The Hamilton man who founded CKOC actually was an astute retailer whose automotive, radio and appliance chain of stores predated Canadian Tire. Remembered today primarily for his founding of Hamilton Radio Station CKOC, Herbert Haslam Slack hit his peak as a merchandiser at a time when Canadian Tire Corporation, the future giant with a similar product line, was just getting launched.
At the time of his death in 1932 at the early age of 37, Herb Slack had built what was then described as Canada’s largest radio and automotive supply business. The Wentworth Radio and Auto Supply Company Limited ultimately boasted stores in Hamilton, Toronto, St Catharines, Kitchener and Montreal. Herbert Haslam Slack was born in 1894 in Nottinghamshire, England. In 1905 the family emigrated to Canada. Serving a teenage apprenticeship Herbert went from being a machinist to an auto mechanic; and in 1919 he set up Wentworth Auto Supply on Barton Street, taking residence in an apartment above the shop. The business prospered quickly and by 1922 Herb moved the business to a new location on John Street in Hamilton. It was here in the same year that Herb purchased a licence to operate a radio station—CKOC. It was only the second commercial radio station In Canada after XWA, the forerunner of CFCF Montreal, was licensed in 1919. Barriers to entry into commercial radio at that time were relatively low. Throughout the 1920’s licensing radio in Canada was a haphazard business. Application for a commercial radio license was made to the Department of Marine and Fisheries and cost only $500. Beyond the allocation of frequencies there were no controls, no content regulations. CKOC was established on the second floor of Slack’s Wentworth Auto store.
The licensing of CKOC immediately served to provide a powerful marketing tool for Wentworth Automobile Supply. Indeed, much as would happen with the Internet later, the early users of radio saw it as a promotional gimmick for core commercial businesses. Most radio stations in Canada initially were owned by radio receiver sellers as a means of stimulating sales of radios or by newspapers wishing to increase sales of newspapers and express the opinions of the owners. Slack soon added radio receivers to his automotive product line and changed the name of the company to Wentworth Radio and Automobile Supply Company.
The addition of the radio line to his company, supported by the promotional power of CKOC , led to a period of extraordinary growth for Slack, now barely 30. By 1928 Wentworth Radio and Auto Supply opened a second branch on Bay Street in Toronto at Bloor, a location now occupied by Bay-Bloor Radio. Enthused the Toronto Globe regarding the opening of the Toronto store, “A new epoch will be written in the annals of the Wentworth Radio and Auto Supply limited.” To demonstrate the increase in the importance of radio to the venture the paper described a “luxuriously appointed demonstrating studio where radios ranging in price up to $2,000 were to be found.” The writer described a studio with “many beautiful oil paintings, comfortable arm chairs and an atmosphere in which one can discriminate and hear to the best advantage the performances of the respective radio sets.” Slack was quoted as declaring, “if it is for a car or a radio, we have it.”
Following the Toronto expansion, a flood of new Wentworth Radio branches quickly followed . By 1929 the company could boast of three stores in Toronto. Hamilton now had three locations, two stores were opened in Montreal, and one each followed in St Catharines and Kitchener. In addition Wentworth had established a wholesale jobber network across Canada and a mail order service. A news report ( issued ironically, one month after the Wall Street Crash) , predicted sales for the year would hit $1.5 Million. Radio was now the overwhelming main source of revenue representing over 60% of the company’s sales. Automotive parts, servicing and tires made up the remainder. The 1929 Wentworth catalogue described a radio department alone with a fleet of 20 cars and 40 servicemen .
Just as the company had enjoyed explosive growth from 1928 to 1929, by mid 1931 the Depression had just as quickly begun to erode the company’s fortunes. Sales for that year were off by 17 percent and the company posted a loss of $32,000. An October 1931 report revealed that the company had closed unprofitable stores and was bracing for further losses.
Slack’s untimely death at the beginning of the Depression appears to have affected his personal fortune. On probate his estate was valued at $184,000—the equivalent of over $3Million in contemporary dollars—but over 70% of the estate was in stocks which were not necessarily liquid assets in the depths of a depression.