Samuel Steinberg was born Samuel Sternberg, in Hungary, the second son of Ida and Vilmos Sternberg on December 25, 1905.
Vilmos was a baker and a serious student of the Talmud. Ida looked after the bakery while Vilmos studied. Life was difficult. In 1911, like so many others, the Sternberg family emigrated to North America, in their case, Montreal.
By mistake, the family got off the ship in Quebec City, but was soon redirected by a young immigration officer who also “Canadianized” their name to Steinberg. The family began life in Canada, starting with many hardships. Vilmos, now called William, Ida and the children lived in a big unheated house by the Bonsecours Market in Old Montreal. The whole family, including Ida’s sisters contributed to the family income, but it was still scarcely adequate, so Ida rented out rooms in the big house.
Two more children were added to the already large brood. William struggled to adjust to life in the new country; essentially a religious scholar and a recluse, he brought in only a meager income. Soon after their arrival in Canada, William left the family and went to live in a small rooming house on St. Dominique St., from which he maintained a fragile contact with his six children.
By now, it was 1917 and he Great War was still raging. Ida, now living apart from her husband, was encouraged by family members to go into business in an attempt to make ends meet. She liked the idea and managed to find a little store on St. Lawrence Boulevard. The popular mythology is that this first store was the original Steinberg store. In fact, she ran that store for only a short time before opening another one at 4423 St. Lawrence. Ida took the store, filled it with $200 worth of merchandise and put up the sign, “Mrs. I. Steinberg, Grocer”. The seeds of the empire were planted.
The children learned the ethic of hard work early in life. The three eldest boys, Jack, Sam and Nathan were scarcely in their teens when they began to do odd jobs in the store. Sam became a paperboy, selling The Montreal Star to make a few pennies. The boys also set up pins in the local bowling alley.
In their mother’s store, Sam became the store buyer. He and Nathan would race to Bonsecours Market at dawn to select the best produce. They became such good buyers that, in time, the sellers at the market refused to sell any produce until the brothers had been there to set the price.
Sam was blessed with natural talent, drive and a keen entrepreneurial sense; he emerged early as the brightest of the family. He seemed to have a genius for knowing what customers would want, accept and need, and more importantly, he enjoyed the service he provided.
Sam soon took on the role of boss in the business and his family offered him trustworthiness in return. The family ran the business and that was how the company worked.
It was not long before Sam began to make his own business decisions. The first was to expand the shop. In 1919 the city was lifting the cobblestones and had blocked off part of the Main to do the job and there was virtually no business. Sam took advantage of the slump and rented the store next door, pulled down the walls and expanded. Sam was only fourteen years old when he undertook Steinberg’s first expansion.
Soon after that, he bought a store on Bernard Avenue in Outremont for $1000 and dubbed it Store Number One as if this were the beginning of something much bigger. Through the 1920s, Sam continued to offer his customers the best products available. The practice of designating eggs Grade A1 was Sam’s initiative. He was beginning to mark himself a pioneer in the grocery business.
In January 1928, Sam had married Helen Roth. He was twenty-two, she was nineteen. His family obligations grew as the Roths now had to be accommodated. Sam formed a partnership with Helen’s father who ran a fruit store on Bernard Avenue. The two merged and the fruit store became Store Number Two.
In 1929 the first of the couple’s four daughters was born; Mildred or Mitzi, as she was known.
Helen was a constant source of support to Sam. Her role was not high profile or public, but she heard all of Sam’s business ideas and plans.
By 1930, Sam opened two more stores with money he leveraged from suppliers. Following the death of Helen’s father, Lewis Roth, the shares in the business were redistributed and the company was incorporated under Quebec Law as “Steinberg’s Service Stores Ltd.”. They were popularly known as Steinberg’s Triple S. Sam and Helen kept control of the company with the rest of the shares divided among other family members.
By 1931, three more stores were open, and Sam moved in on some of his failing competitors. Sam moved toward a more self-service type of business, modelled somewhat on Loblaw’s. By 1935 they had opened ten stores, all “Groceterias” and for the first time Sam was not expanding the business in response to family demands. He was responding to a market opening with a strategy, a vision of the hugely successful business to come.
Sam made frequent trips throughout North America and brought home ideas from other retailers; shopping carts, wrapped fruit and vegetables, private label products and separate departments for meat, dairy and produce.
In the 1940s the company began banking land sites for future stores and by 1939 there were more than fifteen outlets. The stores were getting larger and larger and were still wholly family run.
By 1938 Sam and Helen had four daughters, Mitzi; Rita, born in 1932; Marilyn, born in 1933; and Evelyn, born in 1938.
The war meant a terrific scarcity of labour, building supplies, and food. Rationing, and consequently profiteering began. It was an era for unscrupulous merchants to squeeze the consumer, but Sam resisted such practices. He adhered to the price freezes and Sam’s determination to resist wartime corruption turned out to be shrewd business. Word about the dynamic, ethical chain reached Arvida where the Aluminum Company of Canada was turning out aluminum for use in munitions and airplanes. The local merchants, realizing they had a captive audience were charging sky high prices. The president of Alcan decided the solution would be to build a Steinberg’s and he made the pitch to Sam who realized this was the opportunity to enter the heart of francophone Quebec. Devotion to customer service paid off and the company continued to go ahead.
In April 1942, Ida Steinberg died of pneumonia and five years later William also died.
The 1950s were the company’s golden years. Sam Steinberg had the Montreal market virtually sown up. Modern business practices had not yet caught on in the Steinberg offices and executives who visited from outside found the place so chaotic as to be almost primitive. Sam personified the whirling dervish pace of the company and the lack of formality worked in his favour. By 1952, Steinberg was selling $70 million worth of groceries per year and annual profits passed $1 million for the first time.
During the war, Sam had bought a building lot in Westmount and now decided it was time to build on the lot and move the family from Outremont to the home on the Aberdeen Avenue site.
In 1952 Sam made an unprecedented announcement – a $15 million expansion – a new store every sixty days for a total of thirty stores. These would be vast stores, over twice the size of the existing ones. The conditions were ripe and these stores enjoyed a great success, with food sales rising by 78% during those years.
The move to the suburbs was on, and Sam saw the opportunity. He raised the money to build the Dorval Shopping Centre. This was a turning point in the company’s history, he sold debentures to raise the money, and Steinberg’s became a public company. The project was an unqualified success and Sam was vindicated. Steinberg’s was in the shopping centre business.
The growth would be spectacular; by the end of 1953 Steinberg’s had 38 stores in the Montreal area; seven years later there were 60 stores in Montreal and 32 in far-flung places.
In 1955 stock was offered to the public for the first time and then in 1958 500,000 shares of non-voting stock was offered at $17 per share.
Expansion continued and in 1959 the company announced plans to build 60 more stores, but competition was hot and Steinberg’s began to look to advertising and promotion gimmicks to retain its share of the market. “Pinky stamps” were one of the more popular items used to draw customers.
Competition grew; Loblaw’s entered Quebec by buying Dionne Ltd. Sam bought up Grand Union Co. in retaliation. This turned out to be the first in a series of strategic blunders. The lack of land sites in Ontario and competition from Dominion and Loblaw’s led to the downfall of Steinberg’s Ontario ventures. The Grand Union failure took a toll on the business and on Sam personally.
Sam decided to launch another project – a discount department store chain. It would eventually be called Miracle Mart. It was a radical departure for Mr. Sam. He entered a partnership with Woodward’s and in 1961 opened the first Woodward-Steinberg store in Pont-Viau. It was an ill-suited marriage. Sam bought Woodward’s out and the chain became Miracle Mart. This was the start of a major diversification scheme that took Steinberg’s farther from its roots. By the late 1960s they added PikNik, Oak Pharmacy, the Cartier sugar refinery, Phenix flour mill and a bakery.
Sam, a grocer at heart, felt compelled to enter these new ventures and some made economic sense, but others were outright disasters. By 1975 the diversification program had been curtailed. The gas bars and pharmacies were sold and the catalogue showroom was sold to Consumers’ Distributing. Despite its stumbling efforts to diversify, Steinberg remained an extremely successful company. By 1965 annual sales had climbed to $379 million, but there was a price to pay for success.
By the 1960s Steinberg workers were starting to gripe about their wages and in 1965 5,000 Miracle Mart and warehouse workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions. It was devastating for Sam and the strike on ly lasted a day and a half before he capitulated. The union became more powerful. Labour strife became more intense and violent and eventually the high wage settlements priced the supermarkets out of business.
In 1970, Sam’s daughter, Rita died of cancer and a dark decade in the family began. Sam’s age began to show and in 1976, while attending a soccer match at the Olympics, he was stricken with angina and doctors suggested a bypass. Sam abhorred the idea and chose to treat his disease by watching his diet and taking life easier. Of course, he could never take things too much easier and in 1978, Steinberg opened its first “super-combo” store in Rosemere. It was to be his final display of entrepreneurship.
On May 23rd, Sam suffered chest pains and was rushed to the Jewish General Hospital Nobody knew how ill he was, but a day later he died at the age of seventy-two.
The funeral was held at the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue and between 1500 and 2000 people attended.
Sam Reitman remebered him best, “ Sam… a man slight of stature, but who stood ten feet tall, because of his honesty, integrity, and mental abilities bordering on genius, - an individual highly respected by everybody.”