John Thomson & Son Furniture Ltd. marks 150 years in the heart of downtown Fergus

FERGUS – Neil Johnston has much to celebrate this year, but he may be too busy to take it all in. That’s okay. He is happy to be busy in his work, proudly carrying on the legacy of his ancestors, with John Thomson Furniture & Son Ltd. marking their 150th year in business in the heart of downtown Fergus.

“We are the oldest fifth generation furniture store in Canada,” Johnston said.

“Fergus has always been a great community to run a successful retail business. The downtown interest and aid by local groups and government, the attraction of well run and diverse fellow retail businesses and most importantly the strong sense of loyal support from the local citizens all together have made it much easier to carry on a thriving business.”

John Thomson & Son Furniture Ltd. was started in 1872 by Johnston’s great, great grandfather, John Thomson Sr., who had immigrated from Scotland to Fergus in 1839. His son, John Thomson Jr. took the business through to the early 1900’s, followed by Will Thomson, before the reins were handed to Mary Thomson. 

“Thomson’s had always carried good quality furniture, and Mary had a following of clientele, not only from Fergus, but from well outside of Wellington County,” Johnston said.

“Mary was someone with true integrity and conviction in all aspects of her life.  One thing she always conveyed was how important it is to be a person of your word.  There must always be a high level of trust in doing business with your clients.”

Johnston adds, “I think we have carried this core value forward throughout the business; be a man or woman of your word, deliver more than you promise, and you will always be successful in business.”

Mary successfully steered the business until the late 1980’s, when illness forced her to slow down. That’s when she made two key decisions: in her declining health, she made the fateful decision to put the furniture store up for sale, and until such a time as it sold, she asked Johnston to come home and run the shop. 

Johnston, then in his mid-thirties, had been enjoying a successful career building trains and streetcars with Bombardier, but his love for cabinetry was surely in his blood, as was his appreciation for the family business. Johnston, with help from his father, Edward, kept the store running for several years until Mary died. 

Then it was decision time. Johnston had to decide if he should return to his career, or return home to the family legacy of John Thomson & Son Furniture Ltd.  It was a big decision. He chose home. 

“I had no intention of getting into the business, but since I had filled in, I could see sales getting better and made the decision to buy the business from the estate. Sadly, Mary had passed away and I had to make a decision fairly fast,” Johnston said. “Once I made up my mind, I never looked back.”  

But he did look forward. The furniture marketplace was changing. Big Box chain stores were popping up and the consumer pull to bigger cities was strong. To be competitive, Johnston knew he’d have to research new product lines, manufacturers and determine price points and promotions. 

“Dealing with local family-run quality manufacturers who also have strong emphasis on customer service have been a big part of our success,” Johnston said.  “Some of our main suppliers we rely on to satisfy our customer’s expectations are Décor-Rest, who are currently celebrating a very successful 50 years in business, as well as Elran, Crinar, Sleepking, North Woods, Nouveau, Springwater Woodcraft, Vokes Furniture, Crate Design and Reiner’s, among others.”

Finding quality, affordable Canadian furniture was top priority. To this day, Johnston still personally selects every piece of merchandise Thomson & Son Furniture Ltd. sells.

“Working with reputable Canadian manufacturers makes sense in so many ways,” Johnston said. “The customer is getting better value and superior quality furniture when buying Canadian made furniture. The quality of locally made furniture is generally much better than imports. Also important are the benefits to the local economy and Canadian owned family businesses.”

Johnston said the ability for customers to customize their furniture with fabrics, leathers, finishes and even custom design styles offer them flexibility to find or create a furniture that suits their living spaces. 

Consciously, it’s a better choice too.

“Environmentally, buying Canadian is much friendlier than importing out of country goods. Excessive transportation is greatly reduced,” he said, adding the Canadian government supports and regulates eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes.

John Thomson & Son Furniture Ltd. is located in the heart of downtown Fergus, with a large storefront and spacious showroom, but its online service allows them to offer a wider selection of inventory.  

“We actually have access probably to more than what big box stores deal with, in terms of variety, but a lot of it is online, or it’s just not on display the way it is in a big box store,” Johnston said.  

He adds, “A big box store when they deal with a Canadian company. They only have access to certain product lines, and they don’t really offer the customization that a smaller store can offer.”

While customers have always appreciated the Canadian-made furniture products and merchandise that John Thomson & Son Ltd. carries, Johnston is pleased to see that conscience trend of buying Canadian has increased.

“Throughout the pandemic I have noticed an even stronger interest in shopping and supporting Canadian made,” he said. “Dealing with Canadian manufacturers has always been a priority, all our upholstery, mattresses and most of our case goods are locally made.”

It’s not just supporting Canadian manufacturers that is helping businesses like Johnston’s, it’s shopping local, something he credits the communities of Fergus, Elora, Belwood and the surrounding townships in Wellington County for understanding.

“Fergus and Elora are special communities and the location of our store is perfect. We’re really close to Guelph, Kitchener and Waterloo too,” Johnston said. “Our location in downtown Fergus is the perfect location for a furniture store, really.” 

“Urban big box sprawl, online retail and international imports are three areas that have triggered the biggest changes in the retail industry.  We are now seeing an exodus of city dwellers escaping the hectic mall retail stores and shopping small town main street for a unique non-stressful shopping experience,” Johnston said. “We focus on enhancing customer satisfaction in the store by showcasing quality products and offering the product knowledge needed to make the appropriate buying decision.”

The atmosphere of John Thomson & Son Furniture Ltd. is relaxed, comfortable and welcoming due in large part to the non-commission sales.

“Personally, I don’t see the benefits of a commissioned sales staff, especially since we are a small operation. It’s a conflict of interest with our philosophy of a no pressure approach to sales,” Johnston said. “We ensure the customer makes an appropriate buying decision with mindful guidance and product knowledge.”

When it comes to competitive pricing, Johnston believes his store incorporates service, quality and selection at prices that make it make sense to shop local.

“We are competitive in everything. But you have to compare brand name for brand name, and model for model, and service for service,” he said. “We’re really competitive with any of the majors out there. At my store, you know what you’re getting, you’re getting good quality and it’s going to last.”

Another area that Johnston believes elevates his business and the service his team provides is their free delivery. 

“We go beyond customer expectations on delivery for sure,” he said. “We offer free delivery, free setup, free removal. No one does that anymore. No one does free removal. Hardly anyone does free delivery.”

Given the stores clientele, he has completed free delivery to places in every corner of Wellington County and far beyond to places like Lions Head and Toronto. He credits his lead delivery person, Tyler Morden, who has been with the store for over 10 years for his exceptional commitment to customer service. 

“Delivery is the most important part of what we do, that’s the last image of the store,” Johnston said. “That’s why I really rely on Tyler. He is so good at that and I get so many good positive comments after his deliveries. He is really well respected.” 

When merchandise arrives in the store, before it can be sent out for delivery, it undergoes a thorough quality check.

“Everything we get in the store we open it up, we pre-inspect it, then we re-wrap it and then we deliver,” Johnston said. “Some bigger stores, they’ll bring it in the packaging and leave it at the door.”

Johnston admits his delivery team have faced some interesting delivery challenges, but that’s part of the business where experience counts. It’s also part of that customer service that is embedded in making sure customers are happy.

“Special attention is given by all staff to make sure deliveries are set-up in the home in perfect condition and the customer is completely satisfied after the sale,” he said. “Most important of all is knowing the quality of the products we deliver will stand the test of time and will meet and exceed customer expectations.”

But at a time where costs are increasing, as are business overheads, when asked why Johnston still doesn’t charge for delivery, his answer is sincere.

“We’ve just done it all these years, so I look at it as customer service, but also customer referral, which is so important to our business, so we treat people with care.”

Quality lasts and Johnston said he has customers whose furniture has lasted them well over thirty years. Keeping up with trends is important for him, but he focuses on function and quality, and longevity over fads.

“Over the years furniture styles and design trends change.  Traditional design is the one tried-and-true classic that always seems to find its place in interior design.  But whatever the most popular current trend, receiving quality and the feeling of wellbeing it derives never goes out of style,” Johnston said.

Small town personal service never goes out of style either, and that focus has served Johnston and his ancestors well for 150 years.

“I feel fortunate to have been able to carry on a business with generational roots that ran through three centuries,” Johnston said.

He tells a story of store renovation where they found a handwritten ledger behind a bookcase. It was written by Johnston’s great grandfather in 1903. 

“There are several references of Fergus locals paying off accounts bartering with goods and produce, things like exchanging hay, wood, doors, apples, cauliflower and broccoli plants,” he said noting one account states that 300 broccoli plants cleared a $2.50 balance. “During the Great Depression, there was a huge increase in bartering for goods.”

But what even more impressive in that ledger and subsequent treasures that Johnston has uncovered in the walls of the store over the years is the names of families whose roots are as deep as his own within the community.

“We are now dealing with some of the great, great grandchildren that were listed in that ledger. It really brings into perspective the historical depth of the business,” Johnston said. “It’s been really rewarding to have shared part of the family’s history here in Fergus. It’s a great town.”

For 150 years, John Thomson & Son Ltd. has been a cornerstone business and Johnston knows why. 

“Our continued presence throughout the generations must be attributed to a strong work ethic, well defined values, establishing integrity and trust with our customers,” he said. “Most importantly, listening to our customer’s needs and trying our best to fulfill and exceed their expectations of customer service every single time.”

Johnston said plans are underway to renovate the storefront within the next year, to modernize their downtown presence while honouring their history. 

“We would like to celebrate the re-opening after the renovations with special buys and festivities on re-opening day.  We will make a point to reward our customers loyalty that has made our business a success for all 150 years,” Johnston said.

But customers don’t have to wait to celebrate. John Thomson & Sons Ltd. is located at 157 St. Andrew Street West. They are open six days a week, with private appointments available, including Sunday. To book an appointment call 519-843-1502 or email johnthomson@wightman.ca. To check out their complete range of home furnishings online, visit johnthomsonfurniture.ca. 

This advertorial was published with thanks for the support from Canadian manufacturer Decor-Rest Furniture Ltd. as well as fellow local businesses Broderick’s Clothing Co., Ron Wilkin Jewellers and the Centre Wellington Chamber of Commerce.

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