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A scandal, a fire and a bankruptcy mark the ups and downs of Sarnia’s oldest business

Greg Primmer

A scandal, a major fire, a bankruptcy and 170 years later Sarnia’s oldest business is alive and well and prospering. Mackenzie Milne, a safety and industrial supply business that began before Confederation and before Alexander Mackenzie became Canada’s second prime minister is a history buffs delight.

Still family owned and operated Mackenzie Milne began as a ship supply and tin shop on Front Street along the Sarnia waterfront. Sarnia was nothing when John Mackenzie, the oldest brother of the second Prime Minister started the John Mackenzie Company in 1848.

Mackenzie had immigrated from Scotland along with Alexander, Charles, Hope, Steed, James and Robert.

Shortly after John started the business Charles joined him in a partnership that would last more than 30 years. They were tinsmiths while the other brothers, with exception of Alexander who went into politics built and repaired ships.

“There wasn’t any infrastructure in Sarnia and only 800 people” says Greg Primmer, who now co–owns the company along with his father Allan. “There wasn’t any electricity or oil but Sarnia was a strategic stop for shipping, that was their key business”

Upon John’s death in 1877 Charles took over the company and four years later renamed it Charles Mackenzie and Company. That’s when David Milne, another Scot joined Charles and the company was renamed again to Charles Mackenzie, Milne and Company.

A silent partner, George Samis, whose name appears periodically in the minutes ran the company with Mackenzie and Milne until September of 1900 when Charles died.

If nothing else Charles Mackenzie appears to have been an opportunist. With his brother Alexander as Prime Minister and a quest to push a railroad across the country Charles paid $15,000.00 for an interest in a Montreal hardware company called Cooper and Fairman and Company. As a silent partner and a majority shareholder Charles became the center of attention as his brother the Prime Minister and his Liberal Government purchased raw steel from the Montreal company.

Primmer, who has done extensive research into his company’s background and the Mackenzie brothers described the rail scandal as a “disaster for everyone except Charles Mackenzie”.

After Charles died in 1900 the company was taken over by Milne who ran it through 1918 when Peter Paton, a partner and stockholder became president.

Paton steered the company through the Depression years and the Second World War. His son, Peter Jr. became involved at his father’s passing in 1957. In 1964 Paton sold Mackenzie Milne to local businessman Hugh Shabsove who moved the company from Front Street to Vidal.

Fifteen years later in 1979 Mackenzie Milne’s Vidal Street location was destroyed in a fire deemed as arson.

By this time Hugh’s son Ed Shabsove was the owner and the company began falling on hard times blamed mostly on the economy. The company declares bankruptcy but is saved by four local businessmen who salvage it at the 11th hour. The four are Ross McEachran, owner of Sarnia Propane, Ted Crombeen, Allan Primmer and Brad Blake.

The group relocates the business to 1490 Plank Road and again it prospers. In 1999, McEachran builds a new showroom and warehouse at 1320 Plank Road, so the company could focus on industrial hardware and small equipment.

But the business continues to evolve with Sarnia’s economy. In the mid – 1990s Allan Primmer becomes the sole owner and sets the stage for his 21-year-old son Greg to take the helm of Sarnia’s oldest business.

Twenty – three years later Mackenzie Milne still sells industrial hardware and small equipment but is now focused on safety and industrial supplies. And as for its competitors most have merged with conglomerates or closed. “Ranson and GLIS are gone and the others are pretty much corporate stores” says Primmer who enjoys what he describes as the “family feel” of a locally owned 170-year-old business.

With $9 million in sales and 10 employees including his brother in law Primmer says “everyone has worked here a long time. We have a lot of good help”.

Primmer says the key to success has been by not changing the way the company does business.

“The large national philosophy of our competitors has helped us. We just give honest family attention and our customers seem to like it”.

Later this year Primmer plans to hold a customer appreciation luncheon and supplier trade show to mark the anniversary.

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