The Phone Book Co.

Sun Interview Shines On: Sue Palmer

29-Mar-2016  | Go Back to Press

Brandon, Manitoba - Was this a full-time gig for you right from the get-go? Or was this just a sideline?

It didn’t start as a sideline, but I did keep my full-time job — I was working in the computer department at Safeway.

No kidding!

And prior to that I had been at The Brandon Sun as an advertising sales rep for many years. But I was not going to quit my full-time job until my husband Rick and I had money coming in the door, because we actually had to mortgage the house to start this. We started it in our house — we had people in every bedroom of the house doing proofreading and stuff like that. We actually typed out the very first phone book — we couldn’t buy listings at that stage. So we started out very, very small.

And I know very little about computer programs. We used computers, but at the time, I had never done anything like this. And when we went to prepare the first phone book, we didn’t even know enough to separate the data into columns. For example, my address — 20 Poplar Drive — we typed that all into one field. So when we went to add postal codes, because that was an important feature of our phone book, we had to look up every single postal code. Manually. And so we did that, and got through the first directory, which was much smaller than our current book. And we published in the spring of 1996.

So you’re celebrating your 20th anniversary.

Yes. We’ve put out 20 of these publications.The first one was 128 pages in all. And our most recent book was 602 pages. So we’ve had huge, huge growth. And the books continue to grow.

What gave you the idea that a large-print phone book would fly? We already had the MTS phone book. Why did you want to do a different one? And why did you feel you could make money at it?

Well, that was exactly what my mother said to me! Like everybody was a naysayer, including my mother. She sat me down, as if I was not all there, and said,“‘Susan, we have a phone book already. What are you doing?”

I’ve always had terrible vision. But thanks to very good optometrists and an ophthalmologist — Dr. Rocha — I can now see much better than I used to. I used to have very, very thick glasses and reading was very difficult for me. So when I had first seen a large print phone book from B.C., I was just astounded that I could actually easily read it.

And so, the rest is history. I knew the advertising business from having worked at The Brandon Sun, and I thought if I just built a better phone book, then everything else would follow. So our first phone book really was all about larger print and postal codes with the listings. Over the years, though, we’ve included so much more. We, of course, have fax numbers, toll-free numbers, websites, and for this upcoming book, we are very excited because we have, thus far, more than 600 cell numbers in the book.

That’s why I wanted to talk to you. Rick and I were chatting at a reception at Alternative Landscaping recently and I said that I wished there was a directory for cellphone numbers — I don’t want mine to be in it! — but gee whiz, I wish everybody else’s numbers were available so I could look them up.

You know, your response is exactly what I get. I said to a friend of mine just the other day — she doesn’t have a landline anymore — “Well we can put your cell number in there.”And first of all she was,“Oh no — why would I want my cellphone in the phone book?”And I said, “There are a lot of good reasons. What if the school needs to get a hold of you, your doctor needs to get a hold of you, the police need to get a hold of you, your neighbours — they need to get ahold of you?”I wouldn’t just walk over to my neighbours’ house without phoning first. But if their numbers weren’t listed, I would have no way of contacting them. And people do need to continue to communicate with each other.

So many people have given up landlines. We’re considering it, too …

Exactly. And the thing is, before, when cellphones first came out, they were expensive.The service packages were expensive.That’s changed now. So now you can have a cellphone package for the same price as your landline service plan, so it’s not a big deal to get those calls on your cellphone anymore.

Has there been a lot of interest in people having their numbers listed?

We’ve got more than 600 numbers listed for this next book — the one that we’re working on right now.

Is there still time to get cell numbers listed if people want them to be?

There is still time. We can accept numbers up until about the middle of December. And a lot of people have said to me like you just said, that they would love to have a cellphone directory. But to have a cellphone directory just on its own doesn’t really make sense, because you wouldn’t want to have to go and look in two places. So I’m just putting the word cell right beside it, so people are aware that they’re calling a cell number.

And nobody has to be in who doesn’t want to be?

Absolutely not. And one thing that’s very, very important for people to know is that we never, ever sell our listings. We purchase them but we are not allowed to resell them. And I think that’s a fear that some people have about putting their cell numbers in. We all get calls from all over the place on our cells that are nuisance calls, but these people sure don’t get those numbers from our phone book.

The new phone books come out on Mar. 1. And this will be the 21st one that’s coming out. We use The Brandon Sun to deliver all those books in the city of Brandon, and different organizations such as hockey clubs, 4-H, church groups to deliver the books out of town in places like Carberry, Shoal lake — all of our areas. So everyone gets a book. But people still come to our office to pick up extra copies.

And there’s no charge for them, right?

There’s no charge for them. And it’s interesting — I always keep a list of how many books have been picked up. And books go out of here every day.

So your background was in advertising, and the books are available for free. So the money to make it work must come from advertising.

Every dollar comes from advertising. We have never, ever sold a book.

More power to you, then.

Well, that’s why we had to mortgage the house to get the first book out. And they cost a lot of money to print. We distribute every book that we get. And we print 77,500 of them.

It covers the whole area from the Saskatchewan border up to Swan River to Winnipegosis to Austin and then down to the U.S. border. And then the baby brother — the Pembina Valley book — next year we’re going to be taking it past Highway 75 to Steinbach.

That’s amazing! When did you make the leap to doing this full-time?

After about six years.

We don’t all have the luxury of having jobs that are fun, but most of us try and do something that is. What’s fun about this for you? I mean, it’s nice to make the money — we all do it for a salary. But I’m just wondering what it is about this you enjoy.

We have a really fun team of people here. I think that’s the fun part. We are all very passionate about it and we are always excited about improving the book, making changes and stuff. And at production time we work very, very long hours. Our total staff is about 15. And we are all kind of cooped in here. It’s definitely not a sweatshop, but we’re working long hours and everyone is very passionate. And you get differing opinions. So we get some good old fights in here! But at the end of the day, we’ve put out a product that we’re all very proud of. And when the new book comes, it’s like Christmas — it’s so exciting!

Is it like the Steve Martin routine in the movie “The Jerk?” When he jumps up and down and says, “The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here!”

(laughs) That’s right — exactly!

I would imagine that seniors would be a huge part of your clientele — your supporters and fans. As we age, our eyesight gets worse, at least for most of us. And I know when your first book came out, my mom and many of her cohorts were just all, “My goodness — thank you, thank you, thank you!” Because the print in the MTS directory was so microscopic, but yours was so bold and so big and so easily readable.

Right. And it always has been large print. And with the addition of the cellphones, that information is going to be very important to the younger demographic that lives by their phones.

So how does somebody go about getting their cell number in the book? Do they just contact you directly and say they want their number in?

Yes. We have had a lot of people who have switched to an alternative provider and they’ve just said, “We want to keep being listed in your phone book.” So we call and verify them every year. We have people who call and say, “Hi. We just want to make sure your information is current for the next directory.”

And if people want to have their cell numbers listed …

They can stop by the office, Unit 6, 940 Princess Ave. Our phone number is 204-727-2389. Or they can email us

Your décor here in the office is phone-based. You’re surrounded by funky phones, old phone paraphernalia, old phones. Have you always had a fascination with phones?

Actually, a fascination with phone books as a kid. I know. It seems so weird! But I was excited when the phone book came. I would flip through it and look to see what new features there were and I’d go, “Oh — they’ve got first-aid pages!” And this and that and the other thing. So yeah. Kind of weird.

What was it that made you so sure that this would succeed?

Honestly, that first year was probably the hardest year of my life because people were saying, “Why another phone book?” But I just felt so convinced that this was going to work. Because of the large print, if I could just get one book out, then the rest would follow.

And you were right! So you have my admiration. But only because it’s worked.

Well, it was a really tough first year. I would hear about people that I knew well and they did not believe that we could pull it off. And so that was really tough.

But she who laughs last, laughs best, right?

That’s right. But we don’t take anything for granted. Every single one of our customers, we try and look after them the way we want to be looked after, and every single customer is very important to us. Every single person who walks in here for an extra book is important to us.

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