Editor’s Note: Almost all of the following text has been extracted from a manuscript that was researched and written by the late Fred Maurice in his retirement circa 1985. Fred worked for 52 years at Pemberton & Son and Pemberton Holmes.
In 1920, Frederick Bernard Pemberton wrote to then Mines Minister William Sloan to request the preservation of a little timber for all time along Vancouver Island roadways. Pemberton made special mention of a magnificent piece of timber west of Cameron Lake on the way to Port Alberni, in an area known today as Cathedral Grove.
To Phillip Despard Pemberton Holmes, his grandfathers efforts in getting the now world renowned park established best symbolizes the activist role Pemberton Holmes Ltd has played in community affairs since its inception 100 years ago.
Pemberton Holmes has survived two world wars and a depression in its climb to current ranking as a multi-million dollar real estate firm, but Pip Holmes most vivid recollections are company achievements in the community.
The landmark Victoria institution celebrates its centennial anniversary this year. Holmes took time during an interview to recall the legacy of involvement that at least rivals, if not surpasses its business success. The tradition began when company founder Joseph Despard Pemberton conducted an agricultural survey of Vancouver Island to guide future development. It continues to the present day with the public admonitions of his great-grandson, Pip Holmes on preservation of farmland. In addition to Cathedral Grove, the Municipality of Oak bay bears the Pemberton Holmes stamp as does the linear park beside the Trans Canada Highway and the Victoria golf Club, which was sold at a bargain price to preserve land as green space.
Corporate and personal citizenship has been our battle cry, Holmes said. It is understood that if you live here, you play a role in the community and contribute what you can.
In 1851, J.D. Pemberton came by canoe to Fort Victoria at age 30 on the final leg of a three-month sea and land journey from Britain. After a lengthy government service career that saw him survey the first town site of Victoria and go prospecting in the Nanaimo coalfields. Pemberton and his eldest son F.B. Pemberton formed the partnership of Pemberton and Son. The year was 1887, J.D. Pemberton died of a heart attack six years later and the line of succession passed to his son, an engineer and accomplished businessman who guided the firm through the First World War and the early years of the Depression.
Henry Cuthbert Holmes was named president in 1933. An Oxford graduate and former officer in the Irish Guard, Cuthbert Holmes married F.B. Pembertons second daughter, Phillippa, and went to work for the company in 1921. Incorporation of the business under its current name in 1913 recognized Cuthbert Holmes role in building the public confidence that allowed the company to become the only firm in B.C. to achieve 100 years of family ownership.
As an alderman in 1926, Cuthbert Holmes envisioned the need for a city planner then, headed the city planning department for many years, expanding his interests into promotion of green belt areas.
He and his son, Pip, both headed the Victoria Real Estate Board. Pip Holmes, who joined the organization in 1945 and became president in 1965, has carried the banner as chairman of the Provincial Capital Commission and vice-chairman of University of Victorias board of governors. As president of the Paris-based International Real Estate Federation from 1975 to 1977, Holmes was the youngest person and first Canadian elected to that office. In addition, company staff have been involved in United Way, Kiwanis, Big Brothers, the Chamber of Commerce and Camp Thunderbird. Involvement is essential to our reputation, which itself is essential to our success. Holmes said. You have to pay your rent; you have to put your shoulder to the wheel.
The company has enjoyed its most vigorous period of growth under Holmes. Growth sales rose to a peak of $45 million in 1981, sank to $25 million at the bottom of the recession a year later and have subsequently recovered to $35 million annually. The company employs 75 agents at three corporate locations in Victoria, Sidney and Saltspring Island. Two-thirds work out of company headquarters at 1000 Government Street.
While both sales and staff have generally registered steady growth down through the years, the recent recession upset that pattern dramatically. Sales dropped 73 per cent between the first and second six months of the 1981 financial year and Pemberton Holmes had to fight for survival for the first time in our history since the 1930s. “One day, business was flourishing like there was no end in sight and the next day, there was no business,” Holmes recalled. “It was that sudden. As dramatic I suspect as the 1929 bust.”
The company responded by cutting virtually every expense on the books. Staff cutbacks would have been one obvious solution, but instead of layoffs, everyone took pay cuts ranging from five percent for the lowest paid staff to 20 percent for top management. Simultaneously, the company began casting a wider net for new business. The climatic and scenic advantages of Victoria and southern Vancouver Island were touted on the Prairies and in Ontario until retirement business began returning to the local area.
“We had to cut costs without corroding the business itself; we didn’t want to reduce costs until there was no business left,” he said, “I certainly wasn’t sitting here looking to put more people out of work.”
Looking ahead to the next 100 years, Holmes believes Vancouver Island and especially Victoria are on the threshold of unprecedented growth and expansion. Not only has the influx of retired people resumed, but people are retiring at an earlier age. Add the financial muscle of the Baby Boom Generation, and demand for housing, goods and services can only increase.
The challenge will be to accommodate development without destroying the areas numerous assets. Holmes urged that farmland not be gobbled up with subdivisions: “I don’t think houses should desecrate everything”. And he warned that prevailing logging practice and commercial strip development along highways could eventually undermine tourism.
“I see no reason why Vancouver Island couldn’t be another Switzerland a pleasant place but also busy with high employment, good income and green fields,” he said. “But you’ve got to farm it right.”