Prairie Office Plus marks 50th anniversary

In 1961, Abe Demchuk and his brother Harry started selling typewriters, adding machines and other equipment out of a downtown Red Deer basement.

Former owner Abe Demchuk

Former owner Abe Demchuk

In 1961, Abe Demchuk and his brother Harry started selling typewriters, adding machines and other equipment out of a downtown Red Deer basement.

The resulting business, Prairie Office Plus, marked its 50th anniversary on Thursday. And Demchuk was on hand to celebrate the milestone.

“I still miss it very much,” he said, reflecting on the decision in 2006 to sell the business to Christie’s Office Plus of Brandon, Man.

“At first it seemed pretty good, but after I’d done it I actually did have second thoughts.”

Second thoughts are understandable, after 45 years.

Working for typewriter company Underwood Olivetti — first as a technician and then as a salesman — Demchuk and his brother Harry started Prairie Business Machines in Edmonton in 1959. They set up shop in Red Deer two years later, attracted to the city in large part because a third brother, Ted, was playing hockey here.

“The place looked like it was ready for some growth,” said Demchuk, recalling a local population of 19,000 people at the time.

Ted came on board as a partner, as did yet another brother, Larry. Their sister Christine also worked in the business for a while, as did other family members.

“It was great,” said Demchuk.

Initially focusing on typewriters, adding machines and crude calculators, Prairie Business Machines moved several times before settling into Prairie Office Plus’s current location at 5032 Gaetz Ave. It also expanded into stationery and other products.

“We realized there was probably more money in the supplies end of it,” said Demchuk, recalling how the business’s product offerings evolved over time.

“We sort of basically went along with the flow.”

Demchuk attributes the longevity of the busines to good staff.

“They’re the ones who go out and meet the public more than you.”

Christie’s owner Don Green knows a thing or two about longstanding businesses himself. His company was started in 1881 by E.L. Christie.

The Christie family continued to operate it until the 1960s, with Green’s involvement dating back to 1994.

He echoed Demchuk’s conclusion that great employees are the key to business success. That helps ensure good customer service, he explained.

Green got to know Demchuk through Canadian Independent Stationers, an industry buying group that both their companies belonged to.

That buying group, the two men agreed, has been critical for independent business supply stores to compete with big box retailers. It allows them to charge comparable prices and is an invaluable source of industry information.

Christie’s currently employes about 50 full-time staff, with around 15 of these at Prairie Office Plus.

Harry Demchuk died in 1996, while Abe, Ted and Larry continue to reside in the city.