If the Grand Trunk Railway had given Thomas Pounder a two-and-a-half cent raise back in the early 1900s, chances are the family-run business he created would not be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
While Pounder Tim-br Mart is now known for its mill, hardware and lumber supply store on Cambria Street, over the last century the company has left its mark on cities across Ontario, but most notably, on Stratford.
Back in 1905, when Pounder was slugging coal in the railyards, a superior recognized Thomas's architectural talents and asked him to build a house. Having spent time building bridges, and in his youth, repairing homes, barns and helping neighbours with odd jobs, it turned out to be an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
First, he went to officials at the rail yards and asked for a raise. Making 10 cents an hour, he figured staying at the yards for a few more cents an hour would be better than risking his neck and starting out on his own.
They said no. Thomas walked away and built that first house on Douro Street, a red-brick residence, which would be the first of hundreds of buildings across Ontario his company would eventually erect.
He and his brother George soon formed a partnership, launching Pounder Brothers, a contracting firm. They opened their first office at 21 Downie St., and by 1910, purchased the former Zion Lutheran Church on Cambria Street - the building still occupied by the business today.
Quickly, the brothers gathered a crew of hardworking labourers and began receiving contracts to build homes,
public buildings and churches. Even the flagpole atop Stratford City Hall was manufactured by Pounder.
But the partnership did not last long. In 1918, while working on a Bell Telephone office in Collingwood, George died.
By 1922, the company opened a hardware store on Cambria, and in 1932, started up a coal business, buying several local yards around town. Later, in 1937, it expanded its hardware division, opening a store on Downie Street. After two moves, they settled in at 89 Downie St.
Thomas Pounder continued working for many years, not retiring until 1946 at age 71. He died in September of that year at Stratford General Hospital.
Determined to continue to build on the successful business started by their father, Thomas' four sons took over operations. Having worked for the family business for years - three of the sons started out by bringing water to workers on job sites - Oscar, Ivan, Earl and Ray Pounder continued to grow the business. By the time Pounders' 60th anniversary rolled around in 1965, the firm's annual sales exceeded $2 million and the company employed 90 workers. And many of the women of the family were involved, most working in the office.
Also interested in real estate, the brothers began purchasing properties around town.
While hard workers, the Pounder brothers realized community service was just as important as business. Earl, an avid gardener, served as an alderman for three years and was president of the Stratford Lions Club. He also served as director of Colpo Ltd., a Toronto-based purchasing firm.
Ivan served as president of the Canadian Retail Hardware Association and was first vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce. He was a director of the Rotary Club.
Oscar was one of the founding members of the local Kinsmen Club and the K-40 Club, while Ray served as the president of the Kiwanis Club and was a member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Gayle Beattie, daughter of Ray and now owner of Pounder Tim-br Mart, recalls watching her father and uncles work hard, sometimes staying at a job site until the wee hours of the morning to ensure projects were kept on schedule.
"They put in so many hours, starting at 7 a.m. and working until 6 at night," said Beattie, in a recent interview at the store. "It wasn't unusual to find them trowling a concrete floor at 2 a.m."
And like their father, all worked into their golden years. Beattie said her uncles all worked until they were in their late 70s, and her father - the youngest of the four - retired when he was 85.
"Only their health kept them from working longer," she said.
In 1967, the brothers embarked on one of their most pioneering projects: a $2 million townhouse development on Dufferin Street. Back then, townhomes were rare in Stratford and the rest of the
"I remember driving around on holidays in the United States looking at townhouses," said Beattie, with a laugh. "I think I was the only kid who came back from vacation with a photo album of houses."
Beattie, too, grew up in the family business, playing hide and go seek with her sister in the mill. Later, she worked in the family's hardware store downtown.
Though interested in business as a teen, she was steered away from the profession by a guidance counsellor in high school. Though she aspired to become a hairdresser, she instead went to university and graduated with a degree in social work. She eventually became a teacher and found herself teaching classes in schools built by her family.
Once she began her teaching career, the family business was the last thing on her mind. However, when approached by her father in the late '80s asking for her help, she quickly became involved. When her father died in 1999, she found herself head of the company.
"As a teacher, you're a salesman," she said, of the transition from the classroom to the board room. "And I've met a lot of former teachers in the industry, now working as sales reps."
By far, her favourite aspect of the business is interacting with customers and working on the floor. Many of Pounders' current customers are the grandchildren of customers the business served decades ago.
Through her life, Beattie has seen many shifts in the business climate. The company's contracting division died out after larger firms established themselves and often came in with more appealing tenders. But the biggest change has been the big-box boom, something she admits has hit the company hard.
"Small business supply is a dying industry," she said. "If we're around in five years, we'll know we've outlasted the last of the little stores."
Even though Tim-br Mart has more stores across Canada than Home Hardware, Beattie said its buying power is overshadowed by mega-retailers such as Home Depot and Rona, making it hard to compete with prices in an ever-fluctuating market.
As well, she said the change in "pace of life" has made the big-box, one-stop-shop more appealing to consumers.
Today, Pounder employs eight full-time and four part-time staff, people Beattie said are "outstanding employees" and have become part of the family.
And though the company has changed with the times, Beattie said she has an overwhelming sense of pride in everything her family has done in the community.
"There's a lot of pride, an awful lot of pride," she said, of her family's entrepreneurial drive. "And they took a lot of pride in their work."
Knowing her grandfather's uncanny business vision, she said if Thomas were around today, he would have an even bigger and better project in the works, just as he always did.
"All of them were visionaries," she said. "If any of them were here, they would be out doing something far wilder than selling building supplies."
Did you know?
Pounder Brothers built dozens of buildings in Stratford, many of which still stand today.
Projects included Anne Hathaway Public School, Falstaff Public School, Avon Public School, Downie Central Public School, Central United Church, St. John's United Church, the former Board of Education building on Foreman Avenue and homes and apartment buildings throughout the city. Pounders also built many stores and industrial buildings.
Additionally, the firm laid many of the city's first sidewalks and asphalt roads.