Nikkei Life: Ross and Ward Saito

From summer jobs to ownership of flagship Canadian Tire stores

It has been said that 90 percent of all Canadians live within a 15-minute drive of a Canadian Tire store; that nine out of ten adult Canadians shop at one at least twice a year; and that 40 percent of Canadians shop at Canadian Tire every week. Indeed, in any list of businesses that could be considered distinctly Canadian, Canadian Tire would place at or near the top of the list.

The origins of Canadian Tire go back to 1922, when two brothers, John William Billes and Alfred Jackson Billes, invested their combined savings of $1,800 to purchase The Hamilton Tire and Garage Ltd in Toronto.

The brothers incorporated under the name Canadian Tire Corporation Ltd. in 1927 and the first official associate store opened in Toronto in 1934. After expanding into a full line of automotive products, the brothers added home and garden supplies and by 1980 had a nationwide network of dealer-operated Canadian Tire Associate Stores, making it the most successful Canadian-owned and -operated franchise in the country’s history.

Here in Vancouver, two other brothers, Ross and Ward Saito, are making their mark on the retail market. Together they own and operate the flagship Cambie store, one of the busiest stores in the country, as well as the Grandview Highway store.

Ross points out that Japanese Canadians have played an important role in the history and success of Canadian Tire Corporation (CTC). Two such notable individuals are Arthur “Art” Arai and Fred Sasaki, both of whom were hired by Canadian Tire’s founders J.W. Billes and A.J. Billes. Art worked alongside A.J. Billes for 50 years, serving as his confidant and assistant. Fred Sasaki worked at CTC for 45 years, working his way up to Vice President of Finance and Corporate Treasurer.

Ross and Ward have followed in the footsteps of people like Art and Fred, rising up through the ranks through hard work and dedication. In fact, Art was one of Ross’s mentors and they still keep in touch today.

Ross started working at a Vancouver Canadian Tire in 1981 while in high school. He progressed up through the ranks to Store Manager, working in seven different stores in the Lower Mainland. In 1984 Ross left to work for Canadian Tire Corporation (CTC) in Toronto and held several positions, including Field Merchandiser, District Manager, Logistics Manager and Director Re-Engineering, before becoming a CTC Dealer. During this time he went back to school to receive his MBA.

Ross’s first CTC store was in Stephenville NFLD. He ran this for three years until he returned to Vancouver in 2000 to operate ten CTC stores with his brother, Ward, who has followed a similar career trajectory. Ward’s his first store was in North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

Looking for a way to become more involved in the Vancouver Nikkei community, Ross recently joined the Boards of the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre of Directors and the Nikkei Place Foundation. This month Ross and Ward have the distinction of being the presenting sponsors of the 2012 Nikkei Place Community Awards Fundraising Dinner.

Ross spoke to The Bulletin by e-mail.


Interview: Ross Saito

Tell me about your family, Ross – how they came to Canada and their experience during the war.
My grandparents came to Canada in 1901. They were farmers and lived in Pitt Meadows, growing mainly strawberries. My father was interned in Westwold, BC and my mother was interned in New Denver BC.

Has your family always been involved in business?
Not really, my father was an electrical engineer and worked at BC Tel for his entire professional career. My mother raised three boys and one sister.

You started working at Canadian Tire while in high school. What prompted you to stay with the company for so long?
Yes, I started in high school part time. I had ambitions of becoming a mechanic. However, after progressing through the ranks fairly quickly I felt there were better opportunities staying with the retail side of the business. I had a good mentor at the time, Vern Forster, the proprietor of the CTC stores in Vancouver, who guided me within CTC even when I worked in head office in Toronto.

Did you set out goals for yourself when you were growing up or have you just taken advantage of circumstances?
I always had goals with every step and every job I took. I had eyed up my next job even when I was learning the current job. I was constantly looking for ways to progress up within the organization. I wanted to constantly improve and learn and that is why I went back to school. I really enjoyed what I did, so it was fairly easy and enjoyable to work for CTC.

Art Arai was one of your mentors – can you talk about that relationship and what it has meant to you?
Art took time to find me, introduce himself and then mentor me shortly after I started with CTC in Toronto. He said he had been watching my progress within the company. He took time to talk about the Japanese heritage and history within CTC. He was like a father figure. He would tell me how proud he was of me. And he reminded me that I represent all Asians and the Japanese within CTC. He would constantly remind me that I was Japanese first and a CTC employee second and to be mindful of all my actions and behaviors. Art introduced me to AJ Billes and his family. He taught me about the history of CTC and the fortunes of working for such a great company. We became close friends even after he retired from CTC. He came out to Vancouver when I opened Cambie. I still visit him today when I’m in Toronto.

Have you always worked with your brother, or did that relationship start when you took over the two stores?
I started working with Ward when we came out to Vancouver. We presented the concept of a 10x store operation to CTC as an alternative solution to closing several small stores. We had a few positives working in our favour: we both worked for CTC, we had roots and working knowledge of the city and culture and we had experience with the Vancouver operation.

Is there any advice you’d give to young people who are thinking of going into the retail business?
My advice to anyone considering a retail career is to get an education/degree. An executive from Home Depot once told me that in the U.S. people get an MBA to get into retail, but in Canada people get an MBA to get out of retail. This is no longer the case. Big Box retail stores have changed the landscape in Canada. Today we need the best and brightest people to compete against our US counterparts and new retail concept stores.

What’s the most rewarding part of your work?
For me the most rewarding part is the human element. Interacting with people and staff is the most enjoyable part of my day. The business will succeed when people grow personally and professionally. We encourage people to have fun at work. Also helping out individuals and or organizations along the way is another rewarding part of our business.

How did you get involved with the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre and the Nikkei Place Foundation?
For sometime I’ve felt that I should get involved with my own heritage and culture. I wanted to give back and preserve the culture, history and legacy of the Japanese Canadians. The opportunity arose for me to become involved when Frank Kamiya, a relative and member of the Board, spoke to me about participating and getting involved with the NNMCC.

What impact do you think you can affect?
We need to bridge the generations within the Japanese community, connecting the younger generation to their roots. The younger Japanese Canadians need to understand the history and what our ancestors went through while living in Canada during the war. Preservation of the history is important as it gives us perspective and a better appreciation for what we have and how we got to where we are today.

What future do you see for the Nikkei Community in Canada?
I see the Nikkei Centre as the leading community centre for all Japanese Canadians living in the Lower Mainland. We have a unique opportunity for the NNMCC to evolve and become the leading community centre for all Japanese Canadians. We need to enrich the offerings and value of the NNMCC. In doing so we will attract, engage and enlist all Japanese Canadian families as members of the centre and the community.

Posted in Featured Articles, In the Community.

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