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Then & Now: How a business boy wonder from Sudbury became Canadian Tire CEO at age 33

Dean Muncaster credited for modernizing — and some might say revolutionizing — the retail chain
050522_Then and Now Dean Muncaster
Dean Muncaster was student council president at Sudbury High and learned about retail in his father's downtown Canadian Tire store.

Dean Muncaster, who swept floors at his father's Canadian Tire in Sudbury as a teenager, was considered one of the best business minds of his generation.

In 1966, at the age of 33, he was named Canadian Tire president and CEO. He expanded a family-run chain into Western Canada and grew sales from $100 million annually to $2 billion a year.

"How the kid from Sudbury made a good thing better," was the title of a Maclean's magazine story in December 1976.

"Canadian Tire has now evolved into one of the country’s more professionally run companies, even down at the dealer level, where a significant number are refugees from IBM middle management, attracted by the combination of systems and independence," wrote Linda Sandler for Maclean's.

For three decades, Muncaster was a business boy wonder until he was fired in 1985 with a million-dollar severance. He had fallen out of favour with Canadian Tire's founders and majority shareholders, the Billes family, after disastrous efforts to capture the American market.

Muncaster oversaw the $40-million (US) purchase of White Stores, a Texas-based furniture, appliance and hardware chain in 1981 at the beginning of a deep economic recession.

The Canadian Tire formula of automotive products, hardware, small appliances, household items and sporting goods did not excite Texans, and White Stores lost more than $200 million.

Born in Sudbury in 1933, Muncaster had deep roots in northeastern Ontario: his grandfather, Joseph, was born on Manitoulin Island in 1876.

He grew up in a Canadian Tire family. His father, Walter, owned the Sudbury store. His uncle, Laird, owned a store in Thunder Bay. Uncle Clarence opened a Canadian Tire in Kirkland Lake in 1938. Uncles Victor and Wib opened a store in Sault Ste Marie that same year. Victor's son, Clare, was a dealer in Espanola from 1965 to 1994.

After graduating from Sudbury High School, he studied business administration at the University of Western Ontario and was voted "most likely to succeed" by classmates.

Muncaster earned an MBA at Northwestern University in Chicago. He wrote a research paper on Canadian Tire that so impressed company president A.J. Billes that he hired the MBA grad as a dealer operations analyst in 1957.

For a time in the early 1960s, Muncaster returned home to help his father. In Sudbury, he devised an inventory system that was later introduced into all Canadian Tire stores.

He returned to head office as vice-president in 1963, and three years later was named president. In 1966, Canadian Tire had 224 stores in Ontario and the Maritimes. By 1985, it was a national chain with 385 locations.

Muncaster hired many of his MBA classmates, but they faced resistance from old timers who were resistant to change, noted author Ian Brown, who wrote a book about Canadian Tire, "Freewheeling, The Feuds, Broods And Outrageous Fortunes of The Billes Family and Canada's Favorite Company" in 1989. 

"Muncaster and his team set to making Canadian Tire their company. Their audacity was quite possibly without parallel in the annals of Canadian business," Brown wrote.

Credited with modernizing the managerial structure and expanding stores across Canada, Muncaster guided an expansion of the warehouse and shipping capacity and brought in one of the first IBM computer systems in Canada to help streamline inventory management.

During his reign at Canadian Tire, Muncaster was a director of Black and Decker Manufacturing Company, National Trust Company, CP Hotels, as well as a director of the Retail Council of Canada, Ontario Hydro, and Bell Canada.

Muncaster received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Laurentian University in 1975.

In 1990, Muncaster and a group of investors bought Bargain Harold's, a chain of small discount stores selling housewares and cleaning supplies. It went into receivership and then into bankruptcy in 1992.

Muncaster was chair of the board of Collingwood Utility Services and Collus Power Corp. when he died in 2012 while vacationing in Mexico. He was 78.

Married four times, Muncaster had three sons. 

"He was a man of great energy and it affected people around him," his eldest son, Robert, a Toronto lawyer, told The Globe and Mail in 2012.  

"As a parent, he led by example. He was not an in-your-face person, and would rarely enter into open conflict. It was similar to the way he managed people."

Richard Hobbs, one of Muncaster's closest colleagues, told the newspaper, "He made [Canadian] Tire the most successful public company in terms of growth and profitability in the country and was the darling of the business press."

Sources

  • Maclean's Dec. 27, 1976, Linda Sandler, "How the kid from Sudbury made a good thing better"
  • Maclean's, June 17, 1985, Michael Slater, "Firing a Canadian Legend"
  • The Globe and Mail, April 7, 2012, Judy Stoffman, "Dean Muncaster, Businessman, 78: He led Canadian Tire from family-run chain to national retailer with sales of $2 billion"

Vicki Gilhula is a writer in Greater Sudbury. Then & Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.