The firms promised high wages and a positive work environment for employees in an industry dominated by big-box giants racing to the bottom in terms of prices and wages. All for a membership fee.
"We told people you're going to have to pay to shop," says Ms. Wendling, the third employee of Price Club, who now leads Ottawa-headquartered Costco Canada.
"You're going to have to shop (in) steel, bare-bone buildings, (and there will be) no advertising. We're going to pay our people well. We're going to give them great benefits and we're going to sell lower than anyone else ... it's not how much can you sell this for, but how little you can sell it for," she says.
Today, Ms. Wendling finds herself among Ottawa's top female CEOs, especially given her company's market reach.
Costco has 9.3 million members and 82 stores in Canada. "Given our population, that's unbelievable," she says. Worldwide, there are 64 million members, with a 90-per-cent renewal rate.
Costco has four stores in the Ottawa area and anticipates the region could accommodate three more. Officials are looking for property in the east Orleans area in particular - somewhere that could accommodate 13 to 14 acres of space.
And true to her word, a typical cashier can make more than $50,000 annually after five years of service, plus benefits.
"What's more important is the respect, the work environment, the fun at work," Ms. Wendling says.
"Definitely 99 per cent or 99.8 per cent of the people who are named managers at Costco are promoted from within. We strongly believe in offering everyone a good career at Costco."
Ms. Wendling, a literature major, had her first job in the 1960s teaching French as a second language. But, she says, she got tired of repeating herself all day and moved into the erstwhile Ministry of Manpower and Immigration, just when the government was working on job creation programs.
She also took advantage of business courses offered as part of her job, eventually using that experience to move to Hudson's Bay Co., where she worked her way into senior positions and remained for 11 years.
Then her old boss at The Bay reached out to her. He was planning to open Price Club in Canada and was looking for an experienced manager to join.
She became the third employee in Canada in 1986, after the chief financial officer and chief executive officer.
After Price Club merged with Costco in 1993, Ms. Wendling then became head of the eastern region before being promoted to CEO.
"She brings a lot of operations experience from when she worked at The Bay," says Lorelle Gilpin, Costco's vice-president of marketing and membership and an employee for 27 years.
"She's really terrific in terms of her management style. She has a lot of very experienced managers and she lets people do their jobs."
Costco plans to open five stores a year starting in 2013, with the goal of reaching 110 locations in Canada.
With $15 billion in annual sales and a very loyal clientele, Ms. Wendling says the key to keeping the business going is, as the analysts say, to keep fighting for the consumer. It makes good business sense to do so, she says.
"If you're consistent and you don't disappoint people, it's not all that complicated to run a business," she says.
Costco has several principles that it follows to keep prices low and customers coming, according to Ms. Wendling:
• Markup is kept to an average of 10 per cent. The lowest is zero and the highest is 14 per cent.
• If the competition drops the price on a product below an acceptable level for Costco to meet, it drops the item altogether.
• Generous warranties are provided to customers, as well as discounts on items such as movie tickets, phone services, home decoration and roadside assistance.
• There are more expensive items put on special for very limited runs of perhaps a week. Regular customers of Costco understand that these deals will disappear and will buy right away, Ms. Wendling says.