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R. H. Phillips Co. Ltd. (1927 - 1994)

by Dorothy Foster

In 1923 Elroy (Roy) H. Phillips began his retail career as an employee of John Christie from Kitscoty, who owned Outfitter and War Surplus stores in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Lloydminster. Roy gained his experience working in each of these stores. The stores carried outfitter items such as tents, sleeping bags and work wear clothes. In 1927, John Christie retired and Roy Phillips and G. L. Cooke bought the Lloydminster store. In 1929, it was incorporated and known as R. H. Phillips Co. Ltd. 

R. H. Phillips Co. Ltd. continued to carry the Outfitter items and clothes from work wear to tuxedo formal wear. Steel-toed boots were important to have available for the workers. Other necessary items for the customers were tents, sleeping bags and luggage. Phillips' store was one of the largest in Western Canada. It rendered good service to all who entered, taking care of their needs and keeping happy customers. Roy welcomed the many customers, even if they just came in to chat and get warm sitting on the long bench by the pot bellied stove. Even today people remember that stove and the bench.  The stove was moved to Cornerstone Clothiers (operated by Roy's grand-daughter, Joanne Berry) while the bench was refinished and sat in the hall of George and Dorothy Phillips’ home.

The customers were mostly farmers, struggling to earn a living for their families. After harvest in the fall, they would have money to buy needed items in Phillips store, but by Christmas there would be no money left. Mr. Phillips would give them credit until they could pay off their account.  If a pair of boots was needed, a fellow would be fitted and the cost would be recorded as an account receivable. People appreciated this considerate service and almost always honoured their debts.  George comments, "The merchants, in these times were literally financing the country. The banks didn’t."  When the oil boom came, they found that they were even more bankers for the community. It was usual to have $20,000 on hand, as the oil men would come off a shift at 4:30 on pay days and of course the banks were closed. The men would expect George to cash their cheques. They would pay off their account and receive the rest in cash.

During the World War II years, Roy had only some part time help.  His sons George, Bob, Bill and Doug were expected to work in the store after school and Saturdays. If George had a detention after school Dad would not get his 4:30 coffee break, and he would not be amused.  

While he was an air cadet in Gimley, Manitoba, George decided to check out a manager trainee session in Edmonton. The result was a job with the Hudson Bay Co. in Port Alberni, B. C. in 1945. After a year and a half, George was offered a more lucrative job with a Woodward's store.  In the fall of 1948, George’s father made him an offer to join him in the business back home in Lloydminster.

George and Dorothy were married in 1949. Dorothy had a background in the clothing business and supported George as he became immersed in learning each stage involved in his father’s successfully run business. George attended business college and took retail courses in Olds. In 1965, Roy Phillips was killed in a car accident. George and Dorothy carried on the family business and maintained the high standard of service and quality goods. Dorothy attended Reeves Business College and kept the books for the company until they retired.

It was important to keep abreast of the styles as they catered to the many peoples including teens, the sportsmen and travelers needing luggage. In the 1970’s George felt they needed a new image and opened another store, a young people’s store for men and ladies sports wear up to formal dress. The store was named Man’s World with Norval Mallet as manager and three staff members to serve the public. 

Dorothy had the added responsibility for keeping the books for Man’s World too. George remembers using an old bank machine to keep account records; it is on display in the museum now. Prices in the 70’s were affected by the major inflation. In these times buying was easier as the travelers would bring their merchandise to Lloydminster in the fall and spring. They would book a room and have sample rooms to display the goods for the merchants to choose for their retail store.

There have been substantial changes for the merchants in booking their orders with the manufacturer. They could book 60% of the merchandise and then refill the orders as to the customers’ needs. Now they must book 100% of the merchandise for sale because they can’t go back, it would be sold out. This puts much pressure on the small retailer in competing with the larger stores. The big companies definitely have an edge, by maintaining buying offices all over the world. Big importers, such as Calvin Klein, that have their items made for them have more control. Over the past fifteen years, 80% of the merchandise is produced off shore in countries such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Brazil and many others, while 90% used to be made in Canada. Now there is a lack of standardized sizing, except with name brands such as Arrow and Levi.  The smaller merchant must offer the best service, keep quality goods, and have a good selection. 

The store building required structural changes periodically to take care of the large items for sale. At one point in time everything was moved next door to allow most of the building to be rebuilt, except the back part that had been newly completed as a two story. A staff member, Grant Lier, an artist, did the attractive window displays. The trading area expanded over the years, drawing customers in the east as far as Neilburg, in the south from Provost, Wainwright, in the west from Mannville and in the north from Meadow Lake. The mediums used to advertise were firstly the Times, then the Meridian Booster, followed by the Radio Station and Television.

George would have liked to spend more time with his family while he ran the business. Not only was he working long hours in the business, but community service, and the political arena took a great deal of time. He kept the family tradition of a cabin at Sandy Beach for the family to live in during the summer. Driving to and from there over the gravel roads was a struggle each day, but that was the family’s holiday. The business was sold ‘lock stock and barrel’ in 1994, giving George and Dorothy time to enjoy the freedom of being retired.

Left: this June 1931 photo shows the interior of the men’s wear store.  The pot bellied stove is near the back.  Roy Phillips (near centre) shows off some stylish hats.

Right: George Phillips (far right) chats with customers in the store.