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The lunch

The Bay's Bonnie Brooks' lifelong ‘quest to be the best’ Add to ...

People are talking about Bonnie Brooks’ voice.

The chief executive officer of the Bay is a regular fixture on radio, shilling for her department store. Her voice has become as familiar to many listeners as that of regular announcers.

This fall she gave it a break, handing over the task to designers whose products are featured at the Bay. But she’ll be back on air for the make-or-break holiday shopping season.

“A couple of people think that my voice is low and raspy,” Ms. Brooks says with a deep laugh over lunch at a packed Great Cooks on Eight, on the eighth floor of the downtown Toronto building that houses the Bay’s flagship store. “Other people think it’s quite sexy. It depends on the listener. … The more you put yourself out in front of the public, the more you open yourself up to opinions.”

She’s front and centre in the race to breathe new life into the tired retailer, the country’s oldest. Handpicked for the top job more than two years ago by the Bay’s new U.S. owner, she’s focused on raising the Bay’s cool quotient.

The early signs are encouraging. Wrapping herself in the Canadian flag, she’s riding the Olympics wave that parent Hudson’s Bay Co. enjoyed as the official sponsor of the Canadian team, drawing customers back into the stores. They’re shelling out 10 to 15 per cent more on purchases this year compared with last, and the retailer’s estimated $2.2-billion of annual sales could rise 10 per cent in 2010, she says. Now HBC has snared international trademark rights to its multicoloured stripes to sell its signature blankets and other merchandise abroad.

Last month, the Room, an upscale fashion boutique within the flagship outlet, caught the attention of the influential Huffington Post. It enthused about star designers, including Erdem Moralioglu, who were among the 800 guests at a lavish British-themed event. This week, Thakoon Panichgul, a favourite of style-setter Michelle Obama, held court at the Room, which Ms. Brooks steered through a $5-million facelift.

But Ms. Brooks still faces daunting challenges in an age of a declining traditional department-store segment and a wobbly economy.

On this day at Great Cooks, she strides into the eatery and settles in at her reserved corner table by the floor-to-ceiling windows with a stunning view of Old City Hall.

A globe-trotting foodie, she’s got designs to beef up food offerings and all things culinary in her stores. This restaurant, which multitasks as a cooking school, is a symbol of how she envisions the Bay evolving into a trendy hot-spot for professional and business types who can afford to shop at her stores.

As she mulls over what to order, she tells the story of a Bay Street lawyer who took cooking classes this summer at Great Cooks. He then dashed downstairs to the department store and dropped $90,000 on high-end Wolf kitchen appliances. “It was the biggest single appliance purchase we ever had.”

Ms. Brooks is used to thinking big. She climbed quickly in the corporate world, moving from clothing retailer Fairweather to luxury chain Holt Renfrew before leaving the country to head another staid department store, Hong Kong-based Lane Crawford Joyce Group. There, she used some of the same tactics that she’s applying at the Bay to turn it around: introducing an array of with-it brands, ditching old ones and putting a spotlight on high-margin shoes and handbags.

“I’ve been lucky in my career,” she says, as she savours her roasted-pear salad with arugula, pumpkin and Piave cheese. “I’ve never asked for the next job, the next level. It always happened, kind of naturally.”

She asks the waiter to replace her cranberry juice with one diluted with sparkling water, as she had ordered, just a slight reflection of her doggedness in getting things done her way. “I always have a game plan in mind. I always knew where I wanted to end up. … I really only knew I could have a quest to be the best.”

Fashion was a natural fit, having inherited a flair for it from her mother in London, Ont, where she and her two older sisters were raised. Her mother sewed their clothes, sparking Ms. Brooks to follow suit.

Today she’s single and a youthful-looking 57. Her six-year marriage to Denton Young, a rock musician, ended in the early eighties, and they remain friends, she says. As for a man in her life now, “I’ll pay a finder’s fee,” she cracks.

“Sure, I love dating,” she says. “I’m not the ideal girlfriend because I travel and I have a lot of commitments, so I’m not always available. That makes it a bit more complicated.”

When she returned to Toronto in 2008, she invited her mother to move in with her. But she was rarely home, and it got “boring” for her mother, who moved to a retirement home early this year. She is “playing bridge every day with many other people, dressing up and going to dinner and going to cocktail parties a few times a week.… My mother, at 91, has a more active social life than I have.”

Still, Ms. Brooks has plenty of opportunities to hobnob with the rich and famous. She occasionally crosses paths with W. Galen Weston whose wealthy family company owns Holt’s. She took his wife Hilary, a former Ontario lieutenant-governor, on a tour of The Room after its relaunch last fall. “She called me,” Ms. Brooks says. “I was thrilled that she did.”

Ms. Brooks has a vast worldwide business network. She put design houses on the map at Lane Crawford by stocking their fashions in its stores. Now she is turning to those contacts to help her at the Bay. Four times a year, she rubs shoulders with hundreds of these executives at the international fashion shows in Europe and New York.

A friend, Maurizio Borletti, chairman of the Printemps department store chain in Paris, inspired her to take on the Bay challenge. She reflected on his efforts to revive the venerable French chain’s massive stores – similar in size to those of the Bay – with limited capital. “I thought, ‘Well, if he can do it, I can do it.’”

Ms. Brooks finishes her black-bean tacos with charred corn and sun-dried tomato relish, leaving the tortilla shells on her plate in her bid to count calories. Next comes an even tougher choice from the dozens of specialty teas on the separate Great Cooks tea menu; she picks the white pomegranate blend.

The conversation moves to her all-important holiday business strategy. This week, she brought back e-commerce to the Bay’s website with cosmetics and gift-registry products. She’s introducing affordable products under the venerable Hudson’s Bay label, and an HBC signature shop at U.S. sister chain Lord & Taylor.

She says she’s flattered by the attention she’s getting. Fashion retailer Roots, the previous Canadian Olympics outfitter, this month rolled out a Canadiana boutique with shopping bags that she says sport the Bay’s bright hues, and merchandise showing a crest that she thinks resembles the one from her 340-year-old company. (A Roots spokesman says it takes inspiration from Canada in general, not another brand.) “Everything old is new again,” Ms. Brooks says as she rushes to her next meeting.

Bonnie Brooks’ curriculum vitae





THE WOMAN



* 57, born in Windsor, Ont. and raised in London, Ont.



* graduated with an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.



THE HOME LIFE



* Wed rock musician Denton Young in 1977; the marriage lasted six years.



* Lived with her mother in Rosedale until moving to a mid-town loft in February. Her poodle Champion remains with her, but her mother moved into a retirement home. She collects art and has so many paintings that she has little room left on her walls. Her collection includes works by photographer Barbara Astman and artist Charles Pachter.





THE RESUME



She held senior positions at fashion retailers such as Fairweather and Holt Renfrew. She also served as editor-in-chief of fashion magazine Flare. Before taking the top job at the Bay in 2008, she was president of the Lane Crawford Joyce Group in Hong Kong, spearheading a turnaround of the once-staid Asian retailer.



She is a member of the board of directors of Indigo Books & Music and on the board of trustees of the Royal Ontario Museum.



THE QUOTE



“The challenge of taking on stores that are one million square feet, where there isn’t unlimited capital, is daunting.”

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