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Simons came close to the edge during the months-long lockdowns that left it dependent on its online business while remote work sapped clothing sales.ablokhin/Handout

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed La Maison Simons to the brink of bankruptcy, the 182-year-old Quebec City-based fashion retailer has got its groove back – not to mention its appetite for risk – with a new Montreal location and plans in the works to open a Halifax outlet.

Beloved in its home province, where the family-controlled chain is a must-go destination for fashion-forward twentysomethings and budget-conscious moms and dads alike, Simons came close to the edge during the months-long lockdowns that left it dependent on its online business while remote work sapped clothing sales.

“People were coming to my office and telling me that Simons was no longer worth anything, that it was over,” Peter Simons told Le Journal de Québec last fall. “There were a lot of people who wanted me to declare bankruptcy and restructure my balance sheet. I couldn’t do it.”

Mr. Simons, who, with his brother Richard, is a member of the fifth generation of Simons to lead the firm, confided in that interview that he wanted to protect employees and suppliers from bearing the brunt of a messy restructuring, which might have also forced the family to cede control.

Instead, to survive, the company sold off some real estate, including its former distribution centre, and obtained a $30-million loan from BDC Capital, an arm of the federally owned Business Development Bank of Canada. The loan, which has since been fully repaid, bought Mr. Simons time.

Now, Simons is expanding again, with the early May opening of a 91,000-square-foot store in the Montreal West Island suburb of Pointe-Claire and the announcement of plans to open an outlet in Halifax in early 2024, its first store in Atlantic Canada. Simons is also rumoured to be scouting for space in central Toronto and Vancouver.

The Pointe-Claire outlet, which required a $26.5-million investment by the company, features what Simons describes as a “monumental” ceramic installation by Vancouver artist Brendan Tang. The company makes a point of including contemporary Canadian artwork in each of its stores. It’s one of the things that sets Simons apart from rivals with cookie-cutter store designs. Its emphasis on sustainable fashion is another. It aims to have 100 per cent of its clothing lines conform with its Vision 2025 sustainability standard by mid-decade, up from 70 per cent now.

With the opening of its most recent outlet in a former Sears store in Cadillac Fairview’s Fairview Pointe-Claire shopping centre, Simons has 16 bricks-and-mortar locations, including 10 in Quebec, three in Alberta, two in Ontario and one in British Columbia. But it remains far from a household name outside Quebec. Becoming one will require it to expand its retail footprint nationally.

“We still have some work to do quite honestly in our [name recognition] outside Quebec,” president and chief executive officer Bernard Leblanc told Retail Insider in March, adding “clearly there’s space [to expand] in Toronto and Vancouver.”

The company did not make Mr. Leblanc, 51, or Mr. Simons, 58, available for an interview, explaining that Mr. Leblanc will hold a mid-June press conference to detail the company’s expansion plans.

After 26 years as CEO, Mr. Simons in March handed the reins to Mr. Leblanc, who had previously served as executive vice-president and head of corporate operations. Mr. Leblanc joined Simons in 1994 but left in 2000 to work at Bombardier Recreational Products. He returned to Simons in 2015 and rose quickly through the ranks.

Mr. Leblanc also happens to be the first non-family member to lead Simons. Between them, Richard and Peter Simons have five children, the oldest of whom is 26, though none currently holds management positions in the company.

Peter Simons remains deeply involved in the business and has taken on the title of chief merchant, overseeing the retailer’s clothing lines, which include everything from mid-priced in-house labels to luxury brands. Simons – which has offices in Florence, Paris and Seoul – is known for spotting fashion trends early and featuring up-and-coming designers. Its Fabrique 1840 collection showcases Canadian artisans.

Simons remains tight-lipped about its internal operations. But the company has beefed up its governance since Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and Investissement Québec, an arm of the Quebec government, invested in the company in 2018 to finance the construction of a modern $200-million distribution centre.

The opening of the new facility, which is highly automated, was delayed by the pandemic. But it is now up and running – and proving its worth. Online sales now account for one-third of overall sales. In-store sales have recovered from the pandemic and are expected to exceed 2019 levels by 5 per cent this year.

Simons will need to continue to raise its game to cement its comeback. But after 182 years, and two once-in-a-century pandemics, it is clearly doing something right.

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