From Nova Scotia's largest daily newspaper
- http://www.herald.ns.ca/http://www.herald.ns.ca/ -
Thursday, December 23, 2004 - The Halifax Herald Limited
Robin, Jones & Whitman applies for bankruptcy protection
By JOCELYN BETHUNE
CHETICAMP - It is older than Canada. But as Robin, Jones & Whitman, a chain of department stores, heads into its 229th year of operation, it is at a crossroads.
The company, with six stores - three in Cape Breton and three in Quebec - has applied to the courts for bankruptcy protection.
"We are open and we plan on staying open," said Steven Merry, manager of the two Cheticamp outlets - a two-storey building that houses a grocery store and a hardware store, and a furniture store some distance away on the same street. Together, they employ 16.
The third Cape Breton store, in Inverness, sells hardware and building supplies and employs eight. It will also remain open, Mr. Merry said.
He is the third generation of his family to operate the Cheticamp stores.
Competition from local Co-op stores and big-box retailers has hurt the Robin, Jones & Whitman chain, he said. A retail consultant has suggested several changes.
"Rather than being all things to all people in one small community, we are going to restructure and try to find our niche market," Mr. Merry said.
Immediate plans include downsizing the grocery department for the winter, with the expectation that it will be refurbished by next summer.
Streamlining the products sold will help, Mr. Merry said, adding that no departments are expected to close. Part of the upgrade will include new refrigeration units and an improved parking area at the grocery/hardware store. "We hope to buy a property next door for our parking," Mr. Merry said.
The stores are located on Cheticamp's main street, which is also part of the Cabot Trail, and grocery store customers must back out into traffic.
The Robin, Jones & Whitman chain is the second-oldest incorporated company in Canada. Only the Hudson's Bay Co. is older (founded 1670).
Fish merchant Charles Robin transplanted his company in 1776 from the Jersey Islands, England, to what would become Canada.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the company's presence was felt in many Maritime fishing towns like Lunenburg, LaHave and Cheticamp, where it owned fish plants and schooners and bought and sold fish. Today, its headquarters are in Gaspe, Que.
"They really were pioneers in the fishing industry," Mr. Merry said of the company.
Bankruptcy protection doesn't mean that a business is closing, it is instead restructuring its debt. The application will go before the courts in mid-January.
A radio interview on the same story stated that ROBIN was a Huguenot surname (French Protestant) from Jersey which ended up in Nova Scotia in 1775 because of persecution by the Roman Catholic church. Although Huguentos had suffered in the 1500's and 1600's as well, by the 18th century most of them moved directly to North America to escape it. Most blended quickly into the "melting pot" and their family origins became obscured to later generations.
In previous centuries, they tended to leave France and other Catholic countries, and ended up in Northern Europe (Germany, Holland, England, Ireland) or Scandinavia, where many put down new roots and stayed. Many moved to the New World after a number of generations.
It is somewhat ironic that the ROBIN family prospered for over 200 years in Cheticamp, which is the centre of a flourishing area of French-speaking Catholics located on the world-famous Cabot Trail of Cape Breton. This is one of the more isolated settlements in Nova Scotia.
I am not related to the ROBIN family, but thought this might be of interest to anyone researching the Jersey branch of the family.