Princess Auto Ltd.

Where the tools of the trade meet family-like service in a niche market
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Victor Martins

Princess Auto Ltd. started in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1933. In 1942, Harvey Tallman purchased the business from the original owner, Fred Ladbrook. Harvey traded his truck for the funds to purchase Princess Auto. An entrepreneur at heart, Harvey saw the opportunity to take a struggling business in new directions.

Today Princess Auto remains privately held in the hands in the third generation of the same Winnipeg family with 42 locations across Canada, including two new locations in Owen Sound and Brantford, Ontario. The company also has a strong e-commerce platform in online sales, as well as a mail-order catalogue.

Princess Auto shoppers will find a vast array of products both in-store and online. The retailer breaks down thousands of items across five categories: Workshop, including garage and shop equipment, such as power tools and safety equipment; Driveline, featuring electric motors, gas engines and one of the only retail hydraulics operations in Canada; Trailer, a department with everything to repair and upgrade trailers or even build one from scratch; All Seasons, selling items such as tarps, fans, generators, log splitters and heating and cooling systems to make it through a cold Canadian winter or humid summer.

The last category is Surplus, one of the unique cornerstones of Princess Auto’s business, featuring a constantly changing variety of overstocks, hardware, electronics, discontinued and factory-reconditioned items. Historically, this is a niche forged first by Princess Auto in the ‘40s when the company began selling Army surplus equipment.

Trading a truck for a business and a family legacy

Although Princess Auto has grown far beyond the small retail countertop that Harvey purchased in 1942, the company remains true to these roots. Harvey began selling auto parts to customers who came into his auto wrecker on Princess Street in Winnipeg. In the ‘50s, the company began to buy parts from the U.S. and all over western Canada. Harvey branched out from the auto wrecker business to army jeeps and even airplanes. He located an airfield in North Dakota and used plane components to build welders.

Harvey also began to travel in search of new products needed by farmers, most of which were war and army surplus. “From these items the first Princess Auto retail catalogue was created,” recounts Craig Coutts, vice president of sales for Princess Auto.

Over time, the company outgrew the original location and relocated to start a small manufacturing division. The first move was to a location on Fort Street and then to Panet. In 1977, Harvey sold the business to his sons, Larry and Bob Tallman. In 1978, Princess Auto initiated its growth as a retail outlet, opening its first store in Edmonton, Alberta.

Larry and Bob were groomed to eventually assume ownership, having grown up in the business. Harvey retired in 1989 and Larry sold his shares to Bob. From here, Princess Auto began to evolve the company into what it is now; a multifaceted retail business. Today, Princess Auto stands as a trusted retailer, built by a dedicated team of more than 2,000 team members. “We have a very strong company culture and sense of purpose, despite our size,” says Craig.

Expansion after expansion, Princess Auto remains dedicated to several key things: a unique selection of products, a high level of customer service known as “Royal Service” and competitive pricing. These are the driving forces behind the company’s rapid expansion and ongoing success, along with a team of dedicated people offering Royal Service to a niche market of “Figure-It-Outers.”

Catering to figure-it-outers

Although anyone can shop at Princess Auto, the stores tend to target tradesmen, craftsmen, builders, mechanics and the hands-on hobbyist. “Our demographic tends to be people who like to fix it and do it themselves,” says Craig.

Princess Auto attracts a loyal following for service and products these niche customers can’t find anywhere else. The company’s Driveline department is a standout because it features electric motors, gas engines and hydraulics not found in other retail outlets. “We sell hydraulic components that power construction and agriculture operations, where normally, you’d have to go to a large industrial supplier to get these parts,” explains Craig.

This was Harvey’s vision from the start for Princess Auto: to offer its demographic unique products backed by exceptional service. “We’re not just a business that sells tools to people,” says Craig. “We’re a business that enables tradesmen, builders, mechanics — you name it — to accomplish their goals and fulfill their lives. Because of this, our customers view us as a partner and we have many longstanding relationships with them. We focus on what’s important to our customers in terms of products and service.”

Customers agree there’s no satisfaction guarantee like the Princess Auto Guarantee which states that “No sale is final until you’re satisfied,” meaning the company will gladly repair, replace or refund and product. It’s no surprise this model has caught on across Canada.

Ongoing expansion

Today, the company has 42 locations, the newest being the Charlottetown store, which opened in May 2016. The company’s next Grand Opening is planned for November 2016 in St. Catharines.

Aside from geographic expansion, Princess Auto has honed its focus on the e-store side of the business. “We have a strong online platform and we’ve done a lot of work to put ourselves in a position to grow through this,” says Craig. “Our goal is to make sure we’re available wherever and whenever our customers need us and expanding the e-store is one way to do this.”

Another way to connect the community of tradesmen, craftsmen, builders, mechanics, self-employed individuals, do-it-yourselfers and hobbyists Princess Auto serves is through social media outlets, such as Facebook. Princess Auto is now more active in all aspects of its digital reach. “We want to celebrate and connect our niche community and give them a place where they can chat and find other like-minded people across Canada — that’s what we’re really trying to build,” explains Craig.

For Princess Auto, success is about building this connected community and meeting its customers’ needs, both in-store and online. Even after more than 80 years, Princess Auto remains firmly grounded in its mission of delivering second-to-none customer service and support.

As a privately and family-held entity, Princess Auto’s values of Royal Service and support are much more than a poster on the wall — they’re how management and employees go about business every day. “We take friction out of our customers’ lives by truly understanding their needs and this makes us ultimately easier to work with,” adds Craig.

Since 1933, Princess Auto Ltd. has worked to serve handymen, craftsmen, mechanics and others as more than a retailer, but a partner for ongoing project success.