Leon’s holds grand opening

Duane Hicks

A fixture in Fort Frances for 60 years, Howarth’s Home Centre officially has made the transformation to Leon’s Home Furnishings Superstore.
The newest Leon’s franchise held a grand-opening ceremony last Wednesday afternoon at its 288 Scott St. location, attended by dozens of friends, relatives, and colleagues of the Howarth family.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Mark Howarth said at the event.
“It was Sept. 21, 2009 when I got that first call from [Leon’s franchise manager] Nelson [Samson], and ever since that day, the old wheels upstairs have just been spinning,” he noted.
“I’ve heard the mind processes 60,000 thoughts in a day, and I’m sure I blew that away by at least a quarter-of-a-million.
“I did do the math, and that’s 100,500,000 thoughts laying in bed,” he chuckled.
Howarth recalled the family business first started back in 1950 when Murray Howarth and Don Sutton opened The New Home Appliances Ltd., an 800 sq. ft. store located on the 300 block of Scott Street.
Murray Howarth took over ownership in the mid-1950s, and in 1960 opened Howarth’s Home Furnishings at 515 Portage Ave.
With more room at the new location, Howarth’s sold furniture in addition to appliances.
At that time, Howarth’s wife, Maxine, gave up being a teacher to work at the store. And as their sons, Mark and Monty, grew older, they also worked there after school and on weekends.
The business became Howarth’s Radio Shack in 1975 when the family decided to take on the Radio Shack franchise. At that time, the business’ focus shifted away from furnishings and into the booming electronics market.
When Murray Howarth passed away in 1979, Maxine took over with the help of Mark, who then took the reins fully once his mother retired in 1991.
In 1994, Mark moved the business to 288 Scott St.—the former Stedman’s—which was a much bigger location still.
The store was renovated and expanded to include the downstairs area in 1998, and celebrated its 60th anniversary this past March.
“Now, today, we’ve joined the Leon’s family, which we’re very proud of,” said Howarth, who thanked Leon’s executives, his staff, his family (wife, Twyla, and children Jill and Scott), and event caterer Todd Moxham of Cater2U.
“On behalf of Scott and Jill and myself, we are so proud of Mark . . . for those long hours he’s put in over the past many months,” said a tearful Twyla Howarth, who also thanked sales reps, friends, and family who came out to last Wednesday’s ceremony.
Nelson Samson, franchise manager for Leon’s, congratulated the Howarths, and recalled how he first met Mark.
Last year, Samson said he knew Leon’s was building a store in Thunder Bay, and felt there could be other communities around Thunder Bay that could benefit from having a Leon’s franchise store.
Out of the blue, he called Howarth on Sept. 21 and had a lengthy discussion with him about his family business.
Samson then visited Howarth’s Home Centre. After touring the store, the two started brainstorming about what Howarth could do with the store and it grew from there.
“I am sure you’ll agree, this store today is absolutely beautiful,” he remarked.
Samson said Leon’s carefully studies which communities are best to have a franchise, adding the company was impressed with Fort Frances.
“We said, ‘That’s a fantastic community.’ The paper mill is the most profitable of all the paper mills in Canada and the U.S., I think.
“I came to visit, I stayed at [the Super 8].
“I felt like part of the family, part of this community, within the first couple days,” Samson noted.
“I went to the restaurant, Boston Pizza, they treated me like family. Same thing with the Super 8,” he continued.
“I go to check in now and they say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you checked out?’
“I feel like part of the family, and that says a lot about the community.
“But a community says a lot about a family, and when I met Mark and eventually, Twyla, that’s really what solidified it for us,” Samson stressed.
“If I, or our company . . . executive, met with Mark and Twyla and they weren’t happy with the people they met, they didn’t feel they represented their current business properly, they didn’t feel they were stand-up people within the community, there wouldn’t be a store here today.
“That says a lot for the Howarths and this community.”
Samson also said Howarth is backed by a knowledgeable staff which has worked hard to make the store what it is today, adding he knows “they’re going to treat our community here fantastically.”
Samson noted the A. Leon Company was founded in 1909 by Ablan Leon, at which time it was a general merchandise store in Welland, Ont.
It eventually grew to become one of Canada’s largest retailers and continues to be run by the Leon family.
Leon’s now has 36 corporate stores and 30 franchise stores, the latter of which are owned and operated “by people like Mark and Twyla who have a made a huge commitment to become a Leon’s franchise and make our name the name in whatever community they’re in,” said Samson.
“We’re proud of our franchise division because it really helps to keep ourselves grounded,” he remarked.
“You can put a store in a big community and be successful, but it’s when you really go back to your roots and you go to these small communities, and you’re able to bring them some incredible savings, great prices, and incredible financing, and when you team with people like the Howarths, it’s really a winning combination that’s going to last for years.”
Mayor Roy Avis was on hand to welcome Leon’s to Fort Frances, adding he couldn’t say enough about how good the renovated store looked.
“You and your family have done a tremendous job,” he said.
The mayor attested to Howarth being a good business owner, adding he’s personally shopped at the store and never walked out a dissatisfied customer.
“In these economic conditions and economic times, it’s really, really good to see a facility like this remodelled in Fort Frances to try and attract and bring business to the community,” said Mayor Avis.
“I think the business community can be proud of this being on Scott Street.”
While the Leon’s franchise opening here means competition for some other businesses, Mayor Avis noted “the more businesses that we have that are viable in this town, the more viable Fort Frances is going to become.”
“It’s really good to see a family take that path and invest in our future, in the future of Fort Frances,” he stressed, adding the town will support the Howarths “100 percent.”
“On behalf of the BIA, I am so thrilled with what’s been done,” said BIA chair Connie Cuthbertson.
“This business has been such a cornerstone for our community for so many years,” she noted.
“I am thrilled, as all of us are downtown here, that you have decided to stay downtown and work in this community.”
The invite-only event last Wednesday culminated in the release of dozens of yellow balloons containing $100 in Leon’s coupons. Anyone who finds one of these can bring it in to Leon’s to redeem for merchandise.
The store was re-opened last Thursday for a grand-opening sale.