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Illustration of Larry Rosen, chief executive officer of retailer Harry Rosen. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Larry Rosen, chief executive officer of retailer Harry Rosen. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

the lunch

Harry Rosen chief getting ready for a retail rumble Add to ...

Scanning the menu at his go-to restaurant, just around the corner from his flagship store on Toronto’s Mink Mile, Larry Rosen looks disappointed.

He’s searching for the one item he always orders: a diet-friendly roasted chicken breast – hold the whipped potatoes – Mr. Rosen’s secret weapon in the battle of the bulge. But upscale Pangaea Restaurant is, on this day, touting unfamiliar Winterlicious deals.

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It turns out the eatery still offers the dish, and we both order it. He declines taking bread (“I try to avoid bread”) and wine (only on weekends.) “I’m very disciplined,” he says. “I’m down about 10 pounds from my peak. But I’ve got another 10 pounds to go. Is it working? It’s a lifelong battle.”

The boss of Canada’s top luxury men’s fashion purveyor will need more of that steely discipline as he gears up for an even bigger battle in the escalating retail wars. High-end U.S. department-store retailers Nordstrom Inc. and Saks Inc. are invading this country, starting this year, aiming to steal away Mr. Rosen’s well-heeled customers. Holt Renfrew & Co. Ltd., the reigning premium fashion player here, is expanding and upgrading its stores while putting a bigger emphasis on men’s wear, whose sales generally are growing faster than those of women’s clothing.

Holts is even launching its first standalone men’s-only shop on tony Bloor Street West, just across from Mr. Rosen’s flagship store.

Today at lunch, Mr. Rosen shows his pragmatic nature in his food choices but also a more aggressive side as he sums up his latest business strategy in two words: “cocky and Canadian.” Changing times call for a change in mindset and he feels the urgency to raise his game.

He has budgeted an unprecedented $80-million in spending over five years to bolster Harry Rosen Inc.'s space by 40 per cent at many of its 16 stores and beef up e-commerce and customer service to keep shoppers away from Holts, Nordstrom and Saks.

He’s betting Harry Rosen can eventually become a $1-billion-a-year international powerhouse, from less than $300-million in annual sales today. But he likely will have to wait for the next generation of the chain’s leaders – perhaps his own sons – to fulfill his long-term ambition.

“This may sound a little cocky and Canadian, but we’ve been serving the leaders of this country – the up and comers, the managers, the owners, the professionals, the entrepreneurs – for 60 years,” he says. “I don’t imagine that one day they’re going to wake up and say, ‘My goodness, what’s missing from my life is an American department store experience.’ … We love competition. Bring it on, because we shine in that environment. Now that is definitely cocky and Canadian.”

Clad in a $6,000 Brioni charcoal microcheck suit, a $200 purple Tom Ford tie, and white boutonniere in his lapel, the 57-year-old looks the part of fashion executive on the offensive. He’s not shy about asserting himself if need be. He recently persuaded Pangaea to restore the roasted-chicken dish to its regular menu after it had dropped it.

Pangaea owner and chef Martin Kouprie recalls with a twinkle in his eye Mr. Rosen’s insistence on the eatery bringing back the  chicken by holding “a gun to my head,” the chef says with a laugh. “He’s a visionary. You don’t want to screw with his vision.”

Marty Grundy, managing director of key supplier Ermenegildo Zegna Canada, said Mr. Rosen can be tough in his business dealings, but has a “wicked” sense of humour. “Larry would like it to be a Harry Rosen-centric country. He understands it won’t be.” Yet he is also conciliatory if given a logical explanation in a disagreement.

Still, pushiness doesn’t always come naturally for Mr. Rosen. He left the showmanship to his father, Harry, 82, founder of the chain and a charismatic figure who is now retired. The chain still runs its iconic “Ask Harry” column, advising men, for instance, on whether their socks should match their shoes or pants. Larry personally replies to online questions. (“Generally the colour of the sock should complement the trouser.”)

“I live and breathe men’s wear,” he says. “If people ask me which way does a cummerbund fold, up or down, I can tell them up and I can even tell them why. This is what I do. You’re not going to find a question on men’s wear that you can stump me on.”

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