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Aldo Bensadoun, founder and CEO of Aldo Group Inc., at the Montreal head office (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Aldo Bensadoun, founder and CEO of Aldo Group Inc., at the Montreal head office (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Business

Aldo's global footprint Add to ...

Aldo Bensadoun peers at rows of strappy high-heeled shoes, bejewelled sandals and soft loafers.

Standing in a mock retail space in his headquarters in Montreal, the founder of Canada’s least-known global retail juggernaut is pondering a window display destined for his Aldo shoe stores more than 10,000 kilometres away.

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He suggests dropping a few styles to simplify the presentation. The changes made, an employee snaps a photograph of the reworked display and e-mails it abroad. Within a week, the exact same parade of footwear will appear in scores of his Middle East shop windows.

Welcome to a typical day at Aldo Group Inc., Mr. Bensadoun’s $1.5-billion-a-year international shoe empire. Anyone who has stepped into a Canadian mall knows the company’s namesake Aldo brand, as well as its FeetFirst, StoneRidge and Spring chains. But few appreciate the breadth and depth of this company that has quietly sprouted 1,500 stores in more than 55 countries.

With remarkably little in the way of fanfare, it has become one of the most successful shoe retailers in the world. In a tough economic environment, its emphasis on bringing products to markets lightning fast and constantly tempting customers with new trends makes this low-profile powerhouse a beacon to other merchants.

Mr. Bensadoun built his global empire by constantly re-inventing his privately held company. Nobody is quicker at adjusting shoe styles, retail concepts and factory sourcing to suit the demands of fickle, fashion-obsessed customers. His team races to stay on top of the latest trends by chasing down street fashions and runway hits in fashion capitals. Once it spots a workable idea, Aldo Group requires a mere five to 12 weeks to get shoes to stores, compared with an industry average of 17 weeks.

“You have to be fast and you have to renew yourself constantly,” Mr. Bensadoun, 71, said in a rare interview. “Our strength is to adapt. As the customer is changing, we’re adapting to the new face of the customer.”

Mr. Bensadoun has adapted his fast-fashion formula not just to different market segments in Canada, but to countries around the world. Aldo Group is prospering in the United States – where most other Canadian retailers have flopped – and in Europe and Asia as well.

“This is the most successful global retailer that Canada has ever built,” said Tim McGuire, a senior partner at consultancy McKinsey & Co., which has advised Aldo. “They’re the best in the world at what they do, and they’re doing it everywhere in the world.”

The numbers tell the story: By spotting emerging trends and jumping on them faster than competitors, Aldo manages to produce $1,000-plus sales per square foot in Canada, more than twice that of other mall shoe chains.

Even rivals pay homage to Aldo’s prowess. “They’re great in the world they live in – they’re the best,” said Stephen Applebaum, president of the group that runs Nine West and other shoe chains in Canada.

But Mr. Bensadoun can’t rest on his laurels. Today, battling for much the same customer as cheap-chic chains such as Zara and H&M, and facing limited growth opportunities in his core North American business, he’s raising the stakes by moving in new directions. His company recently launched an upmarket chain called Locale. It also set up a wholesaling division to supply shoes to U.S. retail heavyweights, while starting to help other companies set up shop beyond their borders.

“Everybody has shoes – there is no shortage of competitors,” said George Hartman, a former retail analyst on Bay Street and now a partner in investment banker Capital Canada. So how will Mr. Bensadoun find success? “He has a sense of control of where he’s buying and whom he’s targeting as his customers – better than anyone else,” Mr. Hartman said. When he’s not re-jigging window displays, Mr. Bensadoun and his team must spot the trends that will allow his company to reinvent itself yet again.

Aldo Bensadoun, founder and CEO of Aldo Group Inc., at the company's head office in Montreal.

MASTER OF CHANGE

Mr. Bensadoun never intended to follow in the footsteps of his father, a shoe retailer in Morocco and France, or his grandfather, a cobbler in Algeria. He attended boarding school in Paris and studied engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. But after falling in love with Montreal on a weekend visit, he transferred to a commerce program at McGill University.

He later took a job at a plastics company and sold a shrink-rap system to Yellow Shoes, a Montreal retailer that wanted a way to protect shoes from pilferage. The work was so appreciated by the chain’s CEO that he hired Mr. Bensadoun. The young executive was put in charge of the Salon Six shoe chain; then in 1972, he mortgaged his house to buy the shoe division of Montreal-based fashion retailer Le Château Inc.

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