If only Canadian Tire were a little closer to chaos, Stephen Wetmore would be a happy man.
Not chaos itself, the CEO quickly qualifies, but just on the brink of it. Because Wetmore is convinced of the virtues of near-anarchy: The more tasks you have to deal with, the more productive you are-an unconventional notion that comes from the 2001 business book Surfing the Edge of Chaos. A corporation, the authors posit, is no different from an organism: Adapt to your hostile environment or succumb to the equilibrium and die.
You would never guess that the mild-mannered Wetmore would be such a fan of turbulence, judging from his tidy perch on the 18th floor of Canadian Tire's headquarters, a drab, 1970s-era high-rise overlooking Yonge Street in Toronto. Wetmore's corner office is almost gleefully banal, as though the whole thing were ripped out of a Grand & Toy catalogue.
When Wetmore moved into this office more than two years ago, he found an iconic but lumbering giant that he'd be the first to describe as lethargic, its lack of dynamism and creativity seeping from the Corp's HQ down to all 485 dealerships across the country. "There is a state here of planning yourself to death," he says, his arm resting on the table, thumb and index finger gently tapping. "'I'll get back to you in a week or three weeks. I'll have four committee meetings and plan it forever.'"
That is not, he believes, the way to fire up Canadian Tire's 57,000 employees at a time when this country's last domestically owned department store chain is about to be beset by Target, which will open 105 stores across the country by 2013. In fact, ever since Walmart and Home Depot crossed the border in the 1990s, Canadian Tire has struggled to maintain primacy in its natural habitat. It remains a pre-eminent national brand, with 2010 sales of $10.3 billion (up 3% from the previous year), 1,200 stores and gas bars nationwide, the PartSource automotive chain, and 383 Mark's Work Wearhouse stores-Canada's No. 1 menswear retailer. It even owns a chartered bank that has issued five million Canadian Tire credit cards. But Wetmore believes the retailer has grown complacent-the company needs to get out of the meeting rooms and go primal.
And so he is undertaking a dizzying array of initiatives: slashing bureaucracy at head office, retrofitting dozens of stores, renegotiating the tricky agreement it has had with store dealers for almost 80 years, jump-starting its automotive business-the list goes on. And just to keep Canadian Tire's rivals on their toes, Wetmore announced in May that the retailer would pay $771 million to acquire Calgary-based Forzani Group, a complicated agglomeration of 12 sports-and-apparel banners, with a mix of corporate-owned and franchised outlets.
Along with all this is a rebranding campaign that has moved the company away from its more female-driven ethos of the past decade and started it on the road to being the authority on all things Canadian. The new ads are an attempt to speak directly to the quiet defiance inside us all. Canadians are so weather-hardened, one spot implies, that we don't mind barbecuing in the rain. We actually kinda like it. The slogan: "Bring It On."
That could just as well be the mission statement for the Wetmore era. "If you're taking 14 months from the time you come in and show us a new product to the time you put it on the shelf, that's too long," Wetmore says. "We're up against the best companies in the world."
Or, as the company's senior vice-president of marketing, Rob Shields, puts it: "We're the underdog."
When Wetmore took over the top job in January, 2009-Canadian Tire's third CEO in nine years-analysts questioned whether he was the right pick. Like his predecessor, Tom Gauld, he was not a retail guy. An accountant by training, the New Brunswick native spent 10 years in the health-care sector before landing at Bell Aliant, the Halifax-based phone company that he is credited with turning into a regional powerhouse.
But Wetmore had served on the Canadian Tire board since 2003. So when Gauld announced he was retiring from the chief executive post, his fellow directors turned to one of their own. Wetmore had left Bell Aliant at the end of 2008 (reportedly because he lost out on the top job at parent company BCE Inc., to George Cope), and he was familiar with the guts of Canadian Tire and understood the many challenges the retailer faced.