49th Parallel’s devotion to immediate and extended family is a recipe for success
By Robin Brunet
Wayne Richmond, who purchased the 49th Parallel Grocery store in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island 40 years ago, chuckles when told that it’s a tradition for grocers in small communities to employ lots of family members in their venues.
He says, “If that’s the case, then I’m a shining example of familial loyalty. I bought 49th Parallel with my wife, Harmina, and my brother in law Ron Neubauer did all the carpentry for the store. He later managed my Chemainus location, and today his wife, son, and two daughters work for us.”
Clearly amused by giving new meaning to the term `family business’, Wayne adds, “Ron’s brother and his wife work for me, and my daughter Kathy is our executive secretary. Kathy’s significant other is my meat manager in Chamainus, and their two 14 year-old daughters are also 49th Parallel staff members.”
Key to 49th Parallel moving forward is Wayne’s son Peter Richmond, the company’s president, who had carved out a career in Vancouver as a Certified Public Accountant before returning to the fold in 1996.
If all this makes 49th Parallel seem like a giant magnet luring what Wayne calls “true relatives and shirttail relatives” in droves, it’s also an integral part of an operation that stresses quality products, fast and friendly service, and great specials over architectural razzle-dazzle – which in turn lures shoppers and enables 49th Parallel to hold its own against much bigger but far more impersonal competition.
Peter, 53, keenly appreciates the tightly knit aspect of 49th Parallel’s four stores in four small communities (Cedar, with a population of just 250, and Duncan, with just under 5,000 people, in addition to Ladysmith and Chemainus). “One of the most fulfilling things we do is participate in local events and support charity. The small town ambiance of this region is such that you can’t take an evening stroll without bumping into customers and having friendly chats with them.”
If Peter is a born again grocer, the argument could be made that Wayne was quite simply born to be in the trade. In 1957, at the age of 16, he joined SuperValu in Duncan. “The pay was $1.02 an hour, enough for me to indulge my passion for cars,” he recalls. “I was told, `Get a haircut, a bow tie and a white shirt, and start stocking shelves this afternoon’ – and from that moment on I loved everything about the trade.” Two years later, Wayne became a manager.
In 1977, the 49th Parallel had been operating in Ladysmith for 26 years, and its owner, Alex Campbell, who has worked with Wayne in the 1960s and `70s for Shop Easy, suggested to his friend that he buy the business. Wayne and Harmina promptly signed a lease.
Campbell then opened the first Thrifty Foods, and the rest is Vancouver Island history. “It worked out very well for both of us,” says Wayne. “Every week at Ladysmith, the sales kept going up.”
Wayne shrugs when asked to explain the instant success of his business. “The community accepted us right off the bat, I guess.” But Peter remembers the long hours his father worked. “He lives and breathes the trade, and he always made it seem like fun. His customers sensed this, and responded.”
Wayne also downplays the complexities of adding new locations, other than to note the serendipity when he purchased the Chemainus store in 1979. “I bought it from my original SuperValu boss, Ed Brenton, who became manager of our Ladysmith location” (at the age of 90, Brenton still shops at 49th Parallel).
Peter moved from Vancouver to help his father build the 16,600 square foot Cedar store from the ground up; this was followed by the 5,000 square foot Duncan venue in 2007 (the 20,000 square foot Ladysmith, which was rebuilt in 1989 and expanded in 2010, remains the company’s flagship). A new store in Chemainus launched in 2013 has brought the total number of 49th Parallel employees to over 230.
With the dual focus of community involvement and providing the best food at fair prices as 49th Parallel’s recipe for success, Peter is happy “operating in a beautiful part of Canada where growth isn’t frenetic and everyone knows one another.”
He singles out the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers for supporting 49th Parallel throughout the years: “As long-time members, we’ve benefitted from the hard work it does for the independents, particularly in the IGOY store reviews, trade shows, and on the credit card fee front.”
Moving forward, Peter says there will be further growth, “But only where it makes sense. “
As for Wayne, he turns 76 this year but still doesn’t understand the concept of retirement. “I’ve never once woken up and not wanted to go to work,” he says. “There were the odd days I wished to hell I’d never gotten out of bed, but the compulsion to be at my stores has never left me – and it never will.”