Owning and operating a General Motors dealership in Weyburn is a family passion for Mal Barber, and his son Andy is the fourth generation to carry it on forward as Barber Motors marks its 70th year of business.
It all started with Cec Barber, who grew up in Meyronne, southwest of LaFleche, and ran the general store in Glentworth until it went broke during the Depression in the 1930s. He made parts on a lathe and did well enough with this that he accumulated enough money for a dealership, which he opened in 1943.
Cec heard that GM was looking for a new franchise owner in Moose Jaw or Weyburn, so he took the train to Weyburn to meet local leaders and businessmen to get a feel for the city.
“They had a really good experience when they came here (to Weyburn) and were shown around,” said Mal of his grandfather.
Barber had a business partner, Thor Hoium, and they acquired the Erickstein and Brekke dealership in 1949, announcing the take-over in the Weyburn Review in the first issue in January of 1950. In the mid-1950s, Hoium left the partnership and it became Barber Motors.
Cec brought people with him who had worked with him at Glentworth for a long time, like Leo Runne, father of Stan Runne, a longtime City of Weyburn employee.
Cecil’s son Ron attended Mount Royal Business College in Calgary, and then came back to Weyburn to join his father in the business. Ron ran the dealership and was a very people-oriented community-conscious business owner, taking on the role as Weyburn’s mayor.
“My dad always expressed that our responsibility was with both the city and with city organizations. He was a doer,” said Mal. “Every generation brings a different attributes to the job. My father wasn’t the same as his father.”
He explained “dad was a visitor and enjoyed everybody so much. He had a lot of friends in the community. My grandpa did too, but dad was publicly-oriented all the time.”
Mal added that every generation did things in their own way, and brought their own style of doing things to the business.
“Dad could walk through the garage and within five minutes he’d know what was going on,” he said, as Ron could figure out a problem that might take him a couple of days to figure out. “I was always amazed at that.”
After high school, Mal began university, but left school for a year and came back to sell cars before going back to school in 1969.
He noted that the years from 1949 to 1972 were very tough for the dealership financially, and said his dad diversified the business as he brought in many different things to sell at the dealership, including mobile homes, boats and motors, and farm equipment.
“He was inventive too, as he brought snowmobiles to Saskatchewan after seeing Bombardier machines in Quebec on a trip,” said Mal, adding his mother, June, was a pianist and taught music lessons to help the family pay the bills.
“GM loaned us money through the dealer development system to help keep us going,” said Mal, noting other dealerships also had difficulties, with some having to close their doors.
“I worked at the garage all during high school … (but) I wasn’t going to work with my dad, because I was going to do my own thing,” said Mal, who then made the decision to move to Vancouver to get experience in another locale. He took a job at a Ford dealership with a man he knew from Midale whose cousin worked at Barber’s in Weyburn.
“I learned a lot working for them,” he said, and he made his return to Weyburn around 1975. “GM have been great partners and advisors over the years, offering opportunities for education and training to me and the staff of the dealership.”
His wife Delaine’s family was also long-established in the car business, as her grandfather opened Nichol’s Garage in Indian Head, a GM dealership, back in 1917. Her father Lloyd worked for GM at the corporate level in the Maritimes before joining the service in Europe.
Marrying into the Barber family was not hard for Delaine, as she understood the demands on the dealer’s time that was often required.
“We were open six days a week, and your phone was the garage phone, and people expected you to be on call. That was the nature of the car business,” said Mal. “That’s how it was for a small town dealership.”
Barber Motors suffered a large and devastating fire in December of 1977, which Mal recalled happened after the staff Christmas party. Mal noted the other Weyburn dealers were the first ones who phoned to offer assistance.
He noted a young woman, Barb Smart, who worked for them as an accountant, insisted on getting valuable papers for the dealership from the safe, and a firefighter accompanied her through the building to where the safe was located and retrieved the papers. She is still working at the dealership today.
Some people that Mal looked up to as mentors included Rev. Ross McMurtry, Mel Watson of Watson Distributors, former mayor Isabelle Butters, and the first principal of Southeast Regional College, Al Yeaman.
“There were so many people who helped me,” he said, adding that he also counted his service club connections as very valuable.
Barber Motors contributes to many groups and organizations in the community, and sponsors many different activities and sports teams, everything from the Red Wings and minor hockey to the Weyburn Beavers, 4-H, soccer and minor football.
Mal was a member of the Young Fellows Club, and is currently a member of Rotary, the third generation to belong there, while Andy is a Young Fellows member.
His son started working around the dealership in the summers during high school, and after grad he decided to work at other dealerships to gain experience, in Moose Jaw and Regina, and went on to take marketing in college in Barrie, Ont.
Andy was quite musical, taking piano lessons from his grandmother, June, and performing at the Weyburn Music Festival often during his school years. Mal bought him a guitar (“thinking he’d learn folk songs,” smiled Mal) and he ended up starting a rock band which became fairly popular.
Andy was around the dealership a lot while growing up, coming in with his dad whenever he could on weekends.
“My grandfather was a great role model when I was younger. He’s done a lot things in the community, and being the mayor, he really loved being in Weyburn and in the community,” said Andy. “Just being able to grow up around that instilled some values that I live by today.”
He added that it’s nice to be the fourth generation of the family business, and said, “You really have to work really hard to be a fourth generation dealer. With the values that were instilled in me by my grandfather and father, it was easier for me to come back here. I’ve always loved the car business and always loved the community of Weyburn.”
He added that it’s important to him to give back to the community, and is proud to be a third-generation Young Fellows member, where he has served as the secretary and club president.
“It’s kind of a privilege to be part of that heritage as well. The Young Fellows have been around for almost 100 years,” said Andy.
For the business, “I think I bring a fresh perspective. I try to embrace change. As much as I don’t like change, technology is changing and the industry is changing every day, and we have to change to keep up.
“It’s a challenge, but challenges are good. Every day is different in this business. You get different challenges and see different people every day,” said Andy.