Thursday, July 10, 2008

The U.S. of Bay

There was a time, long before you or I were born (and if this is not the case for you, then you're either a vampire, a giant Sequoia or Han Solo frozen in carbonite all these years) when the retail store known as The Hudson's Bay Company absolutely owned the North American market. You wanted some prime beaver pelt hats or galoshes or what have you, the Dominion of Canada's "The Bay" was where you went.

Its company charter dates back to the 1670s, when explorers, coureurs de bois (French translation: "forrest runners") and all manner of adventurer crept across the Great White North and the aboriginal populations were still relative masters of their own lands.

It was an iconic Canadian company, with it's distinctive trademark, a multi-coloured rainbow pattern that adorned scarves and blankets (see below). For hundreds of years, when one thought of doing business with Canada, one thought of The Bay.

Over the last century, many competitors arose to challenge the great "B", and it lost much of its caché, but still, Canadians viscerally knew, and were proud it was there; a homegrown institution. A Canuck enterprise, eh?

This all changed in 2006 when the venerable company was bought out by Israeli-American magnate, Jerry Zucker, for $1.06 billion. That year, he became the first non-Canadian to head the HBC.

Jerry Zucker

Early this year, he died suddenly, leaving his wife, Anita Zucker in charge.

Despite early trepidation by Canadians, afraid their home company would be "Americanized" by its new ownership, the Zuckers have proven good caretakers of the Bay. In 2007, the Hudson's Bay Company Archives became part of the United Nations Memory of the World project, under UNESCO. The records covered HBC history from the founding of the company in 1670.

Today, a report in the Toronto Star says that Anita Zucker may be bought out by one of the company's minority shareholders, NRDC Equity Partners. If this happens, let's hope NRDC keeps the Bay as Canadian as it can.

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