From humble beginnings, Norm Coghlan built one of the most recognizable and successful camping accessory businesses in the world. He did it from Winnipeg, all the while supported by his loving wife Eleanor.
A Community Building Fund in the couple’s name held at The Winnipeg Foundation ensures their support for the city will continue forever.
“They did a heck of a lot together. They were a real team, they really complemented each other,” says the couple’s daughter Gail Coghlan.
Norman Louis Coghlan was born in Winnipeg in 1927. He was an only child and grew up in the West End. Eleanor Elizabeth Davidson, born in 1926, was one of five girls and grew up on a family farm south of Boissevain, MB. The couple met at the Clear Lake dance hall and were married in 1951.
“We used to tease my mom that dad picked her up at a dance, and she would say, ‘No, we were properly introduced through mutual friends!’” Gail says with a laugh.
The couple moved to Fort Garry where they raised their three children: Gail, Barbara and Robert.
When Gail was young, her dad worked as a traveling salesman for Coleman. But with a growing family he wanted to stay close to home, so in 1959 he bought a small service depot in Winnipeg.
That store, called Coghlan’s Gas Appliances, was located at 235½ Fort Street and was just 16 feet wide by 60 feet deep. It sold, installed and maintained Coleman heating systems and water heaters, as well as camp stoves. It was in this store that Mr. Coghlan sold his first product under the Coghlan’s Ltd. name.
“My dad was a real entrepreneur, he worked hard and he came up with one item, the camp stove toaster, which he could sell to campers,” says Rob Coghlan, who today is President of Coghlan’s Ltd.
The camp stove toaster sold well out of the little shop, and soon Mr. Coghlan was approaching other retailers to sell the product. At first it was a small operation, and Rob and Gail remember packing products at home.
“Dad had me and my mom and my sisters down in the basement packaging them, we had a little assembly line,” Rob recalled.
When it became too much work for the family assembly line to handle, Coghlan’s chose to employ intellectually and developmentally challenged individuals through what today is known as Imagine Ability. Mr. Coghlan was always proud of that mutually-beneficial relationship.
Throughout his life, Mr. Coghlan was known as an excellent businessperson and an overall nice guy.
“He believed in long-standing relationships,” says Rob. “People just got along with him. Even our competitors used to come up to me and say, ‘What a great company you have, and what a nice man your dad is.’ He was respected.”
Mr. Coghlan was also a dedicated community leader, serving as the President of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, and as Chair of the Rotary Club’s Permanent Endowment Fund and of the Fort Garry Independent Citizens Election Committee. He was also a member of CAFE (Canadian Association of Family Enterprise), The Associates Asper School of Business, the St. Charles Country Club, and the Manitoba Club. And he helped set up The Thomas Sill Foundation.
“He was involved in everything in the community. If someone asked him to be involved he jumped in,” Rob says. “I think he realized that you had to look after the place that you live in, and if you didn’t do it who would?”
It was originally Mrs. Coghlan who was the avid camper, and Gail and Rob fondly remember family camping trips across the country. As business took off, the trips got more extravagant – to Jamaica, Hawaii and Europe. Travelling together was something Mr. and Mrs. Coghlan enjoyed, especially in their later years.
When Eleanor Coghlan died of cancer in 1993, Norm created a fund in her memory. He chose to start a Community Building Fund at The Winnipeg Foundation, which allows The Foundation to support Winnipeg’s changing needs and emerging opportunities.
“He wanted to leave something in remembrance of my mother for the community and he knew The Winnipeg Foundation dealt with the people of the City of Winnipeg and that’s where he wanted the money to be targeted,” Rob says.
Norm would be the first to say he was lucky in life, lucky in business and lucky in love; he spent his latter years with second wife Pearl McGonigal.
When he passed away in 2013, an estate gift further supported the Eleanor Coghlan and Norman Coghlan Memorial Fund. Many family members have contributed to the fund, both as a way to remember Norm and Eleanor, and to give back to the community where the business thrived.
Coghlan’s Ltd. is still family owned and operated. Since the mid-1960s, the company has assembled and packaged over seven million camp stove toasters, and they’re still made in Winnipeg.
This story is featured in the Winter 2017 edition of The Winnipeg Foundation’s Working Together magazine.