If there’s one thing Ken Keats has learned from running a successful local business, it’s that nothing stays the same for long.
"You’ve just got to be nimble," said the 58-year-old owner of Boes Ltd., a Winnipeg accessories store celebrating 50 years in business next week. "Shoot while the ducks are flying, as my father-in-law used to say."
That father-in-law, Bo Schussler, founded the store in 1969. After running the Hudson’s Bay handbag department in stores across Canada, Schussler decided he didn’t want to leave Winnipeg when he was tapped to take over the Montreal outlet.
Instead, he started his own handbag store, which opened in the Grant Park Shopping Centre on his birthday: Aug. 20. A year later, he opened another at CF Polo Park. And in 1972, he opened two more: one on Winnipeg’s Donald Street and one in Saskatoon.
"It was a tremendous success," Keats said.
Soon, other locations popped up in Regina and in Winnipeg’s Kildonan Place, St. Vital Centre and Garden City shopping centres. But as the shift to online shopping gained momentum, Keats said there were some tough decisions to make, like consolidating Boes to just the two stores that still stand today: Polo Park and St. Vital.
Then, when Schussler died suddenly at age 56 in 1988, Keats took over the business with his wife: Schusssler’s daughter Laurie, 59, who started working with her dad when she was eight years old and knew the store better than anyone.
"She’s a big part of the business’s success," he said.
In 1999, they launched the Calendar Club of Canada stores and the Polo Park Oh Canada kiosk, which helped bring in extra income. And in 2010, they opened the temporary Spirit Halloween stores, which are open from August to November.
"That’s an important part of what we do now," Keats said. "(In) the retail scene, you’ve got to have all your chambers full of ammunition."
Partnering with other businesses — like Indigo Books and Music for Calendar Club and Spencer Gifts for Spirit Halloween — also gave them a chance to learn from places that were bigger and had been around longer.
"You obviously pick up lots of operation tips on how they run their stores, and that’s been quite valuable over the years," Keats said. "It’s nothing that’s super sexy, but just (seeing) how they handle day-to-day operations and human-resource issues, it’s always intriguing."
Embracing the popularity of online shopping with a sleek website and engaging social media accounts also helped Boes keep up with the times.
"We’re learning to work with the online presence," he said. "It’s not going away, so you either participate or you perish."
Keats said, lately, the fact that Boes is a born-and-bred Winnipeg business seems to be connecting more with shoppers.
"People really are triggering on the local aspect of our business," he said. "I just think that there’s a real sense of community in Winnipeg, that people are proud to live here."
For new retail businesses, Keats said it’s important to understand that things will change — sometimes in ways you never imagined.
"I’m an old retailer, and if somebody told me in 1985 that Eaton’s would be out of business in Canada, I would have thought you were crazy," he said. "Recognize trends, and that things come and they go… (and) be ready for when they go."
Looking ahead, Keats said he’s excited to expand Boes’ presence — online and potentially in a traditional brick-and-mortar store on Corydon Avenue or Academy Road.
"We’re very grateful to the citizens of Winnipeg for supporting us for 50 years," he said. "We’re totally in love with our community and we hope to be around for another 50 years."