There are very few businesses in Calgary that can today boast a 100-year history. A past that includes the great depression, world wars, technological leaps and bounds and now, a global pandemic. The organizational fortitude, adaptability and ingenuity required to achieve a full centennial in operation is, without question, remarkable.
Just as noteworthy are the people who work in that business. Spanning several overlapping and distinct generations, their collective efforts have carried the company through the ages, building upon successes, learning from failures, all the while strengthening, deepening and expanding its roots. These individuals are, despite differences in time, place and role, one.
So is the case at Wallace & Carey Inc., one of Canada’s leading independent distribution and logistics companies, in operation since 1921. Headquartered in Calgary, Wallace & Carey today services more than 7,000 customer locations across the country, including some of the largest retail and theatre chains. Though the 2021 version differs greatly from that of 1921, the company’s past, present and future are intrinsically connected.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last 100 years as a team at Wallace & Carey – we’ve built a strong network and a great team – it’s a legacy,” says Pat Carey, CEO. Carey is the third generation of his family, after his father Frank and grandfather Larry, to lead the company. “It’s what got us here and what will get us through the next 100 years.”
Carey joined the company in 2003 (though he jokes that he really joined in 1977), became President in 2012 and assumed the role of CEO after the sudden death of his father Frank in April of 2018. He acknowledges it’s been difficult leading through the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, but notes it’s not the first challenge Wallace & Carey has faced.
“When you look back to 1921, pick a disaster, pick a timeline, and we were in the middle of it trying to run a business while dealing with significant external pressure,” he says. “While it’s not always easy, we know we’ll figure it out and get through today’s challenges the same as my grandfather got through the challenges of his time, and my father got through the challenges of his time.”
Deemed an essential service – with one of the most sophisticated and established distribution and supply chain networks in Canada – Wallace & Carey has continued in operation throughout the pandemic. “Many of our teammates just can’t work from home,” Carey explains. “We’re moving products, loading trucks, and receiving products into warehouses every day. Without their dedication, we couldn’t make sure Canadians were supplied with necessary goods, so instead we’re focused on keeping our teammates as safe as we can.”
He credits the more than 500 teammates across Canada with enabling the operation to continue to run smoothly. “The response of the teammates wanting to serve their community or make sure food continues to get to the community has been second to none,” Carey praises. “We’ve not had any reason to shut a warehouse down because we have very high safety standards.”
Wallace & Carey has distribution centres from coast to coast: 10 that it owns or leases directly and eight through its Strategic Alliance Partnership. It delivers products to customers via 150 trucks. “With the infrastructure we’ve built over the past 100 years across the country, our teammates are in every postal code,” Carey explains. “With our Strategic Alliance partners, we are perfectly located across the country to support our customers.”
Those customers include 7-Eleven, BG Fuels, Calgary Co-op, Federated Co-op, FreshSlice, Landmark Cinemas, Cineplex Entertainment, Independents and many other well-known retailers. “If you can buy it, use it, or eat it, we’ve delivered it,” he says. “Our customers look to us as a consolidator – they can come to us because they have a product or because they need a product. We take ownership of that product and resell it to them.”
For many customers, deliveries occur every day, such that items like milk are often fresher than at the grocery store. “We give our customers the competitive advantage of our distribution system so that they can compete,” he continues.
The origin story of Wallace & Carey begins with Mr. Wallace, who moved to Canada from Oregon in the early 1900s and settled as a rancher along the Milk River in Southern Alberta. In February of 1907, while Mr. Wallace’s brother had travelled to town to get supplies, a great winter storm occurred, and the brother – who was feared dead – didn’t return for a week.
While the brother did eventually turn up, the episode prompted Mr. Wallace to open a general store, called R.W. Wallace Ltd., on his ranch, in order avoid future hazardous trips to town. He incorporated this store in 1921 and in 1927 sold the store to a Mr. Norman, who relocated it to Calgary.
Ownership of the business changed once more and then in the 1940s, Carey’s grandfather Larry was approached by Mr. Wallace who proposed that the two men buy the store back. They did so under the agreement that when Mr. Wallace passed away, Larry could buy his half from the estate and the name would remain Wallace & Carey.
This is indeed what transpired and by 1950 Larry was the sole owner. The business, located in the Lancaster Building on today’s Stephen Avenue, operated as a general store. By 1970 the young Frank Carey, then working in Toronto at The Robert Simpson Company, was eager to come work with his father in the family business. In 1971, Frank bought the business from his father.
Ten years later, Frank faced his own challenges. “When the 1980s credit crisis hit dad was, like so many other Albertans, bankrupt,” Carey reveals. “He had just sold the building downtown and had built our current building today [in the city’s northeast], but the person who had bought the downtown building walked away. The bank didn’t want it so dad ended up owning both buildings. He got creative and worked out a deal with the bank that allowed us to grow, and we did. And in the 80s we grew into Saskatchewan. We grew into Manitoba. We grew into Edmonton. And then in the ’90s we grew into B.C. and Ontario to support our customers’ growth in those provinces.”
During this time, Wallace & Carey began to ship products – tobacco, confectionaries and other similar items – from its general store in Calgary to other, more remote convenience stores, in places like Medicine Hat, Lethbridge or Moose Jaw. “We became that hub of distribution to smaller towns and really grew in that way,” he explains.
In the 1990s and 2000s the company grew its distribution network and expanded into the theatre business by working very closely with Landmark Cinemas, based in Calgary, and Cineplex, based in Toronto.
“Dad built the business,” Carey reflects. “He created the kind of company that Wallace & Carey is today. We owe everything to dad. He was the patriarch. He was the face. He was the connection to the teammates. I’m grateful that he created a legacy for us but I understand that my role isn’t to replace him. My role is to keep us moving forward and do it my way – just like he did.”
A family-business through and through, Carey’s three brothers and sister, uncle, cousin and brother-in-law have all been part of the organization over the years. “The ‘family’ in the business are our teammates,” he says. “We have people who have been working with us for 20, 30, 40-plus years. We have over 140 teammates who have been with us for 10 years or more.”
Empowerment is key, and all teammates are encouraged to propose (anonymously or not) ideas for improvement directly to Carey and the management team. “We believe that the person who is managing the shipping floor knows what changes are needed better than someone that sits in an office,” he says. “I think that sense of empowerment and team approach helps build the family feeling to the business.”
“We’re a very nimble organization,” he continues. “I know each and every one of our corporate customers and a lot of our independents. Because of our structure, we’re able to make decisions very quickly. We’re not bogged down by the bureaucracy of a big corporation.”
He notes however that Wallace & Carey enjoys the benefits of both types of organizations: the relationships and flexibility of a family-business, as well as the process and controls common to corporations. “I would put our fill rates [the rate at which customer orders are accurately filled] against anybody in the country,” he offers. “97.5 percent of the time our customers get what they order. COVID’s obviously been a significant challenge, but we’ve been able to keep that supply chain very efficient for our customers despite the challenges. We’ve remained competitive.”
While the competitive landscape has changed over time, Wallace & Carey enjoys a unique position today, the result of its lengthy history. “We have a number of assets, buildings and infrastructure across the country,” Carey reflects. “It wouldn’t make sense to build that today [given the margins]. But based on what we have, there’s infinite opportunity to expand into any business space or industry. We can move product from point A to point B more cost-effectively than anybody in the country. If you need to get a product to market, I know we can deliver it. It’s that simple.”
The pivot into movie theatres is an example Carey points to, as is the move into the distribution of cannabis: “We distribute that product to many retailers across the country. We also work with manufacturers on importing cannabis products into the country and redistributing it to other distributors, what we call third-party logistic services.”
Wallace & Carey has always been involved in the communities in which it operates and has supported numerous charities over the years. It was one of the original supporters of Kids’ Help Phone in Calgary, playing a large role in growing the non-profit over the last 20 years.
The company supports the Canadian Legacy Project and Habitat for Humanity today, Carey says: “But coming up to the centennial, we’re looking at more ways to give back to our community. We are still working out details, but I think that gives us a chance to safely celebrate a big birthday, just in a different way.”
With 100 years behind it, Wallace & Carey is poised to begin its second century stronger than ever. “With the infrastructure that we have across the country we can help that manufacturer,” Carey offers. “We can help that upstart get to their customers faster than anybody. As a team we can capitalize on our infrastructure and look for some new horizons and opportunities to grow into. I don’t know what the next few years will bring, but whatever it is, we’re ready.”