With close to a century already in its past, and a near death by pandemic behind it, Reitmans is still very much in the game

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Stephen Reitman is a self-described “sports nut.” As such, he wasn’t quite ready to discuss business first on a recent December day, because it was the Monday after arguably the greatest World Cup soccer final ever played.

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“You take the seventh game of a Stanley Cup, you take a Super Bowl — and I could name lots of them — and you take Muhammad Ali and the phantom punch, but I thought Sunday’s spectacle was one of the greatest sports spectaculars I have ever seen,” the 75-year-old chief executive of Reitmans Canada Ltd. said from his Montreal office. “What an unbelievable match.”

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The game had everything: an ageless Lionel Messi doing magical things for Argentina, the smack-in-his-prime Kylian Mbappé doing equally magical things for France, overtime, a shootout and, for Messi and Argentina, a storybook finish.

Messi proved he’s still got game, and, after nearly a century in the clothing business, Reitmans seems to as well, if not quite as emphatically as the Argentine soccer maestro, after a rocky couple of years.

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The publicly traded, family-controlled retailer, one that your great-grandmother, grandmother and mother all grew up with, was nearly booted out of existence by a global pandemic that ravaged the brick-and-mortar retail scene.

Reitmans, at the stately old age of 94, filed for protection from its creditors in May 2020, and emerged from restructuring 19 months later, albeit minus 160 stores, two brands (Addition Elle and Thyme Maternity) and about 1,400 employees.

“When COVID struck, we had no debt, and I thought, ‘No problem, carry on,’” Reitman said. “And then they say you are going to be closed for a month, for two months, for three months, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, how are we going to make it through this?’”

The excruciating exercise of financially rightsizing the company has left it with 235 Reitmans, 91 Penningtons and 78 RW&Co. stores, and 5,000 employees, three-quarters of whom are women. It also left its chief executive with a head full of unhappy memories around the difficult decisions that needed to be made.

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“It was terrible,” Reitman said.

When COVID struck, we had no debt, and I thought, ‘No problem, carry on’

Stephen Reitman

The grandson of the company’s founders, Herman and Sarah Reitman, has worked in the business for 50 years. He has seen and survived many a downturn, but he struggles to speak about the bad days beginning in March 2020 without a lump catching in his throat. That’s why it’s good to have daughters — and Reitman and his wife Julia have three — who are willing to help him out.

Lisa Reitman, 39, is the eldest. She is a lawyer by training and Reitmans vice-president of customer experience by professional title. Gillian, 35, sits on the company’s board, while her day job is head of e-commerce for American fashion brand Veronica Beard in New York. Her twin sister, Emma, younger by a minute, or so the family legend goes, also lives in New York, and is a marketing director with multinational cosmetics giant Estee Lauder Cos. Inc.

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None of the Reitman girls were nudged, encouraged, cajoled or bribed by their father — whom they refer to as Stephen when discussing business and dad when they are not — to pursue a career in retail. They didn’t work at a Reitmans store as teenagers.

They followed their own paths. It just so happened their paths took them back to an industry the family name is synonymous with after university, right in the thick of the transformational age for all retailers, not too many of which can claim to have been around for as long as the grand old dame from Montreal.

“There was obviously some osmosis,” Gillian said on that Monday in December after the greatest soccer game ever played, joining a call with Stephen and Lisa, who was also at the Montreal office. “We would go on vacation and be talking about fabric, and we don’t celebrate Christmas, but on Christmas my father would always say, ‘Well, we do celebrate Christmas; we are in retail.’”

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But will they still be in retail 10, 20, 100 years from now, and if they are, will the company that bears the family name still have a family member running it, as it has since the beginning?

Eaton’s, Simpsons, Zellers, Sam the Record Man were all giants begun by visionary entrepreneurs, and each has been consigned to the remember-when aisle of Canadian retail, at least among those shoppers who are old enough to remember them at all.

A Reitmans clothing store in Montreal.
A Reitmans clothing store in Montreal. Photo by Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press files

Reitmans is different.

“Reitmans has been very adaptable,” David Soberman, a strategic marketing professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said. “It has managed many changes through the years, given its longevity, and the pandemic was almost enough to sink it. But it didn’t sink it, and they have done what a well-managed company should do when facing something like this.”

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That is, eliminate brands that weren’t performing, but were draining budgets, time and energy, and refocus on the brands that worked.

So far, so good, it seems. The streamlined company on Dec. 15 said it had net earnings of $50.2 million on revenue of $588.7 million during the first nine months of its fiscal year, 9.4 per cent and 24.8 per cent, respectively, better than a year ago, and that approximately 28 per cent of its total sales came from e-commerce.

Reitmans is the company’s flagship brand. Its physical stores aren’t fancy places situated in high-end malls. They are mid-range options for the huge chunk of budget-conscious Canadian women who want to look nice, but don’t want to pay $95 for a tank top.

For example, the Reitmans in Toronto’s Dufferin Mall is sandwiched between a luggage outlet and a fragrance shop, with a discount jeweller and a popcorn stand, with flavours presumably intended to attract (Kicking Creamy Caramel) and repel (Ketchup), nearby.

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Without our customers, we have nothing

Lisa Reitman

A late November visit found the atmosphere to be pre-Christmas festive. Harry Connick Jr. was crooning about Santa “making a list and checking it twice” over the sound system. The store’s window display was empty of haute couture and straight to the point: “Black Friday — 40% off everything.”

A steady stream of middle-aged women passed through the doors, mostly, it seemed, to browse. Three young, exceedingly polite, non-pushy salespeople, with lanyards around their necks listing sale-priced items, cheerfully answered questions about moisture-wicking, knock-off yoga pants ($40), sparkly sequinned cocktail dresses ($60) and checkerboard-patterned slacks suitable for office work ($24.99).

“There is a good sale on today,” a cashier helpfully offered as a shopper asked about an item that was not available at the Dufferin location, before registering her email at the checkout desk. She was promised the item she wanted could be delivered to her door the next day; all that was required was an email address and a few simple clicks.

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The exchange was a real-time example of what Lisa Reitman is referring to when she talks about the customer being “the focal point of everything we do,” and how it took a pandemic to drive home that message.

“Without our customers, we have nothing, we are literally nothing, and so they need to be at the table in every decision, every process, everything we do going forward, and I think COVID helped amplify that for us,” she said. “It has made us better, smarter and more efficient in all that we do. We are much more focused that they get what they want when they want it.”

Customers check the racks as retailer Reitman launches a line featuring designs by Marie Saint Pierre, in Montreal in 2011.
Customers check the racks as retailer Reitman launches a line featuring designs by Marie Saint Pierre, in Montreal in 2011. Photo by Allen McInnis/THE GAZETTE files

The name of the game in retail is about making things easy for consumers, so that when a person who buys, say, that red blouse at Reitmans and loves it, or simply loves what she paid, orders the white blouse online when she gets home. Getting an email address also allows the clothier to stay in contact and offer more deals, more stuff, while building a sense of community.

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Nail the consumer experience and get the fashion and the fit right, and your casual Black Friday browser could become the next Reitmans super fan who tells her friends about the great deals, and then maybe posts a shot of herself looking awesome in that new white blouse on Instagram.

“If Reitmans is able to get that synergy going between their retail locations and their online presence, and make it easier for customers to get stuff, the more stuff they are going to get,” Soberman said. “It is as simple as that.”

Take Lisa’s job title: vice-president of customer experience. Five years ago, the job didn’t exist, nor did the avalanche of data Reitmans now has its fingertips to better understand its customers’ buying habits.

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Such are the keys to modern shopping in the face of relentless technological change. With the future constantly at hand, it almost seems like a bit of a throwback to have a 75-year-old grandpa at the helm of a clothing retailer.

But Stephen Reitman doesn’t especially look his age, nor does he act like it.

“I am very immature,” he said. The man is an amateur comedian. He prefaced the meat and potatoes of a conversation with a journalist by saying: “I do this all the time, so I am natural on interviews. The last one I did was 32 years ago.”

Another zinger: “The girls know I am very strong on IT. I just got my first iPhone, but I don’t know how to turn it on yet.”

But, seriously folks, Reitman is the type of boss who knows his employees by name, but, as Lisa points out, he “knows” what he does not know, and surrounds himself with experts and assorted smart people, listening carefully to what they have to say before making decisions.

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“He makes sure that every person that needs to have an opinion on the matter has expressed it,” Lisa said.

It just so happens that two of the smart people with opinions involved with the company today happen to be his adult children, while the third knows a thing or two about working in retail as well.

The Reitman daughters talk constantly, Lisa said. A love of family, whether by design or osmosis, is embedded in the family-controlled company’s DNA. Reitman didn’t push his daughters into retail, but now that they are there, it could make for a storybook ending to hand off the reins to one of them someday.

“I think it would be terrific,” Reitman said. “But I don’t see it happening today, and the kids themselves would say the same thing.”

But as Gillian said: “Never say never,” while Lisa added, “I have a lot to learn still.” Emma was not part of the succession discussion, so she didn’t say a thing.

What can be said, though, is that with close to a century already in its past, and a near death by pandemic behind it, Reitmans is still very much in the game and looking for wins.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: oconnorwrites

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