31 Years & Still Rolling

It sits beside the Alaska Highway, just south of the Lobird cutoff – a plain, brown two-storey building, surrounded by recreational vehicles of various sizes, shapes and conditions.

A modest green and yellow sign announces: Philmar RV Centre.

“I’ve had a lot of people come in and say, ‘I’ve been here 10 years and I’ve never stopped at your shop. Do you sell units? Do you rent units? What do you do here?'” owner-operator Mary-Anne Phillips admits.

What Philmar does – and has done for the past 31 years – is to offer parts, service and repairs, along with helpful free advice, to legions of tourists and locals alike.

And Phillips has been there every step of the way, since she and her late husband, Gary, started the business in 1980.

“Actually, the name Philmar started in about 1975 when we first got up here,” she explains. “We did auction sales, and my husband did Philmar Enterprises, which was mobile home maintenance and repairs.”

The name came from cobbling together parts of his last name and her first name.

Originally from Manitoba, the couple was living in Fort St. John, B.C., when that town’s boom and bust cycle found Gary temporarily out of work. They flipped a coin to decide where to spend Mary-Anne’s one-week vacation.

Whitehorse won the toss over Fort McMurray. Within two days of arriving in town, Gary had landed a job.

“I flew back and came up six weeks later with our trailer and car, and we just migrated up north,” Phillips explains matter-of-factly.

That 1974 Terry trailer would be their home for the next year and a half, until minus-40 temperatures persuaded them to move into a mobile home.

For the first few years, Mary-Anne worked for the White Pass and Yukon Railway, but later joined her husband in starting the Philmar RV Centre.

For the first 21 years, they worked as a team – he in the shop, plying his skills as a jack-of-all-trades, she handling things at the front end, from reception to payroll and parts inventory.

“We’d discuss things, and we agreed or disagreed, but we were a team working on it,” she says. “And he made sure that I understood what was going on in the shop.”

When her husband died nearly 10 years ago, and friends suggested she should sell the business, Phillips chose to carry on.

“With the good staff I have, I just kept going with it.”

That staff includes shop foreman Mike Langer, who has been with Philmar for almost 15 years. He previously worked at an RV rental firm that has since closed.

A job at Philmar offered the ex-patriate Newfoundlander a chance to earn his inter-provincial red seal ticket as an RV Technician.

“We had to get an Act of Parliament changed to get this trade recognized many years ago,” Phillips explains. “The RV trade was so new, we had to get an act changed so we could get unemployment insurance for our guys going out to school for a couple of months to get them certified.”

Langer is happy they did. He loves his job.

“It’s something new every day. I get to do fabricating, and I work my brain. You’re always trying to figure out how to do stuff and fix stuff. It’s never a same day, which is really enjoyable.”

Phillips says the same thing about the business, which looks after everything involving the coach part of both old and new RVs, but not the mechanics, such as engines and transmissions.

“The boys don’t get bored here,” she says. The job demands a range of skills in areas such as carpentry, fibre-glass repair, painting, plumbing, refrigeration, propane appliances, and both 12-volt and 110-volt electrical systems.

“It could be welding, or doing a fifth-wheel rebuild this week. It could be axle suspensions next week. It could be a solar system the week after,” she adds.

“You’re doing different things every day, every week.”

As for the front end of things, there is the satisfaction of dealing directly with the customers.

“I like dealing with the people – most of the time. I like being helpful, if I can,” she says.

And the future?

“I’ve been told I can’t retire until my technician wants to retire, so that will be a few years, because he is quite a bit younger than I am,” Phillips laughs.

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