Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Princess Auto way: Treat staff and customers well, offer unique products and share the wealth

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You can buy a trailer at Princess Auto, but the Winnipeg-based retailer is known more as the place to buy all the parts needed to build your own trailer -- the running gear, the hitches and the wheels.

As well, you'll find just about every variety of air compressor, portable heaters, welding supplies and things like stroke-threaded head utility cylinders and Milton "T" style tru-flate/Parker interchange series male air quick-coupler plugs, whatever those items are.

Then there's the super-cheap bar fridges or electronics cables and a host of eclectic surplus items that bring in the stores' "guests" just to see what's there.

Bob Tallman, the genial owner of the business his father acquired in 1942, said: "I recently bought a TV at Best Buy and was looking at HDMI cables, and the sales agent told me I would get a much better price for them at Princess Auto."

Tallman was recognized as Red River College's Distinguished Alumnus this year at a gala dinner Friday night at the Fairmont Hotel.

In his inimitable humble manner, Tallman said: "I am so blown away by the honour. When you're a student, you never think something like this would happen to you."

Many of us might be more amazed to find ourselves the owner and CEO of a $400-million-per-year business.

But that's Bob Tallman.

Princess Auto has become a niche success in an intensely competitive retail world that over the last 15 years has seen the demise of many smaller players at the hands of the big-box category killers.

Tallman doesn't take credit for the amazing success of his business, which now has 35 stores across the country.

"When I go into the finance office and see people doing receivables and invoicing, I think they are just as important to the success of the business as the store employees, the managers and the senior executives," he said.

Brian Hayward, one of the members of the company's board of advisers, said: "From Bob's point of view, everyone is part of the team. That is the culture here."

It's that philosophy of inclusiveness that underpins the company's amazing profit-sharing program that over the last two decades has distributed close to $100 million to employees. On average, each employee receives a quarterly profit-sharing bonus cheque equal to about one-third of their regular salary.

It's the kind of place people love to work at. Someone recently recounted a story about his brother who was fired from Princess Auto while he was a student after sleeping in and missing his shift. "He still says it's the best place he ever worked."

Tallman, 57, said there are three things that drive the company: Treat staff fairly and respectfully, create the best experience for their "guests" and offer a unique product selection.

That shopping experience includes what might be the most liberal return policy in the business.

Brent Trepel, the CEO of Ben Moss Jewellers, another successful independent national retail chain, said: "Bob is a great guy and a great friend.

"Princess Auto has been a very successful business amidst all the competition because it has a unique sales proposition, overall customer service and a distinct marketing strategy."

When Tallman joined the family business in the mid-1970s shortly after graduating from Red River College's business administration program, it was still exclusively a mail-order operation.

His father started the business selling the parts from the auto-wrecking business he owned. At one time, the property that now houses the company's head office and flagship store on Panet Road was full of junked automobiles.

The first store opened in Edmonton in 1976. It's grown gradually since then.

A new-look store with a grand entranceway is in the process of being rolled out, but there's no change planned in the kind of customer service Princess Auto guests receive.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 B6


Updated on Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 8:51 AM CST: adds colour photo, adds fact box

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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