Iqaluit, Northwest Territories
For more than twenty years, Fred
Coman has been providing office and warehouse leasing, cartage,
moving, and janitorial services in Iqaluit and the Baffin
Island region. He recently opened an art gallery called Coman
Arctic Galleries Ltd., which serves tourists and the local
Fred is sole owner of his companies, but his brother Mickey
handles the accounting, some of the art purchases, and hiring
the janitorial staff. Fred built his business up slowly without
government assistance. He attributes his success to making
business decisions carefully and thoughtfully while taking
advantage of opportunities, once he feels comfortable with
them. Fred has established a solid reputation in the community
for friendly, reliable service at a reasonable price. He is
active in local politics and a strong supporter of local community
activities. The details of his early years are set out in
the following section.
Fred lives with his wife and
two children in Iqaluit. He received a grade 8 education in
Kirkland Lake, a small town in northern Ontario, before moving
to Iqaluit in 1961. After getting out of the airforce, he
was offered a job with a company that handled refueling of
European flights. In 1963, he was hired by the Department
of Indian Affairs and Northern Development as a foreman for
road maintenance and water, garbage, and sewage service.
He recalls, "I convinced them that I
could do it, so they agreed to try me for one year. They started
me at $1.81 an hour and I worked my way up to $2.10 an hour.
At the end of the year they put me on full salary at $4.25
Fred continued in that position for eight years, including
five years after the work was taken over by a private contractor.
In 1968, Fred bought an old movie theatre and ran it in the
evenings after work. He went on his own in February 1970.
He recalls, "I ran the theatre and started a janitorial
service; then I brought three trucks up from the south. Next
I bought out the existing moving company for about $2,500.
We handle the whole Baffin region and some of the central
With the advent of television, the movie theatre had to be
shut down. It closed in the mid-1970s when revenues could
not cover expenses. Coman Arctic Ltd. is federally incorporated.
The main focus of the business for the following years remained
the janitorial and local cartage services and the moving business.
In 1985, Fred applied for membership with United Van Lines.
He recalls the stringent selection process, "We had to
be financially sound, as shown in three years of financial
statements. We had to meet facility requirements and we had
to have $5 million in insurance because they donít want just
anybody representing them." In 1989, in terms of volume
his company ranked 40th among 290 movers across Canada. The
community of Iqaluit, which now has a population of 3,000,
has changed considerably over the past thirty years. Fred
recalls, "There were few private businesses here except
the little local hotel, a taxi
company, a barber shop, the local co-opís carving shop,
and a Bay store. Today it has grown, with the territorial
government as the biggest industry and all the economic
spin-offs associated with servicing the government. We need
more stores to supply goods to the families of the personnel
that are in government and those who are hired to look after
the government employees. Itís a big chain of spin-off opportunities."
One thing that Fred is struck by is the fact that all the
clerks he worked in Finance and Public Works during the
mid-1960s, are either deputy ministers in Yellowknife now
or directors of their branches. He wonders, "If I had
stayed with the government, would I have gone that far?
I donít know, but I chose my road."
Living in the North can be eventful in the winter. Fred
remembers an eight-day storm that left him snowed in at
home with his wife and children. "I told my wife that
if it got to 35 degrees below, I would smash the washroom
window out and take the kids across the road where there
was an old coal stove. We were scared that we wouldnít have
electricity. Two times during that week, it went down to
40 then 45 degrees below. We dressed everybody, but ended
up waiting to see what would happen. Then the third time
the temperature dropped, we got everybody dressed because
the power was off. I took a chair and as I raised it to
smash the window; the lights came back on and we stayed."
Coman Arctic and Coman Arctic
Galleries carry on business in a new 10,000-square-foot building,
directly across from the airport. Valued at $1.1 million,
the building required the first bank financing that Fred has
ever taken in all his years of business. The loan amounted
to 30% of the total project cost. The art gallery occupies
approximately 900 square feet, with the balance taken by Fredís
office, short-term storage space, and storage of packing materials.
Payroll, accounting, and all
the paperwork associated with various businesses are handles
by a secretary, by the office manager, and by Fredís brother
Mickey. They work out of another office building that Fred
owns. The land is leased, since some land in the Northwest
Territories is no longer available for purchase until land
claims are settled.
Fred notes, "The office staff handle the majority of
paperwork there. Anything that has to signed or looked after,
they send to me at this office every morning. I do it and
send it back. We meet everyday and it is like a family business
because Mickey has worked with me for so many years."
Revenues are split evenly between janitorial, moving, and
Regulation of the majority of
Fredís businesses is limited. Generally, all he needs is a
business license. However, there is more extensive regulation
regarding the moving of dangerous goods. Fred explains, "We
have to abide by all federal regulations. Three employees
and I have taken courses on special packing requirements.
We pack and ship dangerous goods for all the local companies."
Regular cartage customers include
the Northern Store, Arctic Ventures, and some hotels, since
they regularly have goods for pickup from the airport. Fred
notes, "We make deliveries every afternoon. The rest
of the time is filled with packing and moving. One complements
the other. We do office moving from one building to another,
moving new people in or moving people who are leaving the
Fred has nine trucks, five which are used for the moving and
"We use three trucks every day
with two spare trucks to handle any overload. I have step-in
vans with fourteen-foot platforms that are covered in and
with roll-down doors at the back. I also have a couple of
older ones that I keep and several window vans to pick up
staff or for transportation."
Packing material must be
ordered annually and is brought in by boat. "We order
material based on the previous two years. We have to rely
on our experience because there is no one to ask about how
many teachers are going to leave or how many government staff
are going to quit or be transferred in the year."
United Van Lines sets the schedule of territorial rates across
the west, central, and eastern regions. The prices are set
so that Fred earns a reasonable rate of return. He explains
his personal pricing philosophy: "My attitude is, what
difference is $10,000 going to mean to me? Will I live any
better? I have a roof over my head, a vehicle to drive, my
kids go to school, and I take a holiday when I want. I could
increase my prices another 30% and my customers would squawk
for a month, but then they would pay it. I wonít do that because
as long as Iím personally satisfied with what I am earning,
I can live, pay my bills, and show a profit, then I am happy.
If you get greedy it can work against you, so itís not worth
The steadiest source of revenue is the janitorial services.
"I have had a verbal contract with Frobisher Developments
since 1970. I have the contract as long as I do the work.
Our projects include apartments, the shopping mall, Bell Canada,
and the RCMP."
Fred never had a master plan of the types of businesses that
he wanted to operate. In his words, "I just saw opportunities
and took advantage of them." Another venture Fred is
involved in is leasing buildings that he has built. He currently
owns ten buildings in Iqaluit and he leases them to individuals
or government agencies, usually as office space.
Finally, Fred recently opened an art gallery in his new office
building. It represents a personal interest he has pursued
for many years.
"I always liked art and Iíve always dabbled in it. I
bought and sold pieces through friends and people who came
into the office. The art gallery is just starting and I think
it is going to be successful. The art is the most expensive
business I am in, particularly because the prices are high.
If I make a mistake and I
buy a piece that I canít sell then, Iíve just
inherited a piece for life.
My brother and I buy inventory based on many years of experience.
I supply soapstone to a number of local artists - which I
have no problem getting, contrary to what the media might
say. I have a couple of local artists that I look after by
paying their rent, phone, and power bills and buying a new
machine when they need it. They come and collect money every
day and I keep a bankbook of their account. When they carve
a piece, that pays down their account. Iíve been doing that
for fifteen years. I think Iíve just about broken even with
all the pieces Iíve sold recently. I lost quite a bit of money
in a camp that we tried to get going where a couple of artists
wanted to camp out on the land. It just didnít pan out. They
spent money but didnít pay back enough in carving, so now
they stay in town and work.
Fred has watched the influence modern tools have had on traditional
"Some people label traditional carving techniques as
when the artist uses only a hatchet and file. Today artists
use electric tools and a saw but I think that theyíre still
creating a traditional piece. The new tools save time. An
experienced carver can shape a block of soapstone so the four
legs of a polar bear are square and save 80% of the time it
took to chip with just a hatchet and a file. It still comes
out in the same form and saves him a weekís work. All the
final work is done with his little hammer and his file."
I donít think that the final product is influenced by the
use of these tools. In fact, with the finer tools available
today it should be better quality. However, I donít really
see that change yet. The older guys used to make hands with
fingers and fingernails but now the figure has gloves."
In 1989, Fred was asked to supply 180 sculptures as prizes
for the Ladies Pro-Golfers Associationís DuMaurier Golf Classic
in the United States. It took three months to fill the order,
and the customers were pleased with them because no two sculptures
were the same. Now they buy 36 sculptures a year from Fred
for various tournaments. Other customers have included Peter
Pocklington, owner of the Edmonton Oilers, Glen Sather, their
coach, and the coach of the Winnipeg Jets, Bob Murdock.
There are a total of twenty-three people working
for Coman Arctic Ltd. As mentioned earlier, there are three
office staff; in addition, seven employees handle cartage
and seven others work for the moving business. Three couples
are employed for the janitorial service.
Fredís brother Mickey has been with him for a number of years,
handling accounting and assisting in operations. Fred notes,
"His wife has arthritis so they decided to move south
several years ago. Now he works seven months a year for me
and he has five months a year off. He comes up at the end
of each month to handle the books. We try not to do anything
without letting the other one know about it. He looks after
the business when I take holidays." Fredís office manager
has been with him for three years. She has signing authority
for all cheques.
Fred does not dwell on problems in business. "Problems
here are the same as for any business down south. I donít
think thereís any great big problem, other than what you want
to create. I guess staff is about our biggest problem up here
but Iíve been lucky over the years. I havenít had that many
staff problems and I have guys that are still with me after
attributes low staff turnover to the type of employee that he
hires and the operation that he runs. He looks for employees
who are reliable and honest and who can get along with other
employees. "Staff stay, maybe because I treat them how
I would like to be treated. Maybe thatís the secret. I try to
make work enjoyable and fun. We joke a lot. I am not strict
about coffee breaks and my guys have coffee all the time as
long as the workís done at the end of the day. I pay competitive
hourly wages and we give bonuses at Christmas. Most of the staff
are Native except in the janitorial services. I always allow
the guys to hunt caribou or seal or go fishing unless weíre
really busy and then Iíll explain that fully to them. Some want
to go together but thatís hard. I will ask them to rotate and
take turns, when one comes back then another can go."
Minor discipline matters are handled by constant reminder, or
Fred may have a discussion with an employee to determine the
cause of the problem. Discipline may also be handled with staff
participation. "I donít like disciplining my staff; instead
I like to have a chat with the person. Maybe thereís a problem
at home with their marriage or finances. I try and iron it out
because weíre like a family, since weíre together every day.
I remember one young guy who had a bad
temper. I called him and the other guys in and said, ĎOkay,
itís up to you, do you want me to fire him?í They said, ĎNo,
not really because we like him and he is a good worker but he
has to learn to hold his temper.í Itís been a year and that
session worked." Fred encourages his staff to stop by and
discuss any concerns they have with their job anytime. He describes
his management style, "Just being myself and using common
sense. I donít consider myself the boss or manager."
Fred tried hiring local people for janitorial services but had
a lot of problems. He explains:
"The staff work from midnight until 8:00 in the morning.
It is not a popular time because most people want to be with
their family and friends. I had no luck finding reliable staff.
I had a special clause put into the contract that I would only
hire local people for extra help. I was tired of working all
day and then working all night when staff didnít show up."
Now I hire couples strictly from the south. We advertise in
various cities in the south and then go and interview the married
couples. They each earn $1,400 per month. They stay in a fully
furnished apartment, so all they need is their clothes. I pay
their holiday out once a year, and if they want to go out on
excursion trip, I give them time off."