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Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss (Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail)
Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss (Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

Casual-chic workaholic strives for authenticity at helm of Canada Goose Add to ...

Dani Reiss stood in six inches of water in his stylish offices of Canada Goose Inc., the victim of flooding from a burst pipe at his luxury parka maker’s new headquarters.

While he had insurance to cover the damage, the chief executive officer had no backup plan for relocating his head office staff of about 300 during the prolonged cleanup. With an overflowing agenda, he had an urgent need to get his employees back to work at his fast-growing fashion company.

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Just a few months earlier, Canada Goose had got an infusion of money from U.S. private equity giant Bain Capital for the parka producer’s rapid expansion beyond its Canadian roots to the United States and beyond. In December, Bain had bought a majority stake in Canada Goose for an estimated $250-million. Mr. Reiss had no time to waste: Within a week of the flood he moved his team to temporary space in midtown Toronto from their abode in the city’s west end.

At our lunch in June at his favourite Japanese restaurant, an older eatery almost empty on this sunny Friday, he is nearing the end of his 15-week stay at the temporary offices. He’s reflecting on the “fun challenge” of the displacement: one more task for a man who savours problem-solving and swimming against the tide.

“I think every day is crisis management,” he says, a fashionable stubble of beard sprouting on his face. “When you’re growing sales at 40 to 50 per cent, that’s all you’re doing. You have to like it. You have to have a taste for it … I warn everybody when they come here: this is an unreasonable place to work. Some people don’t like it – they like stability. I warn every single person I interview: ‘This place is crazy.’ ”

A contrarian by nature, Mr. Reiss, 40, is the entrepreneur who never planned to go into his family’s coat business but, once he did, moved to transform the challenged domestic producer by changing its name and capitalizing on Canada as a cool destination for cold-weather chic. He makes almost all his merchandise in this country, even as other apparel producers have it made at low-cost factories overseas.

This year, he expects privately held Canada Goose to generate more than $200-million in sales – and $1-billion within the next several years – from just $3-million in 2001 when he became CEO. He’s betting he can keep his creative edge and still bolster the increasingly ubiquitous brand’s business with new lines (such as all-season outerwear) and even flagship stores without having to wrestle with consumer fatigue of the coveted logo-clad coats.

In some ways his story is similar to that of Chip Wilson, 59, the visionary founder of yoga-wear retailer Lululemon Athletica Inc. and someone whom Mr. Reiss admires. The two men both were the creative forces behind their respective fast-growing premium “functional” wear lines, turning them into high-profile brands. Each partnered with U.S. private equity players to help them gain worldwide exposure, with Lululemon going public in 2007. Both had the enviable problem of having to scramble to keep up with burgeoning demand.

But Lululemon is now struggling with sluggish growth after a series of missteps, including a high-profile recall of too-sheer pants amid rising competition. Mr. Reiss, who also faces more copycats, needs to ensure he avoids those kinds of setbacks and keeps intact his brand’s high-end allure.

David Russell, co-owner of upscale fashion retailer Sporting Life, was one of the first merchants to stock Canada Goose. “Every year, we’re waiting for it to fall off,” says Mr. Russell. “There’s nobody on our staff who thinks it’s going to fall off ... Dani has got a single-minded focus. They make a great product.”

Larry Rosen, CEO of luxury men’s clothier Harry Rosen, said the pricey parkas’ sales pick up every year. The two men go to Raptors games together and this winter watched the gold-medal Canada-Sweden Sochi Olympics hockey game on television at 4 a.m. after they met up in Las Vegas. “He’s humble and approachable,” Mr. Rosen says. “We can yell and kibitz with each other.”

Mr. Reiss showed his independent streak early on. Even as he thrives on selling the goose down-filled parkas with fur-lined hoods for up to $1,700, as a teenager he shunned the “pretentiousness” of luxury brands. He even cut off the signature alligator logo from his Lacoste shirts.

He symbolically severed ties with the wealthy Forest Hill enclave where he grew up by switching from the local high school to an alternative school where his teachers played in rock bands in their spare time. He sported five earrings, three in one ear and two in the other.

He no longer wears the earrings but for our lunch he dons an engraved silver wave-like object hanging from a black string around his neck, a gift from his wife Erica, and black-beaded bracelets. To complete his casual-chic look, he’s wearing a navy Brunello Cucinelli jacket (roughly $2,000) over a white T-shirt.

He chose this restaurant, Hiro Sushi, because it’s “authentic,” but not a must-be-seen-at hot spot, which isn’t important to him. He uses the word “authentic” repeatedly to describe his business and ones he admires, such as the tony Louis Vuitton. At Hiro, he passes on ordering from the menu and simply asks the waitress for miso soup and “the best and freshest sushi you have today.”

In his younger years, he was uncomfortable with brands and felt out of place at Forest Hill Collegiate because it had “a lot of entitled kids.” Today, students at the school are among the demographic of people who are his best customers. “People want real things,” he says.

He worked summers in the family business, started by his grandfather in 1957, but never planned it as a career. He wanted to carve out his own life and his parents discouraged him from going into it. “They said it was too hard and too challenging, ‘You should go get a profession, become a doctor or lawyer or journalist.’ ”

After high school, he travelled through Europe with a girlfriend in a Citroen AX, learning to use the stick shift. They slept in his car while his peers usually stayed in youth hostels. “I definitely like to do my own thing and march to the beat of my own drum,” he says.

By now at Hiro, we are on our second of four full plates of sushi rolls, his favourite being one with anchovies. It’s the most obscure and different, he explains in between mouthfuls as he finishes another dish.

At the University of Toronto, he studied English and ran a small firm with two friends on the side from his parents’ basement, tallying statistics for sports pools and other organizations in the pre-Internet age. After he graduated, he planned to travel and write short stories but first worked for his father to earn some money.

A turning point came after he convinced his father to set up a booth at a trade fair in Germany, partly to satisfy his itch to travel. But he came to appreciate how much Europeans admired the Canada Goose brand, which the company used in that market. (At the time it used Snow Goose in Canada and also made private-label parkas for other companies.) “Europeans really liked it because it was Canadian.”

He had another moment of discovery walking by the Columbia Sportswear booth. It was a mammoth multi-billion-dollar brand which, only about a decade earlier, had been closer in size to his family’s firm. He saw the potential for the company to expand quickly.

Today, he’s focused on his next steps at Canada Goose. It has launched lighter weight jackets, and this fall will roll out an e-commerce site, in direct competition with some of its key retailers. “Retailers probably prefer us not to do it. But they understand.” He’s also contemplating bricks-and-mortar flagship stores in the future.

One of his biggest challenges is keeping up with high demand. “We’ve had those problems many times and we continue to have those problems,” he says. “But we’re okay with that. It’s way better to have that problem than the other problem.”

The lesson he learned was to invest in technological systems and “infrastructure” ahead of growth to minimize the crises, he says. “We love to push our limits so we’re investing and growing at the same time.”

But he’s aware of the risks of getting bigger. “The bigger you get, the harder it gets. It’s harder to stay authentic and stay true to who you are.”

Having never gone to business school, he’s learning along the way. Describing his younger self as “a quiet kid,” he was even “terrified” of public speaking. But he got some coaching, and “I just forced myself to do it ... What I’ve realized is that people like me by myself. I just talk the way I talk to you.”

On the personal front, he doesn’t believe in work-life balance. He works essentially 24/7 and travels for business about 40 per cent of the time. His wife is supportive, he says.

“I think I have the perfect balance because I love what I do,” he says. “I don’t look to see how many hours a week I’m working. Nor do I think that work and life are very separate.” During a later conversation, he adds: “I sleep with my Blackberry next to my bed. I check it in the middle of the night.”

When he travels for business, “it’s like recharging my mind.” His 37-year-old wife, who used to work for her family's manufacturing business, takes care of their children, 6 and 3. He winds down by watching sports, especially tennis and basketball, and shooting hoops with his son in the driveway.

One of his proudest business moments was opening his new head office in the fall of 2012 in a former Hilroy paper factory. It has a gym, where he works out at 6:30 a.m., and a feel he describes as boutique hotel combined with Arctic base camp with stone, rock and steel finishes. Having to leave it because of the burst pipe “sucked,” he says, but in typical style, he sees the silver lining. His youngish staff appreciated the wider selection of eateries near their temporary offices.

Even so, the relocation “wouldn’t have been fun if we didn’t succeed,” he adds.

––––––––––––––

CURRICULUM VITAE:

 

DATE OF BIRTH:

Nov. 7, 1973.

FAMILY:

Married to Erica for seven years; two children, 6 and 3

EDUCATION:

Bachelor of Arts in English from University of Toronto

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

Ran small firm with two friends during university tallying statistics for sports pools and other organizations.

Joined family firm, Metro Sportswear Ltd., in 1997 after working summers there; his grandfather Sam Tick founded the business in 1957.

Became CEO in 2001, when the company’s annual revenues were about $3-million; in 2014, he expects them to rise to more than $200-million.

In December, 2013, Bain Capital bought a majority stake in Canada Goose for an estimated $250-million to help it expand globally.

OTHER ACTIVITIES:

Chairman of Polar Bears International; board member at Mount Sinai Hospital Foundation; member of Economic Advisory Council to Finance Minister Joe Oliver; sits on advisory board of Queen’s School of Business Centre for Responsible Leadership; member of Young Presidents’ Organization; named one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2008.

IN HIS OWN WORDS:

“My life is my work; my work is my life.”

On going into the family parka business: “Everyone told me, whatever you do, don’t do this. My parents both told me that.”

His view on brands as a teenager: “I actually had a pretty strong point of view against brands. I believed it was advertising – why would I advertise for somebody else?”

On his father’s influence: “My dad is very Type A, as am I, very impatient. My father taught me how to get to the bottom line. Even when I would talk to him as a kid, he would say: ‘What’s the point?’ ... It’s a useful skill for running a good meeting and coming out with answers at the end.”

On building a high-profile global brand without having gone to business school: “ If I went to business school and did what they taught me in business school, it would not have worked. I’ve got a business school education from what I’ve done. It was the fact that I came out of a different background that made this successful ... This is not textbook.”

On Lululemon, which now makes its yoga wear overseas: “There was a time when all their stuff was made in Canada. They, like many others, chose that the point of manufacturing of their product was not significant to their brand. I can’t say they’re right or wrong. For us, we would never make that decision ...”

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