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From a shambolic start in Byward Market to a $2-billion business, the discount retailer found success while treating its employees like family

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Photography by Megan Moore/The Globe and Mail

Deep in the belly of a warehouse swirling with activity, John Hubbard tilted his head and stared into the Matrix. Whenever he had a moment, he’d come to marvel at the towering apparatus before him, a black grid of flickering lights under which the newest members of his team worked tirelessly. They looked like black bugs, or miniature driverless Go-Karts, or villains from the Nintendo universe. But Giant Tiger had harnessed their powers for good, and these pickers could pack pallets like none he’d ever seen. Hubbard, the company’s vice-president of operations, remembered when the consultants first suggested a fleet of robots to work the warehouse. He was fascinated, immediately struck by the engineering and efficiency of it. The machines could pack 3,000 cases per hour, equal to 21 humans.

When Hubbard first pitched the idea, lifers at the company dismissed it. Giant Tiger is a family-owned and family-operated business, and change is tough even for—maybe especially for—the steadiest of ships. “That’s not us,” the employees said. One of them cautiously suggested that if the company wanted technology, it could try installing some conveyor belts. But Hubbard had the CEO on side. When a current of fear ran through the company—surely this meant layoffs—management assuaged it by reassuring its 10,000 employees that no one would be let go, and the human pickers in the warehouse would be reassigned. Hubbard was proud to work for a company that took care of its own. And when Giant Tiger’s new distribution centre opened south of its Ottawa home base in September 2018, he became the only VP of ops in Canada to oversee a team half-human, half-robot. The lanky Hubbard, blue beaded bracelets hanging from his wrist, felt like he was staring into the future, one that operated with a low thrum and the mesmerizing quality of a Tetris game. They’d be able to send thousands more items to the far reaches of the country every day, serving their customers better than ever before. Months later, news of a new coronavirus would make it to the far reaches of the country, too, and with it a crisis the likes of which he’d never seen.

In many ways, Giant Tiger was better prepared than most when the pandemic hit. The company had its own fleet of trucks, carting supplies across the country to its stores six times a week. It had recently invested in a new website that had a selection mirroring in-store stock. Then there were the robots. By fate or good fortune, the company had become the first in Canada to staff its warehouse with a team of robots that picked and packed its cargo. Robots, after all, can’t get COVID-19. What really helped the company thrive, though, was the same thing that has helped it grow from a single shambolic location overlooking Ottawa’s Byward Market to a discount chain with more than $2 billion in annual revenue, and stores in more than 260 towns and cities across the country: the ethos that, at Giant Tiger, everyone is family.

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The Globe and Mail

To know Giant Tiger is to love it. From its managers to its customers to the staff stocking its shelves, the company has nurtured a devotion to the brand and its core values that verges on cult-like. “We’re all working together: common values, common goals, people’s common purpose,” says Paul Wood, the company’s CEO. “It’s really just about operating our business in ‘the right way.’ It may sound cheesy or corny, but there’s a way to do things that is fair and equitable and upfront and straightforward. And that’s who we are.” That common purpose? A laser-beam focus on cheerfully getting its customers what they need, when they need it, at the lowest price possible.

If a discount retailer infused with kindness and staffed by robots seems incongruous, that’s because it is, right down to the company’s mascot, a tiger optimistically named Friendly. Where Walmart has saturated its customers with its sheer volume of products, and Dollarama has the dirt-cheap market cornered, Giant Tiger has positioned itself as the discount chain with heart. Its owner-operators embed in the communities they serve, stocking inventory tailored to their customers’ needs. (Locations in cities stock more cat food, for example; rural outposts favour dog food.) The products, too, are a whimsical mish-mash: groceries and clothing and housewares and toys. Where else could you find Le Creuset–like Dutch ovens ($100) under the same roof as spray-paint for snow ($10), a two-pack of lightbulbs ($1.50), yoga mats ($9.98), Pillsbury-cinnamon-bun-scented candles ($2), a bed-in-a-bag ($50), stock pots, coffee makers, plush Baby Yoda dolls, a Himalayan salt-crystal night-light, superhero pint glasses, crocheted ponchos, tropical houseplants, and a fridge in the shape of a Coors Light beer can? “When I think back to my childhood, I think about going up to the Muskoka area to a friend’s cottage and going into town on a rainy day. Giant Tiger was a place you popped into. You didn’t necessarily need anything. But you knew if you went in, you were going to find something really exciting and fun. And that could be something for your kitchen. It could be a toy. It could be a T-shirt,” says Jessica Godin, vice-president of supply chain for the company. “There’s still a whole portion of the store that’s very clearly tied to Giant Tiger’s roots, which is the treasure hunt.”

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Head of supply chain Jessica Godin relished visits to the store as a kid, likening it to a treasure hunt—an ethos she tries to maintain today.

Giant Tiger has long been the only shop of any size in some of the towns it serves across the country. But once the pandemic set in, getting families a reliable supply of flour, yeast, eggs and toilet paper became absolutely mission critical. The company reacted with tensile resilience, inside and out. Within the first week, it had sent all its office employees home indefinitely. In-store employees across the country were among the first to wear masks and put up plexiglass dividers. They received GT gift cards to help them with necessities. The company became one of the first in Canada to give its employees a wage premium, one that it kept in place until the end of 2020. (Loblaws, by contrast, ended theirs after three months.) It hosted pop-up vaccine clinics in store parking lots. Employees at the warehouse put in hours of overtime those first nights, picking up shifts for others who had to take care of their vulnerable loved ones, determined to provide communities with the essentials—milk, bread, hand sanitizer, thousands and thousands of rolls of toilet paper. They knew that in some of these towns, a GT truck rolling in was considered an event.

Store managers began to set meetings with one another at 5 a.m., ensuring they were able to troubleshoot concerns before their staff began to arrive at 7. When vaccines became available, the company paid each employee a flat fee to cover childcare or transportation so they could get the shot. And in the midst of spiking inflation, a disrupted supply chain, and a global pandemic dragging on and on, maintaining cheap and cheerful is getting tougher for everyone. “There’s a survival instinct that kicked in last year,” Wood says. “It’s been an insane amount of challenge and unexpected disruption for everybody. The employees have stepped up in ways we couldn’t imagine. For me, it’s a challenge to channel that appropriately. Because people can’t work at the ragged edge of disaster all the time.”

When I visited GT HQ in the fall, though, every employee I spoke to seemed comfortable on the precipice. They spoke about the company with a reverence often reserved for religious calling. By day’s end, they seemed to me an ambush of tigers, running in stride, united by purpose and duty-bound to deliver Canadians affordable food to eat, clothes to wear, and items to cook, clean, live and play with. It would take more than a pandemic to stop them. “Giant Tiger has always had a very strong focus on our people,” says Godin. “So it wasn’t that much of a pivot, when the pandemic hit, to immediately focus on our people. Because if we don’t keep our people strong and healthy and resilient, then everything else is going to fall apart.” Hubbard, who oversees the company’s distribution warehouse, agrees: “We’re a beacon of light in dark times, when people don’t know what’s going on. By the fourth week of the pandemic, it was unbelievable. Morale was through the roof.” Alison Scarlett, from GT’s communications department, tells me she often asks in interviews what a prospective hire would do if the performer they’d hired to play Friendly the Tiger at an event didn’t show up. “What do you do? And anybody who doesn’t say, ‘I put on the costume,’ I’m like, Ooh, I don’t know. That one question tells me, are you willing to roll up your sleeves and do what needs to be done? If your answer is, ‘I’m going to pick up the phone and scream at a vendor,’ I’m like, Ooh, you’re not giving me the warm and fuzzies.” Want to work here? You best be prepared to suit up. James Johnstone, the company’s burly and bearded associate vice-president of transportation, who manages the company’s 130-strong fleet of trucks, drives three hours a day, across a provincial border and back, because he’s so proud to work at GT. “Early on, everyone looked around and said, ‘We have a job to do here.’ I think it was a personal push just to get through this and make sure we kept going together,” says Johnstone. “We had drivers, and it was really scary for them. It was lots of unknown unknowns. And they definitely had a sense of duty to go and deliver. One of our drivers told me he had a lady following him because she needed toilet paper. She followed him right to the store. And then she said, ‘Thank you for coming.’” Johnstone finished his anecdote a bit breathless, and I paused. Was it really possible that there were 10,000 people all working earnestly toward a greater purpose in the form of the cheapest and cheerful-est discount chain in the country? That, I thought, is some potent Kool-Aid.

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Rod Fleming is the unofficial mayor of Embrun, Ont., where he owns store No. 52. “There’s never a bad day at Giant Tiger,” he says.

The road into Embrun, Ont., home of store number 52, is lined with grassy fields so lush and Kelly Green they could be store-bought were it not for the spotted cows gnawing them down. A half-hour drive from Ottawa, Embrun’s main drag begins with a tractor dealership, a used-car shop and a fast- food joint called The Hot Potato. It’s clear Tigre Géant (most of the town of 7,000 is Francophone) is a destination—it’s the biggest building on the block, and cars fill the sprawling parking lot on this rainy weekday afternoon. Waiting to greet me is Rod Fleming, the manager turned franchise owner of 52 and the unofficial mayor of Embrun. Standing amid bins of bubble-popper toys (99¢), Fleming smiles wide when I ask about his day. “There’s never a bad day at Giant Tiger,” he says.

Fleming is a ruddy-faced Newfoundlander who arrived at GT from a competitor-that-will-not-be-named. (Hint: rhymes with Valmart.) Like many of GT’s franchisees, he graduated from the company’s training program, which involves a stint as a store manager before entering into a franchise agreement. (The company once signed over stores to members of its team for $1, to keep it an affordable prospect for longtime staff, but Wood says that’s no longer the case. Still, he says the fee to own and run a location is modest.) That makes him the sole owner of his business, and he runs 52 like he would a town. He calls himself the leader, not the boss, of his staff of 50. His day begins the moment his feet hit the asphalt in the parking lot, he says, scanning its surface for litter. When his employees are struggling, he sends flowers or gift baskets or asks how he can help. “A personal connection makes all the difference,” he says. And when Embruners are in need, they, too, call Rod. When the senior’s home in town ran out of toilet paper, he donated six bales at a time when getting more from the warehouse was impossible and his customers were desperate, too. “I heard a cry,” he says simply. He once dyed his hair blue and donned an Olaf costume to help raise $2,350 for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Fleming estimates he donates $25,000 worth of food annually to the town’s food bank. He hands out gift cards at the women’s shelter down the street, sponsors sports teams and events at the local fair. The wall by the cash is peppered with thank-yous and team photos and awards for service.

When I ask Fleming about Sam Jamieson, he turns solemn and begins to tell me a story. He first met Jamieson 20 years ago, outside a Walmart. Fleming worked inside; Jamieson stood outside selling poppies. Both men lived in the area and came from the East Coast. A vet who’d served in both World War 2 and Korea, Jamieson shared war stories with Fleming, and the pair got to know each other’s families. When Fleming moved over to Giant Tiger, Jamieson came, too, stationed outside with his box of red felted flowers. “My staff would take care of him,” Fleming says. “They’d make sure he had coffee, make sure he had scratch tickets—he always liked those.” They were colleagues, friends, something closer to family. When Jamieson moved into the seniors’ home, Fleming visited every week with his son. Jamieson died early in the pandemic; the isolation really got to him, Fleming says. Even now, customers ask where he is. In the spring of 2021, Rod walked into the Embrun legion where Sam’s family hosted a celebration of life for their father and grandfather. The room was filled with well-wishers, and photo collages—of his navy days, his family days—peppered the walls. Ron looked up and saw a photo of him and Sam, smiling side-by-side, and beamed.

We wander the aisles, passing racks of ponchos and quilted jackets, flannel shirts he’d ordered in to brace against the impending chill. For Fleming, this work isn’t all about the human connection. He’s in it for the thrill of the game, too, feels retail in his marrow when he’s tailoring his inventory to suit his customers and eyeing managers who manage to outsell him. “When I travel, I will go in other stores to take mental notes. I’ll pop in as a customer. I’m in and out quick,” he says. He cracks a sly smile.

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Six months into the pandemic, Giant Tiger veteran Paul Wood succeeded retiring founder and CEO Gordon Reid, who opened the first store in 1961.

Like so many things at Giant Tiger, Fleming’s friendly rivalry with his fellow store owners is rooted deep in tradition. For years, company founder Gordon Reid could be found on Saturday mornings in his office on Ottawa’s George Street, ringing up his franchisees and asking after their sales numbers, encouraging them to stay scrappy. When one particularly competitive owner crowed about finally beating his rival in sales one week, Wood says Reid asked why he hadn’t surpassed the next-highest owner. “It took the wind out of that owner’s sails for about five minutes,” Wood says with a laugh. “And then he said, ‘You know what, you’re right. Let’s go.’”

When Reid turned 13, he got his first job at Simpson’s department store in Montreal. He’d spent his childhood basking in the smell of popcorn as his mom worked the sandwich counter at a Woolworths variety store in Vancouver. After the Reids relocated, he got a job to help with the family’s bills. He also got hooked on retail. By 20, he was working as a travelling salesman. As he crisscrossed the U.S. working for an importer, he noticed an emerging slate of discount stores gaining ground on the department stores of his childhood. “I thought, Boy, this is going to happen in Canada, too, so I better get going,” he told a reporter in 2010. He spent $15,000 on the idea, opening the company’s first location in Ottawa’s Byward Market in May 1961.

Seven years later, he began to franchise and implemented a model that endures today, one that rewards sweat equity and gives longtime employees management training and the option to buy their own location for a nominal fee. He introduced a profit-sharing agreement that everyone, from truck drivers to cashiers to store managers, qualified for, hoping to cultivate a genuine we’re-all-in-this-together ethos. Reid instilled a sense of loyalty so deep that everyone—from the CEO to transportation fleet co-ordinators to warehouse pickers—still calls him, with striking reverence, Mr. Reid.

In 2020, he announced he was retiring from the chain. He’d taken Giant Tiger from one store to 260. He was in his mid-80s. When it came time to appoint a new CEO, there was no dynastic jockeying of the Rogers variety. Reid’s son, Scott, a local Conservative MP, would become chair of the board. And Wood, the company’s COO coming up on his 18th year at GT, would take over as chief executive.

Wood stepped into the role amid a swelling second COVID wave, undeterred from the vision of progress he held for the company. He has an ambitious expansion plan: He’s eyeing the 300-store mark, with a target of five to seven openings a year. The real estate team is constantly scouting locations in unserved markets like B.C. and Newfoundland. He’s overseeing the final touches of a head-office renovation that will welcome his staff back when it’s safe to return. Some days, he lumbers around its upper floor, with its expansive cafeteria, walls of windows and cascading greenery, taking in the view alone.

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The past four years have brought an onslaught of change. The company’s output outgrew its distribution centre—it now sees 6,000 SKUs through its warehouse per day—and the manual system employed there. Until just before the pandemic, each picker on staff would be given a pick list, on paper, of products and the number of boxes needed per order. They’d grab their cart and the sheet of stickers, and head down the dim aisles, wending their way through a selection of items that could, at times, seem infinite, particularly when boxes couldn’t be found, stickers were tossed out and pallets sent out to stores short of stock. “Automation was a massive leap. We couldn’t have survived the pandemic without that ability to deal with the volume spikes,” Wood says. “People said, ‘That’s not really Giant Tiger.’ No, actually, we can still do it in a frugal or fiscally responsible way. I think that started opening people’s minds, that being frugal doesn’t mean being cheap and doesn’t mean we can’t invest intelligently in our future.”

That commitment to frugality guides everything the company does. It targets markets where it can quickly emerge as the most indispensable game in town, popping up in strip malls on the outskirts rather than in the downtown core. Two years ago, Giant Tiger moved its distribution centre from Ottawa down to Johnstown, an hour’s drive south. The move meant employees who once owned condos in the city could now afford sprawling homes nearby. It’s also a seven-minute drive to Highway 401, which for a company that sends a fleet of 130 delivery trucks across the country, amounts to 860,000 fewer kilometres driven and a savings of more than $1 million a year.

Construction on the new facility, which stretches the length of 10 football fields, finished in September 2018. Tucked away in its labyrinthine halls are a quiet room for meditation and prayer, a cafeteria that subsidizes healthy foods like salads, and a gym whose windows overlook the apple orchard Reid insisted be planted on the property. Employees used the first apple crop in 2018 to bake him a pie and delivered it to his doorstep.

How successful this bet on its people—customers and employees—will be for Giant Tiger’s bottom line is difficult to measure. As a privately held company, the corporation doesn’t release its financials, and Wood will say only that sales top $2 billion a year. It sounds fantastic, I tell him, maybe even a little fantastical: Investing in employees’ health and wellness, doing right by the communities it serves to the tune of $2 million in donations a year, all while offering quality goods at the cheapest prices in the country? “That’s the challenge,” he says mirthfully. “It’s not getting easier.” It’s the first and only time all day that a flicker of stress crosses his face.

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Back in the early 2010s, Giant Tiger got a tip that a U.S. competitor was coming to town. It had long been rumoured that Target, Walmart’s cooler cousin, was planning a Canadian expansion, and now, in 2013, it was here. The leadership team leapt into action. “We knew that it was going to be a challenge to our market—and could be a threat,” Wood says. The company took a hard look at itself and settled on its helter-skelter aesthetic. It began a chain-wide renovation, painting, organizing and brightening each of its stores. Some were redesigned completely. It pulled its womenswear designing in-house, introducing new lines designed to appeal directly to GT’s target customer: the busy, bargain-hunting mom. Managers positioned the new clothes right smack at the front of their stores, followed by house-brand cozy baby clothes. When Target started moving into dozens of empty Zellers locations across Canada in March 2013, GT was ready. “It’s about retaining that connection to the customer and staying relevant to them, providing an offering and an experience that they feel happy about when they’re in the store. That they think, Hey, this is fun,” Wood says.

Target, meanwhile, was plagued with stock shortages, its stores were dingy, and the prices were higher than those of its U.S. counterparts. Less than two years later, Target announced it would pull out of the Canadian market. “Good riddance,” one customer wrote on the company’s Facebook page. “You obviously don’t understand Canadians.” Giant Tiger responded by moving into some of Target’s vacated spaces.

With Zellers’ closure and Target’s exit, Walmart Canada—with annual sales of $17.5 billion—is left as the chain’s greatest competitor. GT’s revenue has increased two-fold over 13 years. (By comparison, Dollarama’s annual sales come in at around $4 billion.) Melding Walmart’s strategy of making itself indispensable in smaller markets with Canadian Tire’s franchise model has been a uniquely successful combination, says Ian Lee, associate professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. The challenge Giant Tiger faces in its next generation is expanding without losing that community connection. “As they scale up, they’ll be going head-to-head in the same cities with Walmart,” says Lee, who uses the company as a case study in his marketing courses. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they survive and prosper. Walmart is formidable. It’s a David-and-Goliath story, there’s no question about it.”

Still, what Giant Tiger has that the Goliath doesn’t, Lee says, is heart. “They understand their customer,” he says. “They’ve stripped out the frills. The timing couldn’t be better right now—in the pandemic, with the disruption of the supply chains, the inflation spike. I predict 2022 is going to be a stellar year for this company. They’re in the right place at the right time.” Of course, the store’s familial feel likely wouldn’t survive an IPO or acquisition. But Wood says the Reid family has no intention of changing a model that’s worked increasingly well for them as the years have passed. For now, they’re keeping the privately held company in the family.

Attached to the imposing head office is store 82, so named for its placement in the queue of GTs. Store 82, however, is the face of Giant Tiger’s future, the prototypical redesign for what the chain’s other locations will eventually look like, too. We take the tunnel, a corridor joining head office to 82. Once we hit the floor, Wood can’t help but stand out at a gangly 6-foot-5. The store is a far, far cry from the aisles cluttered with cardboard boxes of toothpaste and Venus razors, Ring Pops and pool noodles I roamed in Pembroke, Ont., as a kid. Back then, the store’s design resembled a frenetic game of Tetris someone was always just about to lose. Today, the store looks like its designer spends just enough useful time on Instagram. Splashy yellow accents accompany black block letters overlayed on light-grey walls. “Treat yourself,” “You are magic,” “Looking good,” the change rooms call out in sunny yellow spray-paint as we walk by. At every turn there’s mention of smiles or savings or hot buys or Giant deals.

As we wander the store, Wood—soft-spoken, bespectacled and dressed in a crisp ice-blue shirt—points out the design changes that make its interior feel airy and bright. Warmer lighting, cleaner sightlines, lower shelving and wayfinding signs. Standing beside a rack of father-son Superman capes in the menswear section, he stops to greet an employee named Trish. “How are things going, with COVID?” she asks. “Oh, yeah, you know. Okay, considering,” he tells her, staring into the middle distance. He looks back to her. “Thanks for being here,” he says. “They need us,” she replies, emphasis hers. We walk on.

Around another corner, a customer approaches us. She’s a mature woman, maybe in her late 50s, and she asks Wood where she can find the mousetraps. He points to the spot, tucked behind grocery shelves of carefully curated dry goods. When we make our way past the cashiers, who smile through partitions of plastic, and a few self-serve checkouts the company is testing out, we end up back where we started, amid racks of on-trend neutral crew-neck sweaters and lacy peplum camisoles, in womenswear. Swivelling her cart back toward Wood, the customer returns with a pointed dispatch from hardware. “You don’t have mousetraps,” she says, clearly miffed. Only rat traps, and those would be too big for her unwelcome visitors. “I just wanted to let you know,” she finishes. Wood listens patiently. “If you go see Darren, the man at the front of the store?” Wood offers buoyantly. “Tell him what you just told me, and we’ll be sure to get those in for you.” She smiles and her cart rolls on, half-empty for the other discoveries the aisles hold for her. It’s not until later that it occurs to me she must have recognized him from his ever-presence in the store. And hers. Wood wasn’t even wearing a name tag.

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