This month marks a milestone anniversary for one of downtown North Battleford’s most notable businesses.
Dec. 1 marked the 60th anniversary of Bill and Don’s Men’s Wear and Shoes, located on 101st Street.
Today, Ben Christensen and Derek Schmidt are equal partners in the business, which continues to carry on the names of the original proprietors of the store, Bill Wheeldon and Don Ross.
Both had worked at other men’s wear stores in the community and were actually related, through marriage. “Bill was actually Don’s uncle, not many years older than Don, but that’s just the way it worked out,” said Christensen.
“They always knew each other and probably both shared this dream, and they put it to reality.”
Their new store originally opened at what is now the Jeans ‘n’ Joggers location on 101st Street.
In March 1966, the store moved up the street to their current location at 1232 - 101st St.
That will mean another celebration in just a few months — 50 years at the same location downtown.
“It’s a staple of the downtown, and it’s home for us,” Schmidt says. “It wouldn’t be the same if we’re out at a mall location or out stand alone by ourselves.”
He also points out there are still many people who work downtown, including those working in the banks as well as lawyers, doctors and other professionals.
“That’s part of our customer base, is the people who work downtown.”
“Unless something drastic happens, downtown is going to be home for Bill and Don’s for a lot of years.”
Christensen’s involvement in the business spans 40 years, back to 1975, when he started working for the summer.
“Friends were leaving for Jasper, so I quit working at Bill and Don’s after a very, very short time period.”
He went away for a few months, and when he came back he was planning to return to school in Winnipeg, Man.
“Don approached me and asked if I would come back, and offered me a little more money than I was making. And I guess I must have been impressed, because I chose to come back that October.”
Christensen eventually took on a 12 per cent stake in the business and, by 1984, was planning to take a bigger share. Wheeldon was planning to retire and Christensen was going to take on a one-third share while Ross would take on two-thirds.
But Don Ross died suddenly in 1984 at the age of 52. After that, Wheeldon “wanted more than ever to leave the business,” said Christensen, and sold out in May of 1984.
That opened the door to Jim Ross, Don’s son, to move from Calgary, Alta. to take on the business.
Both Ross and Christensen became equal partners in Bill and Don’s Men’s Wear.
In 1998, Jim sold his share of the business and Derek Schmidt bought a one-third share to Christensen’s two-thirds. A year later they became equal partners.
“So the history is Bill and Don, Bill and Don and Ben, Ben and Jim, and then Ben and Derek,” said Christensen.
But even though the business is Ben and Derek’s, the name “Bill and Don’s” remains on the sign in front.
“We’ve just never had any interest in changing the name,” said Christensen.
“They were two very respected members of the community and we’re very happy to live within their legacy.”
Wheeldon and Ross were well known not just for their business, but for their active community involvement.
Ross was elected to city council and served for 24 years in total. The Don Ross Centre and Arena bears his name as a lasting tribute to his efforts.
“He was a great musician, an amazing personality,” said Christensen.
The one regret for Schmidt, who started at Bill and Don’s in 1992, was he never got to meet Don Ross when he was alive.
“I was 11 years old when Don Ross passed away,” said Schmidt. “So I never did get to meet the gentleman. I try to carry on the legacy that he and Bill set out, but unfortunately I never did get get to meet Don Ross.”
It’s “something you can’t turn back time and do over, I guess,” said Schmidt.
Wheeldon, who died in 2013, was active on the Chamber of Commerce and also later served on council after his retirement, though he opted to serve for only one term and did not run again.
That legacy of community involvement has rubbed off on the current ownership.
“It kind of trickles down,” said Schmidt.
“Ben’s been very involved … in community groups, and I think I’ve kind of learned the same thing, via Ben, via Bill and Don, to get involved.”
Christensen used to be on the school board and is currently on the Prairie North health board. Schmidt has been active with the Chamber of Commerce and more recently with the downtown business improvement district. And they have been involved in other ways as well.
“What they set up as doing right for your community, we’ve kind of followed the same footsteps and continued that to this day,” said Schmidt.
“They were great mentors and role models,” Christensen adds about Bill and Don. “We really appreciate the legacy they’ve left us.”
Both Ben and Derek have tried to follow the same tradition of Bill and Don in providing hands-on, quality service for their customers.
“One of the successes of this business is that we remain contemporary, always,” said Christensen.
“We’ve never feared having fine quality clothing. We’ve always wanted to provide our customers with current and fashionable apparel for men. We appreciate that men, and that men appreciate, too, that they can come in here and they can buy their best suit for their needs, and they can buy a pair of jeans and they can buy a housecoat. We have everything that men need and that’s always been our philosophy, to provide everything we can.”
They also appreciate that women come in, too, to shop for their husbands, said Christensen. “Many of the men we’ve never met, we know their sizes, but we’ve never met them.”
To stay contemporary, they go to major buy markets in Saskatoon and Edmonton, Alta. where companies from across North America are, and also travel to Montreal, Que. to the warehouses to pick up things for the holiday season.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good grasp of the style of what’s in at the time,” said Schmidt.
“What I find very interesting about this business is we can service three or four generations. We’ve seen grandfathers, fathers and sons all come in during the same week to get something for, say, the wedding coming up or whatever. So that’s kind of what’s unique about this business, is you provide service to many generations, at a great price point and quality service.”
May and June are traditionally the busiest months, as that is the graduation season and also the lead up to the wedding season. Also busy months are November and December, the Christmas shopping season.
January is always a big month as well, said Christensen, because it is their fiscal year end so they hold their big sale of the year then.
The motto of the store is “for the events in your life,” and it is one Christensen says they try to live up to, always.
The proprietors credit their staff.
“I think that’s one of the successes of 60 years in business,” said Schmidt.
“They’re not just sales people and they’re not just marking inventory. They do pretty much everything on a daily basis, from sweeping to marking to selling to input in buying. So it’s very important that our staff has been with us for a long time and continue in our success after 60 years.”
A mainstay of their business is their tailor, Heather Pylypow. She has been with the store for 35 years.
“We cannot get by without her. She is a working artist with a needle and thread,” said Christensen.
Their full-time staff member is Shannon Thompson, who has been with the store since 2009 and is very involved with an aspect of the store that some may not be aware of — the dance apparel portion.
About 20 years ago Virginia Ross-Winterhalt set up Dance Connection in the community. She is Don Ross’s daughter, and “very, very talented, artistically and musically,” said Christensen. “She really has many of her father’s attributes.
With Dance Connection and another studio, Annette’s School of Dance, in operation, the decision was made to diversify into dance apparel and that has been a part of the store since 1995.
It’s not only served a client base that needs those items, but has also drawn a new and more diverse client base for the rest of what the store offers.
“I think that’s drawn in quite a few new faces. They don’t expect a dancewear store to be in a men’s wear store,” said Thompson.
Above all else, Bill and Don’s credits the loyalty of their customers and particularly the connection they have with them for staying in business.
Ben and Derek have fond memories of one customer in particular.
Her name was Daisy, and they recalled she always came by around November or December each year looking for items to provide as gifts for her son who lived in Saskatoon.
“She came in without fail for his birthday and for Christmas,” said Christensen. She lived independently into her 100s, and for many years would walk from her home to Bill and Don’s to buy her items and visit with the staff.
Schmidt said, “It was so cool that she made the effort to walk down,” he said. And she would do this in December when conditions were not pleasant.
“It was only in her later years when we would give her a ride home. She would come in, and we would insist that we give her a ride home,” said Christensen.
Daisy was a customer who “left a lasting impression on our business,” he said, and there are many others they point to as well who are customers today.
“It’s loyalty like that that you can’t buy.”
As for the future, while Derek clearly anticipates a lot of years ahead in the business, Ben is approaching the time when retirement might be an option. Although he admits to taking more holidays than ever before, he said he has no plans to step aside.
Christensen noted Wheeldon had felt that he left the business at too early an age, and he has always kept that thought in mind.
“I will be here as long as I enjoy the business,” Ben said.