Ernest Hugh Canning was born in 1878 in Surrey, England. When he came to Trinidad as a young man some time between 1901 and 1903 - the exact date is not certain - he had already gathered work experience as a shop clerk. Giving up his career in Croydon, however, ‘wanderlust’ had gripped Canning, and he boarded a ship to Trinidad to see where the colonial goods he was so accustomed seeing in England came from.
He was employed by the Stephens brothers in Port of Spain, who had their large groceries and dry goods store, named ‘Stephens & Scott Limited’, at number 10 Frederick Street. Canning was employed in the groceries section of the store. It was a time of counter service, with the clerks standing behind a counter, the customer in front of them, and the good neatly stacked in long and high shelves behind them.
Stephens, which had been established in 1899, was one of the largest department stores in Port of Spain. Many of the goods they sold - garments, cloth, cooking utensils, hardware, groceries and drinks - Canning knew from England, since this is where Stephens would import them from.
Trinidad and Port of Spain in particular in those days was benefitting from the cocoa boom, which literally gave rise to the ‘Magnificient Seven’ around the Savannah. Benefitting from the prosperity at the turn of the century were several businesses involved in trading and farming, i.e. Gordon Grant & Co., Alston & Co., Wilsons (Glasgow and Trinidad) Ltd., and George F. Huggins & Co. Frederick Street was dominated by large stores, such as ‘Bonanza’, owned by John and Robert Smith; Davidson and Todd, who sold furniture and hardware; Ribeiro & Co., who dealt in foodstuffs; and Millers, a dry goods store. Most stores had been recently renovated, and the new ‘lantern roofs’ added airyness and light to the interior. The shop fronts were outfitted with large plate glass windows - in those days, window shopping was still a Saturday afternoon pastime - and along the first floor ran cast iron balustrades, shading the sidewalks.
“This was where the local elite shopped, the gloved and behatted ladies greeting each other politely, the gentlemen doffing their hats,” writes Dr. Gillian Royes in ‘Business is good’. “The wooden floors had to be kept scrupulously clean, because the long skirts of the ladies frequently brushed them as they moved from one department to another.”
The system of grocery shopping in those days was completely different from today. Long distance orders from the country came to Ernest Canning as he worked in the grocery department of Stephens, and often even the payment was long distance: Stephens gave credit to the planters’ families until the harvest came in. Most businesses were family-run, and much like on the plantations, the employees became more or less part of that extended family.
Canning spent long hours working at Stephens. By 1912, he was ready to move on from Stephens and to form his own company. The cocoa boom was ebbing off, and internal difficulties at Stephens edged Canning to quit. With financial backing by another businessman, George Huggins, Canning opened his own grocery store at 25 Frederick Street, at the corner of Queen Street, which was from then own known as ‘Canning’s corner’. His store was so successful that a few years later, Stephens closed their grocery department.
“Goods were displayed in modern glass cases, cosmetics and sweets at the front of the store and food further back,” writes Dr. Royes. “Through large plate glass windows these were clearly visible from the street.”
Canning’s had a delivery service for rural areas and even to Tobago. In the pack of the store, a small bottling operation was underway. It was the beginning of Canning’s soft drinks: eight to ten different flavours, and the bottles had marble stoppers. Canning’s was unique among the other stores in Port of Spain in that it specialised in grocery items. This was a novelty in Trinidad, which afforded Canning to stock up with more grocery items than any other store - and the customers were pleased!
Canning was much respected by his hard-working staff. Because he had a limp, he earned himself the nickname ‘The Hopper’. His spontaneous generosity to his staff and even to children from the street endeared him to the people who worked for him. Salaries were small - from about $ 5 per week to $ 12 for a ledger-keeper. Canning himself worked probably the hardest - he was at his desk at 6 a.m. and left after the staff had gone home.
In 1917, his business was well established. Canning was 39, and he got married to Audrey Fahey, who was ten years younger than him. Audrey had been working with Tom Boyd on Broadway, and being much ahead of the times, she was a businesswoman in her own right. The couple moved to 10 Queen’s Park West, and they had two daughters, Grace and Jean.
In 1920, Canning’s opened a second store in San Fernando. The plantation economy was dwindling, and the granting of credit to the agricultural sector by the stores in Port of Spain became more and more risky.
“The purpose of this store was to improve the cash flow that would be generated by the oilfield workers and staff.” writes Dr. Shand. Canning, the born entrepreneur, sought out new markets while others contracted. He also diversified into the stocking of ships.
A year later, Ernest Canning took a decisive step in growing his business: he moved away from being an owner-operator business and formed a limited liability company with a board of directors from outside the family. The first year was financially quite successful, with a profit of $28,163.36 having been made - not bad for 1923! However, the following years proved to be difficult for business in general, and the slow economy also affected Canning. The San Fernando store was not doing well, and salaries had to be cut.
It was only after 1927 that the company caught itself, and dividends started to be paid out again to the shareholders. 1929 was the year that Canning & Co. went into the ice cream business. A year later, a baking company was establish. ‘Canning’s Ice Cream’ and ‘Holsum Bread’ became household brand names in Trinidad.
In 1931, the store at Canning’s corner was renovated and connected with the property next door on Queen Street. Dr. Royes:
“It was here, on the ground floor of the Queen Street building, that the Canning’s tea room was to bring delight to many citizens of Port of Spain, providing lunches for businessmen, ice cream sodas for children, and a social centre for teenagers.”
In 1933, the next major investment was the purchase of the ship chandlery business from the Ice House company. Along with the ship chandlery Canning also took over the Ice House grocery at the corner of Abercromby Street and Marine Square (now Independence Square). Canning named this company Fernandez (1933) limited, and the grocery became the Fernandez (1933) grocery. The grocery was later on to be the location of the first Hi-Lo store.
The store in San Fernando, however, was always a bit problematic. “It just seemed impossible to get a profit from the business,” writes Dr. Royes. Canning started to pay the south grocery more attention, which started with paying it more frequent visits and went all the way to buying up a rival business in 1935!
In the mid-thirties, Canning was regarded as the biggest and most modern provisioner in Trinidad and Tobago. He had the largest advertisements, and in the Frederick/Queen Streets store, eight telephone lines were linked to his number 4111. The idea of self-service supermarkets was still in the future - to do grocery shopping, one placed one’s order via the telephone, and the clerks at Canning would assemble the order and deliver it to your house.
“Ernest Canning was a man who enjoyed life, and was a happy man at home,” writes Dr. Royes. “In 1938, he walked his elder daughter Grace up the aisle to give her hand in marriage to a handsome American man, Gordon Graves New.”
New started working in his father-in-law’s business in 1941, which by then employed more than 850 people. The first position he held was manager of the soft drinks division. It was the time of the Second World War, and the American bases at Chaguaramas and Waller Field had by then been set up. The soldiers wanted to drink Coca Cola - and New arranged for Canning’s to get the bottling concession for the American soft drink, then a novelty to Trinidad and Tobago.
Ernest Canning was ailing. His twentieth annual general meeting in 1942 was to be his last, and on 30th September, 1942, the great entrepreneurial man died of a stroke.
He left the business in capable hands, however. The American soldiers brought a lot of business to the bottling plant, the grocery and the Tea Room that was a favourite meeting spot at Canning’s corner. A distribution point in Scarborough and store in Point Fortin were opened.
It was Gordon New who was to come up with the most innovative idea, however. Having shopped in self-service supermarkets in the United States on visits home, he decided to introduce this revolutionary shopping concept in Trinidad. In 1950, the Fernandez (1933) grocery at the corner of Abercromby Street and Marine Square was converted into a ‘cash-and-carry’ facility. The first Hi-Lo opened its doors to the public on 1st June, 1950.
“With no parking lot on Marine Square, the management wondered if it would survive,” writes Dr. Royes. “It was known that hte middle and upper classes were hostile to the idea of converting their credit accounts to cash, and society ladies were heard expressing the opinion that they would never be seen dead pushing ‘one of those breadcarts’.”
Nonetheless, the experiment proved to be highly popular and the store was able to support itself. Canning’s daughters became involved in the company, and together with New propagated the view that inspite of declining profits of the overall group Hi-Lo needed a more modern face and a more convenient appearance.
Three years later, in 1953, the ‘youth’ faction in the company prevailed, and Canning’s corner was converted into a Hi-Lo store. The credit system with the telephone operators was shut down.
It was a complete success. The concept of going into a store, browsing in the aisles, actually touching and choosing packaged food was very appealing to the public. It was just more fun than to call on the phone and to wait for the delivery!
Over the next 47 years, to the present day, Hi-Lo expanded into a supermarket chain with a nationwide network. Always innovative and up-to-date with overseas developments, the supermarket shaped shopping patterns in Trinidad. From the mid-fifties to ..., Hi-Lo stores were run as far as in Jamaica, making Canning’s a truly international family company. Young managers like Maurice Quesnel, who was later to rise to eminence in the Trinidad business community, joined the company and drove the Hi-Lo concept into the future.
After independence, it was not always easy for the firm. Political hurdles like price control and import restrictions were counter-productive in the retail sector. The growing union movement had to be dealt with, there was social unrest, inflation and booms, devaluation, fires, insurrections, looting - all things that had then never been taught at any management school. But the family-oriented company managed and expanded. A poultry processing plant called ‘Fine Foods’ was opened by Canning’s, and the firm also went into non-food ventures, e.g. the insurance business and hotels in Tobago - not all were crowned with success, however. In 1970, Canning’s went public and continued to operate in a time when the country went through a lot of political and social changes.
In 1975, Canning’s merged with Neal & Massy Holdings Limited. In the years to follow, misfortunes started to hit the Canning’s group. Government’s restrictions on the import of hatching eggs, chicken feeds and chemicals brought the chicken processing plant to a virtual stop. Several major fires affected operations in the years to follow. In the 1980s, the company had to keep above water inspite of a flat post-boom economy.
It was in the 1990s that the name Canning’s finally vanished from the local business world. The dairy, the chicken processing plant and the soft drinks division were closed. The Canning’s line of soft drinks, including the brand name, was sold to Coca Cola. It was Hi-Lo that was to be the sole ‘survivor’ of the Canning’s group of companies, continuing where Ernest Canning started from almost a century ago: in groceries.