HÉBERT, CHARLES-POLYCARPE, grocer and wholesaler; b. 20 April 1834 in Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu, Lower Canada, son of Amable Hébert, a farmer, and Adélaïde Loiselle; m. first 12 Jan. 1853 Rose Busseau in Montreal, and they had three sons and three daughters; m. there secondly 12 Oct. 1881 Marie-Eugénie-Philomène Fournier-Préfontaine, the widow of Charles-Adolphe Cypiol; they had no children; d. 17 July 1906 in Montreal.
The son of a Patriote killed in the battle at Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu on 25 Nov. 1837, Charles-Polycarpe Hébert had a difficult childhood. He apparently attended school only from ages seven to ten. In 1844 he was wandering about the streets of Montreal, where he found himself a job in a little grocery store on Rue Notre-Dame near Carré Chaboillez. After experience in other stores, he was hired in 1857 as a clerk by Victor Hudon*, who specialized in the “import and export of a wide variety of goods.” The life of a clerk was an arduous one. The days were long – from six o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, or even midnight – and the work was poorly paid.
In May 1865 Hébert went into partnership with Hudon’s son Joseph and Ananie-Siméon Hamelin to sell groceries, provisions, wines, and spirits, under the name of Joseph Hudon et Compagnie. Hudon was the receiver and shipper, Hamelin looked after the accounting, and Hébert bought and sold at auctions, as was the custom at the time; the staff also included an assistant and a clerk.
The firm underwent considerable expansion. Hamelin withdrew from it in 1883 after accumulating substantial capital. Hudon and Hébert joined with Léandre Brault, an accountant, and Irénée Jarret, a clerk, to form Hudon, Hébert et Compagnie. Hébert used this occasion to bring his two sons Albert and Zéphirin in as clerks. The firm continued to expand and in 1893 its sales exceeded $1,250,000, making it one of the largest grocery businesses in Canada. The partners were the exclusive distributors of products from H. J. Heinz Company and spirits from Boutelleau et Compagnie and Corby’s. They visited many other businesses like theirs in the United States. On 1 May 1893 Albert and Zéphirin became partners and the following year the firm enlarged and modernized its premises. Léandre Brault, now Charles-Polycarpe’s son-in-law, was in charge of accounting, while Albert, in the main office, managed the customs department and purchasing with the help of Zéphirin. After Jarret died in 1896, the five partners continued the business together. Ten years later, on 22 Jan. 1906, it was incorporated as Hudon, Hébert et Compagnie Limitée, with Hébert as president.
“Tall, well built, . . . extremely intelligent,” Charles-Polycarpe, a man “circumspect in his words,” lived only for his business; political life held little attraction for him. However, as his sons became able to keep the enterprise running smoothly, he played a larger part in the life of Montreal. Along with a group of businessmen including Andrew Allan, Andrew Frederick Gault, and Alexander Walker Ogilvie, he had founded the Citizens Gas Company of Montreal in 1883. He was first vice-president of the Montreal Board of Trade in 1892 and 1893 and vice-president of the Montreal Wholesale Grocers’ Association from 1891 to 1895. Vice-president of the Montreal City and District Savings Bank from 1898 to 1906, he also served as president from 1898 of the management board of Notre-Dame Hospital. Until the end of his life he devoted himself to this institution, which he had helped found in 1880, raising large sums for it through subscriptions that he collected personally.
When he died of a tumour of the liver on 17 July 1906, Hébert left an operation with a turnover estimated by William Henry Atherton in 1914 at $5,000,000. By then it had 170 employees and 25 travelling salesmen. Hébert’s career illustrates the dynamism of the French Canadian businessmen who contributed to the commercial development of Montreal. Along with N. Quintal et Fils and Laporte, Martin et Compagnie, the firm of Hudon, Hébert et Compagnie was a leader which, in the last third of the 19th century, made Montreal the hub of the food products business in Canada and established the predominance of French-speaking entrepreneurs in this field.
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