) McCallister, kept under the counter for his exclusive use.

Jack Fraser Sr.
1892-1960
Such was my informal introduction to Jack Fraser Sr., a farm boy from the small village of Blacklion in County Cavan, Ireland, who came to Canada to become a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and ended up making a fortune as the owner of a chain of 25 men's clothing stores.  The year was 1957 and Jack Fraser management had plucked me from a branch store in St. Thomas to gain "ground-up" exposure to the men's wear business at the flagship head office in the heart of  East Toronto.  I would eventually return to the St. Thomas store in 1959 as assistant manager and also worked for a period in the Chatham location.

As I considered writing something about about the iconic Jack Fraser, I was surprised by minimal documentation on the man who was also a well-known Guernsey cattle farmer in the 1940s and '50s. He was not a publicity seeker, preferring instead to let his stores and the cattle on his Fraserdale Farm in Concord, north of Toronto, speak for themselves.

Born in 1892 and having some experience working in a small general store attached to the Fraser family's farm home on the shores of Lough MacNean in Co Cavan among the highlands of the North West of Ireland where he also worked briefly with a town draper, he was barely out of his teens when he came to Canada, securing first a job with a clothing wholesaler in Toronto. He was able to travel across Canada with the wholesaler and gained valuable experience and confidence. Jack met and married the former Mary Alice Whitney of Uxbridge in August of 1916.  They were to have two children, a son Jack Jr. and a daughter Joan (Sissons/Beatty).

Apparently forgetting about his aspirations to become a Canadian Mountie, Jack branched out on his own in 1926, opening his first Jack Fraser Store at Danforth and Main in Toronto. It was from that store that he built a reputation as a keen merchandiser of quality, affordable clothing for men.  A man-on-the-street kind of guy, every customer entering the store received Jack's personal attention. Everyone knew him as "Jack" and he never forgot a face and the name that went with it. When someone came into his store during the Depression without money in their pocket, more often than not they left with a new coat on their back.

George Surgoner was the first person on the payroll.  As a school boy, he ran errands and minded the store when Jack went home for dinner. He would later become a travelling sales representative for a major Canadian shirt manufacturer but it was not unusual for him to be seen working at the Pape and Danforth store on holiday weekends and for special sale promotions over a 30-year period.

A Jack Fraser Stores suit hanger, circa 1958.
"Everyone thought that Jack was crazy opening that first store," remarked long-time employee Jim Walker in an interview with Mark Kearney, co-author of the book "I Know That Name".  It was a struggle through those early years of the Great Depression and into World War 11, but he was soon to purchase another nearby business, launching an energetic expansion plan.  By 1948, there were five stores in the chain (Toronto, Oakville and Newmarket) including the Pape and Danforth location.

The 1950s could be described as the heyday for Jack Fraser Stores in Ontario as the entrepreneurial Jack continued to expand his empire, often buying out competitor stores including the well-established Dowler Men's Clothing chain in Southwestern Ontario. The advent of shopping centres in that decade provided new market opportunities, although Jack was said to have viewed them with skepticism at first. Eglinton Square in Toronto was the first shopping centre location followed by Applewood Acres in Etobicoke, then many others.

Jack literally stocked his stores with fellow Irish immigrants.  He was a keen observer of people.  He liked to keep a close eye on his sales force and was quick to ask why a customer left his store without making a purchase.  He never challenged me directly but on one occasion clothing manager Lloyd Davidson, with fire shooting out of his eyes, threatened me with an "If that customer walks Dick, consider yourself fired!"  The customer who stood five-foot-nothing and had a hump in his back, did eventually "walk" because I could not fit him with an overcoat without making drastic alterations...I heard nothing further from Lloyd but his words put the fear of the Lord in me every time I waited on a customer thereafter.

There was no shame in suggestive selling in those days, in fact it was expected.  "How about a shirt to go along with that nice new suit!" and then "now you'll need a tie and perhaps some matching socks...Could you use a new belt while you're at it?"

Me modelling a Jack Fraser hat
and top coat in a newspaper ad.
While not necessarily on the cutting edge of fashion, Mr. Fraser was fussy about how his sales staff dressed, insisting that everyone wear a felt hat and dress topcoat in spring, fall and winter.  Felt hats changed to straw hats during summer months. Suits, dress shirts and ties were mandatory for everyone on the sales floor.  His philosophy was "If you sell it, you wear it!" Heaven help anyone who dared to show up for work without a tie neatly in place and a clean shave.

I considered the Pape and Danforth store as a community unto itself.  I well remember Dave Campbell who was in charge of the hat section, Adam Duncan in shirts, Bob Orr underwear, Lloyd Davidson and Frank Wickware suits and top coats, Mac McKenzie outerwear, my rooming mate George McPherson a Ryerson merchandising grad also learning the business at the ground floor level, Bill Shields in work wear and Jim Walker and Danny Daniels in boys wear. Vern Dean headed a team of three window dressers and Frank Tanaka supervised the chain's jam-packed warehouse located in the basement of the store.  Three tailors also plied their trade in the basement, headed by another son of the Emerald Isle, John Mulhollon.  Charlie Westlake was the men's furnishing buyer along with Davidson (suits) and Walker (boy's wear).  I was frequently called on to assist during busy sale periods at outlying stores on St. Clair Avenue West, Main and Danforth, Welland, Newmarket and Oshawa.

Pay in those days was generally a weekly $50.00 draw against commission -- seven per cent on furnishings (shirts, sweaters, socks, ties, etc.) and five per cent on bigger ticket items (suits and topcoats).  Never in six years did I receive a commission cheque at the end of a month and was always in awe of those who were aggressive enough sellers to accomplish the super human feat.

Jack Fraser Jr. was also active in the day-to-day operation of the business, serving as the company's vice president. I liked Jack Jr. and admired his deportment in the shadow of his dad, but he was difficult to get to know. He had the six-foot-plus stature of his father, but was not as outgoing.  He was a handsome kind of guy with a greying brush cut and a million-dollar smile -- when he chose to use it.  I always sensed that he was more interested in cattle than he was men's clothing, and time would prove to bear out that assumption. Quiet and introspective, Jack Jr. took after his mother more than his father.  He did, however, have the senior Fraser's work ethic even though he may have been a fish out of water for the better part of 25 years.  After sale of the Fraser chain in 1967, Jack Jr. and his family of six, moved to British Columbia in 1968 where like his father, he passed away far too early 11 years later.
Jack Fraser Sr. with daughter Joan and son Jack
Jr., circa 1945.  Photo courtesy of  David Seaborn,
family historian.

Mrs. David Agnew who knew Jack Fraser Sr. from as early as the original Danforth and Main store days, recalled his friendliness and how he was ever mindful of his Irish farm beginnings.  He took her Irish husband David under his wing when he came to Canada as a young man of 20.  In fact the Agnews were married on the Fraserdale farm and for four seasons Jack sent the two Agnew children, and the children of his farm manager, to a YMCA summer camp at Haliburton.

"Whenever there was any celebration going on at the big house, Mr. Fraser saw to it that the children had a share.  He had a very big heart," Mrs. Agnew added.

Harold Clapp was Fraserdale Farms manager for 15 years, coming on board shortly after the acreage north of Toronto was purchased.  The farm was originally stocked with a registered Jersey herd but in May, 1946, all the cattle were sold and Mr. Fraser devoted himself exclusively to raising Guernseys. In the decade that followed he was the proud owner of three Royal Winter Fair Grand Champion Guernseys.,

Clapp was once quoted as saying that his boss was "a bit of a pusher" but "as long as you carried your own weight your job was safe."  In spite of the demands of a chain of 25 retail stores, Mr. Fraser made it a practise to visit his barns twice a day.  If he couldn't sleep at night he came down to the barn and pitched hay for the cattle.  Every morning before heading to Pape and Danforth he had a handful of grain to feed to several of his favorite Guernseys in the herd.

Mary Fraser shared her husband's love of
cattle and farm life.  She is seen on the right
with one of Fraserdale Farms champion 
Guernseys.
He was a generous supporter of various charities. Not a regular church-goer, he also gave considerable support to the Fisherville United Church and the Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches in Thornhill. He was past president of the Canadian Guernsey Cattle Club, a Shriner, a member of the East General Hospital board of governors and a director of the Canadian National Exhibition.

With a history of heart trouble, he defied doctor's orders to cut back on his cigar smoking.  Sadly and unexpectedly at 69 years of age, he passed away from a massive heart attack while attending opening ceremonies for the CNE on the 24th of August, 1960.  Equally as sad was the fact that in 1959 he had sold Fraserdale Farms for a reported $1 million and purchased 400 acres with a palatial Tudor residence north-west of King City in King Township.  He had transferred his herd of 250 pure-bred Guernseys to the new farm just months before his death and was still settling into what was to be his retirement home.

Neither Jack Jr. nor his sister Joan were interested in keeping the business in the family after their father's death.  The company made an arrangement in 1962 to have its name and products in Woolco stores and it proved to be a profitable venture.  In July 1967, the Grafton Company, a retailer with a long history in Canada, purchased the retail assets of Jack Fraser Stores Limited and changed the corporate name to Grafton-Fraser Limited.

With the arrival of enclosed shopping malls in Canada, more Jack Fraser stores opened up across the country.  When the 80th store opened in 1976, Grafton-Fraser could be found in every province.

The next major acquisition for the chain occurred in 1977 with the purchase of George Richards King size Clothes Limited, Canada's largest chain of specialty apparel stores for big and tall men. The Company divested itself of all non-core activities and all non-Canadian enterprises, most of which had been acquired or launched during the 1970's and 1980's. It also gained a new controlling shareholder, Cadillac Fairview Corporation, the developer and a new President and CEO, Glenn Stonehouse.

Just two years later, Glenn Stonehouse engineered a levered buyout of the Company from Cadillac Fairview. The chain was repositioned slightly to accommodate Mr. Big and Tall. Together with the George Richards Big and Tall stores, Grafton-Fraser Inc. now had a corner on the new growth specialty market of big and tall apparel.

The year 2000 saw the largest acquisition of all. Grafton-Fraser Inc. bought the Tip Top Tailors chain from Dylex Ltd. in July of that year. Overnight, the size of the Company doubled to over 200 stores. In 2005, following its own example set in the early 1990's, Grafton-Fraser once again reorganized, by integrating its Jack Fraser locations under the Tip Top Tailors banner. Taking the winning formula from each division, the new Tip Top Tailors was well positioned in all major centers throughout Canada.

One year later, Stonehouse reached an agreement with GB Merchant Partners (a private equity firm). With a proud tradition, dynamic presence, and a promising future, Grafton-Fraser Inc. was guided by the philosophy endowed by its founders. Today the GFI organization is comprised of four menswear divisions across Canada.


It goes without saying that the men's clothing business had changed drastically by the start of the new millennium.  In retrospect, it is kind of sad in a way.  I am not sure what Jack Fraser Sr. would think today about mass merchandising and the demise of the trademark personal service on which he built his business...I have a feeling that he would not be altogether impressed.

While I did not remain in the business, I am proud of having known and worked for one of Canada's retail giants -- a giant in more ways than just one or two.  Time does have a way of marching on and we old-timers are left with memories of when things were different...when there was "heart" -- yes, even pride -- in selling you a shirt or a pair of trousers.
Me (left) on the floor of Jack Fraser Stores in St. Thomas, ON along with longtime Dowler and Fraser employees Harvey Galloway and Danny Clibborn, circa 1958.