Hougen reflects on legacy after 65 years

Rolf Hougen has watched the era of the local business patron fade away. The 80-year-old owner of the Hougen Group of Companies, which is celebrating its 65 anniversary this month, used to play auctioneer.

Rolf Hougen has watched the era of the local business patron fade away.

The 80-year-old owner of the Hougen Group of Companies, which is celebrating its 65 anniversary this month, used to play auctioneer, fly Santa Claus to Whitehorse on a helicopter and organize the Sourdough Rendezvous to promote his business.

Today, companies don’t give back or get involved as much in their community.

“I don’t think it happens nearly enough,” said Hougen. “There’s no evidence of any of these longtime companies in the Yukon creating any kind of lasting legacy.”

T.C. Richards, a businessman who ran a hotel, a bakery, a restaurant and a transportation-parts company throughout the early 20th century, never left any fund for the community, said Hougen.

“A lot of people made a lot of money here, and I knew them well and they were friends and I’d get into arguments from time to time,” said Hougen, adding he once tried to get one of them to put seed money together to create a digital record of the business.

“But there was no interest at all.”

Hougen helped found the Yukon Foundation in 1980, which sets aside cash for educational charity projects.

He puts himself in a category of local business person who takes care of the place they make their money in.

But that idea is now under threat from companies getting bigger and bigger.

“The multinationals that come in leave nothing in the community,” said Hougen. “They only take from it.”

“They’re not citizens of the Yukon per se, they’re managers,” he said.

“We’re lucky if they’re ever known, or are involved in the community clubs or the chamber.”

Participating in local events was part of Hougen’s aggressive strategy that made his retail business the largest in the Yukon at one time.

When the first Hougen store opened in 1944, it sold products and goods from Rawleigh.

The two big businesses in town were Seattle-based Northern Commercial, which has chains across Alaska, and Taylor and Drury, which began in the Yukon during the Gold Rush.

“They were very famous and large operations,” said Hougen.

His aggressive promotion eventually led to his company buying Northern Commercial

Taylor and Drury eventually closed.

“You don’t sit down at age 18 or 19 and say this is what I’m going to do,” said Hougen. “I was interested in the retail business and growing that business, which I did.

“As a result, we became the largest retailer in the Yukon.”

The Hougen stores evolved into large department stores with everything except groceries in most places.

But in the last few decades, the company had to contend with those impersonal multinationals.

About 10 years ago, a Newfoundland friend told Hougen about the big box stores arriving on the island province.

The company had 100-year history in Newfoundland, and felt customer loyalty would fend off the multinational threat.

“They tried to fight the big box stores and they went bankrupt after 100 years,” said Hougen.

“I thought that’s a good lesson, I’m not going to let that happen.”

The store’s smaller departments that weren’t doing well were closed or sold.

“We subsequently went out of toys, out of children’s wear, went out of gift wear and, progressively, got out of the business and in some cases transferred them to our sons and daughters,” said Hougen.

Craig Hougen and his wife own the sports stores on Main street, which include Coast Mountain Sports, the Hougen Sports Lodge, Board Stiff and Sportslife. Hougen’s two daughters own Season’s Fashions on the same block. And Erik Hougen runs Erik’s Audiotronic.

“It’s been a good transition,” said Hougen.

“The move was very timely because there’s no way our little hardware store could beat Canadian Tire,” he said.

“You have either to be big or get out of the business.”

Hougen’s is, by-and-large, a real-estate company now because it has held on to the properties where the new stores are, he said.

Hougen was never just into retail.

He bought the Ford dealership and Northern Commercial’s Caterpillar business, known as Finning, after his department store had taken off.

But his greatest leap into business may have been in broadcasting.

In 1958, Hougen began the Northern Television Company Limited under the call name WHTV.

It began by programming six month-old Kinescopes, a form of video recording, sent from the CBC.

“So all of the Christmas shows, we played in June,” said Hougen.

He set up shop in Vancouver where he would tape shows to truck north.

“The issue of copyright was unclear then,” said Hougen. “What we were doing was considered by some to be illegal, by others to be at least a grey area.”

In the end, Hougen was able to reach verbal deals with some of the television stations he was taping.

As long as they played them with the same ads and didn’t edit them, most creators were cool with Hougen’s enterprise.

But Ray Peters, the then head of BCTV, saw it differently.

“He wrote me a long letter saying he’d sue us if we didn’t stop doing it immediately,” said Hougen.

Hougen sent down one of his cable partners to Vancouver.

“Ray Peters called me and said don’t send me one of your flunkies, I want to see you,” said Hougen.

Peters laid down the law. But on his way out, Hougen was approached by Peters’ secretary

“He said, ‘Ray really likes to have these picture shows in the Yukon, but for legal reasons he has to take this position, so just continue it.’”

Then satellites began changing the television business in the 1960s.

Under the threat of American satellite signals, Canadian broadcasting regulators and cable officials held a meeting at the time to try and foster Canadian content in the satellite business.

Hougen proposed a concept to broadcasting regulators in Ottawa whereby cable companies would receive satellite signals and package them for home consumption.

“They were very skeptical, but very supportive,” said Hougen.

He then proposed it to the cable industry during a meeting in Montreal.

“The chairman of the cable industry at that time practically laughed me out of the room,” said Hougen.

The idea was to bring in four signals and sell them at a monthly rate to customers in remote communities.

“It seems straightforward and simple, but it was a new idea then,” he said. “In fact, that’s what is happening now.”

Hougen put together an alliance of smaller cable carriers from Hamilton, Quebec, Edmonton and BC to form CanCom.

Regulators set up a meeting in Whitehorse, but by then Hougen had to publicly disclose his concept and the big guys came running back.

“We had no secrets at all at that point,” said Hougen.

Those competitors applied for the same licence that Hougen was seeking, but his company still won it.

Hougen risked his retail fortune on the broadcasting gig.

“Had we not succeeded, I would have been bankrupt,” he said.

In recent years, Hougen has left the dozen corporate boards he’s been a part of and focused on sharing his family and company history.

An avid photographer, he began shooting with a 16 mm Folex camera in the 1940s.

“The ‘98 hotel was, at one time, a nightclub and I would go there and bring pictures to a table and sell the pictures,” said Hougen.

He’s donated thousands of pictures to the Yukon Archives, which are now being scanned for public use.

“I probably have the only significant collection of Whitehorse Yukon material from the 40s, 50s, 60s period,” said Hougen.

One day, he’ll donate parts of his personal albums, which includes thousands of photographs of community events.

There’s also a record of business advertisements and articles, which would offer a extensive business history in the Yukon.

“Researchers will be able to find anything of significance that relates to Hougen’s in some way,” he said.

Hougen wants to keep supporting his vision of a businessman’s responsibility; giving back to those who provided your livelihood.

He remembers Keith Byram, the owner of Pelly Construction, once winning a bid to build an airport in Antarctica.

“He built infrastructure in the Antarctic on budget, on time and I know he made a bundle,” said Hougen.

Byram could have skipped town and lived a life of luxury.

“But he came back, built a home in Marsh Lake and he’s active in the community,” said Hougen.

“These are the people I admire.”

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com

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