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Wallace & Carey: 100 years as growing, family-owned distributor

Calgary-based Wallace & Carey, one of Canada’s leading independent distribution and logistics com...

IMAGE: Pat Carey is the CEO of family-owned Wallace & Carey. (Courtesy Wallace & Carey, CU Photography)

Pat Carey is the CEO of family-owned Wallace & Carey. (Courtesy Wallace & Carey, CU Photography)

Calgary-based Wallace & Carey, one of Canada’s leading independent distribution and logistics companies, has survived numerous serious challenges in its 100-year history including a depression, recessions, a world war and today’s pandemic.

While many businesses have fallen in the face of these crises during the past century, Wallace & Carey has survived and grown.

CEO Pat Carey says its ongoing success is thanks to the “teammates” who have worked with the company over the years to help propel it to its current level – offering a nationwide network of distribution centres.

“I would put our teammates up against anybody. Our teammates have been able to overcome the challenges and work together to satisfy our customers,” Carey told RENX. “We’ve got 40-plus-year teammates. We’ve got 20-, 30- (year teammates). We’ve got people who have been through the wars and the depression, the ’80s interest-rate hikes, the fuel-price fluctuations, the inflations, the winter storms, the floods, the fires.

“That knowledge and that experience that we have internal to our company is second to none. But, the trick is letting people know that we’re a small distributor from Southern Alberta . . . we don’t have a lot of the marketing engines a lot of big companies have, but we can execute better than anybody in Canada in my opinion.”

One truck, eight employees

The company started in 1921 with one truck and eight employees. Today, it has more than 500 ‘teammates’ and 10 distribution centres – in Namaino, Kelowna, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay and Oakville.

Through strategic alliance partners, it accesses eight additional facilities, extending its network into Quebec and Atlantic Canada, as well as five full-pick and two partial-pick locations.

Wallace & Carey has built a supply chain solution for manufacturers and companies to get their products to market.

“Anybody that needs to move product from Point A to Point B across North America, we can look after that,” Carey said. “We have an integrated network of warehouse and distribution centres. We’ve got a number of assets on the road; we utilize rail, we utilize air, you name it we can move it. But, predominantly truck.”

Wallace & Carrey’s list of clients is a who’s-who in the corporate world – Coca Cola, Cineplex, Lowe’s, RONA, Petro Canada, Rexall, 7-Eleven, and Tim Hortons among others.

Pat Carey started with the company in 2003 “but I tell everybody I started in 1977,” he said, in jest. “It’s a family business and I’m third-generation.”

The modern version of Wallace & Carey

The company has a “pretty cool” history, Carey explained. It began when Bob Wallace, in the early 1900s, crossed the border from Oregon. He and his brother were cattle people and ranchers and settled along the Milk River in Southern Alberta.

“As the story goes, he went into town one day to pick up a whole bunch of supplies on horseback, got hit by some nasty Alberta winter, and his brother thought he had passed away. But, (he) ended up turning back at the ranch about a week-and-a-half later,” Carey said.

“Mr. Bob Wallace committed then that he would build his own general store so they could avoid going into town on a regular basis and so in 1921 he incorporated the Wallace store and that was our first incorporation,” he continued. “He built it up and during that time sold it and it transferred hands a few times.

“My grandfather went to work for the owner in the ’40s, Mr. Bob Smith, Harold R. Smith they called him, and while grandpa was working for Mr. Smith he was actually approached by Mr. Wallace.

“Mr. Wallace said ‘Larry, why don’t you get an option to buy that business back?’ ”

Carey’s grandfather did the deal, funded by Wallace. In 1951, Wallace died but Carey’s grandfather had a seven-year clause in the contract during which to buy the business from Wallace’s estate. He did and that company has grown into today’s operation.

“Out of respect, we’ve always kept the name since 1951 Wallace & Carey.”

Carey says Wallace & Carey services more than 7,000 customer locations across the country.

“With an established network like ours, that we’ve taken 100 years to build, it’s very difficult to replicate and that’s why it gives us confidence that if you’ve got to move product in Canada, we’re your solution,” Carey said.

He became the CEO after his father Frank died in April 2018.

Continuing to thrive during a pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March 2020, Wallace & Carey was considered an essential service. Daily meetings ensured all proper health and safety measures were put in place.

“Managing the supply chain and our options due to warehousing and manufacturing shutdowns in COVID and making sure the customers are getting what they want, making sure our teammates are safe, has not been without its difficulty over the last nine months,” Carey observed.

“While some businesses have prospered, a lot of our customers have struggled in this time and we took it upon ourselves where we have to continue to expand.

“So we’ve been able to grow into some different markets that had supply chain issues like pet food, cannabis, those types of things, and we’re now quite a competitive force in those businesses. Beer and wine. Those types of things.

“A lot of people sit back and blame COVID and struggle to see the opportunity. You’ve got to use that burning platform to create growth and continue to market yourself.

“The trick now is letting people and businesses know that if they’ve got problems getting things to market, we’re the solution. Just because we were convenience-focused 20, 30 years ago doesn’t mean convenience is the only industry that we can apply our solution to.”

The ebbs and flows at Wallace & Carey

Carey said the pandemic has offered opportunities for local manufacturers to provide solutions to consumers. It’s heightened the importance of a solid supply chain.

And as global giants continue to build millions of square feet worth of massive distribution centres for their own products and those of their customers, he said Wallace & Carey’s core focus remains building relationships with customers.

“I think (after) 100 years in business we would fit the definition of solid and been here a while. So when people look to their supply chain partner, you need someone that you can have confidence that will get you through these tough times.” he said. “I think that’s our biggest opportunity to educate different industries and different manufacturers that if they’re moving products from Point A to Point B to any postal code in Canada, we can get the product there.”

Carey says the company’s square footage across the country grows daily and it will expand in Ontario and in the East and will contract in some provinces as it builds scale and looks for efficiencies.

Currently, the Wallace & Carey operates well over half-million square feet of warehouse and distribution space.

“If the number of trucks and the square footage that we have isn’t ebb-and-flowing with our customer base, then we can’t stay competitive.

“My grandfather always told me that if you took 40 industries and ranked them in order of profitability, distribution is always on the bottom. We don’t have the high margins like retail and oil and gas and we don’t get the booms and busts.

“We’ve got to be steady and continuous growth. So over 100 years of half-a-point, one per cent growth, we get to a big number,” Carey concluded. “We’ve built this over a century. So we’ve created a solution that our customers can use as a competitive advantage.”

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