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The Globe and Mail

What’s in a name? When you’re a famous, historic, family-run business, the answer might be “everything.” For 183 years, the name Simons has resonated in Quebec, signifying both the retailer of exclusive fashions and household décor, and the founding family that has run the retailer for five generations. But now all that’s changed. La Maison Simons started expanding across Canada several years ago, to cities where the name resonates not at all. And for the first time, the family business is being led by someone from outside the family. Bernard Leblanc has history with the retailer. He ran product development and purchasing for seven years before spending 15 years among the snowmobiles and Sea-Doos of BRP. In 2014 he returned to Simons as chief operating officer, working with CEO Peter Simons to begin the cross-country push. Now the reins are in his hands, and if Simons fails as a national brand, Leblanc’s name will be mud. We spoke to him in Quebec City.

You’ve been in charge at Simons for a year now. How’s it going?

Things are good. We have enjoyed a very strong recovery, post-COVID-19. We have just completed the best year in the history of the company. (1) I have a very strong group of people around me, full support of the family and the privilege of having access to my predecessor—Peter being part of the senior leadership team and continuing to remain engaged in the company. So, it’s been a successful transition.

We’ll drill down into some of those points. Let’s start with the fact that you’re the first non-family member to lead Simons in 183 years. Why did that happen?

First off, the next generation—the sixth generation of the family—is starting to learn more about the business, but they are still relatively young. The two brothers who own the company, Peter and Richard, have five children. The eldest is 26, the youngest 19. None are directly involved in the business. The family was kind of in this gap between the current leadership within the family and the next generation, and I was their COO at the time, running many parts of the business. Peter felt it was a good time for us to transition to this new model. And it was an opportunity to posture differently as we continue to grow, as the environment continues to change.

What does having you as CEO allow Simons to do that it couldn’t do before?

One, it’s allowed for shared accountability within a broader leadership team. The company was very focused around one view and the individual that was in place. Now we’ve been able to diversify that leadership team with strong individuals to support the broader strategy going forward. And as the company grew, there was a need for a little bit more formal governance. So, we established a separation between the family council, an independent advisory board and an operating leadership team that each had their role to play.

When you took over the top job, you said you felt an “element of pressure.” Tell me about that pressure.

As you come in to be the first of anything—in my case, the first non-family member taking over—clearly you don’t want to be the one who drops the ball. I have an immense admiration for Peter, and what he and the family have built over the years. And obviously I want to live up to that reputation that’s always been very positive.

Despite the fact that Simons has been around for 183 years, a lot of Canadians don’t know it. For those readers, how would you describe the store?

We bring a unique experience to market. One that is focused around our core brands, which are our exclusive brands (2) that touch on junior ladies, contemporary ladies, more work-related ladies apparel and the same spectrum around the men’s range. That’s complemented by a unique home décor offering. Of our product assortment, 70% is exclusive to Simons, developed and designed by our teams in Quebec City. We also endeavour to find some of the most innovative and creative international or Canadian brands that are potentially new to market. Each store has its unique dynamic. We try to create environments that speak to the location in which we establish, and we commission various works of art to be displayed in each of our locations. (3)

If most of your products are unfamiliar to people, how does that complicate the process of attracting new customers?

Clearly, it’s part of our brand recognition challenge. The first part of our challenge is to ensure that the master brand—Simons itself—builds a notoriety and awareness across the country. We’ve been working very hard in communicating our brand, and our brand promise, in the markets outside of Quebec. The next challenge is then to tell people about our various exclusive assortments, each of those brands and that brand promise. So, it’s a challenge getting them to know it. But once they do, the adoption rate is quite compelling.

Many retailers focus on either high-end products or lower-end. Why does Simons offer a mixture?

It’s the breadth of the customer base, being able to appeal across a broad spectrum and offering products that evolve along with the customer’s taste and evolution in their life. We believe in that breadth of offering. I think we’ve found our sweet spot of complementarity between value-priced elements and more luxurious elements.

Speaking of high-end, were you surprised by Nordstrom leaving?

Yes, there was an element of surprise. (4) I would qualify them as a strong retailer and a strong merchant. I can’t really speak to what led to their demise in Canada. But the reality is that there are very well-established luxury players in the country, and it was probably a challenge for them to dislodge that loyalty.

We’ve seen other retail outsiders, such as Target, flop in Canada. Since Simons is an outsider in much of the country, what can you learn from those failures?

That you have to go in with a patient, long view of things and accept that it takes time to win the hearts of clients. We are a people organization, and we believe in the power of human connection. And once we establish that connection with our clients, we want to deploy this exceptional service that differentiates us.

When a Target or a Nordstrom fails here, do you say, “Good, one less competitor to deal with”? Or does it create a negative environment?

It potentially weakens the industry for a period of time, until things settle down and restabilize. It’s a shock wave in the industry, so it’s never a celebration. It does create opportunities, however. It can let us offer a new option for clients that maybe have lost their favourite retailer.

It took a long time for Simons to start expanding across Canada, and the expansion has been very measured. Why go slowly?

Patience. Perhaps a bit of conservatism. At the same time, it was never our intent to be the largest retailer by any circumstance. We always wanted to be one based on quality, and one where we felt we could always deliver on our service promise. So you need to take it as the organization is capable of digesting it.

What’s the state of the retail market you’re slowly expanding into?

Post-pandemic, we’ve seen things return to normal. And we are sensing two things converging. Online sales and sales through digital channels have increased dramatically. On the flip side, we’ve seen a return of traffic and interest into the physical store environment and the capacity to have human connection. Where we’re able to bring our physical and digital assets together, we have an opportunity to create a truly unified environment that’s void of rupture points and allows for the customer experience to be very fluid. (5)

How do you create a human connection in online shopping?

That’s the biggest challenge, to execute in a way that differentiates you from the next best online operator. It’s about experience. It’s about ensuring our customer service promise—the satisfaction that customers have in the product and the trust that they have in coming to us, that if it doesn’t meet their expectations, we’ll always stand behind our product. To me, it’s about ensuring that the expectations of the brand are met, regardless of the touch points with the customer.

Can you be more specific? What makes Simons’s online experience different?

Within the digital environment, we try and use past purchase information, navigation information, to be able to personalize the experience as much as possible. Ensuring that we’re able to recommend items that will fit with the style patterns that you’re looking for, that will complement the outfits you’re looking to build and so on. We also look to ensure that our online offering and our store offering is aligned. Some retailers have a very different offering online or in store. We’ve tried to ensure a consistency. And regardless of the channel, we try and ensure that the experience is consistent.

Let’s move to the economy. How are you being affected by inflation and the prospect of a recession?

Things have relatively stabilized. In the past 12 months or so, there had been turbulence in the environment, relative to transportation costs, supply chains were under pressure, raw material prices were very, very volatile. Thankfully, a lot of that is behind us. But it’s very difficult to get a clear line of sight. I’m not sure what to expect. The economists don’t seem to be sure what to expect, and the bankers either. There’s no doubt there are potential headwinds on the horizon. On the flip side, there is an opportunity for us to continue to acquire clientele, build brand awareness and gain loyalty. So, even if the industry as a whole were to reduce, we have market-share gain opportunities.

The likelihood of recession isn’t affecting your plans at all?

Our new store in Halifax is coming to market in the first quarter of 2024, and it was part of our expansion plan from the get-go. I still believe there’s opportunities for us to expand our footprint in the greater Toronto and Vancouver areas. (6) If we look at Montreal, where we have five stores, and we look at the two other major cities in the country, where we only have one store each, there’s potential for us to better service the clients in those areas. So, we have been actively seeking opportunities.

I want to return to the challenges of leading this company now. Earlier you mentioned the new advisory board. It’s not a fiduciary board. So what does it do for you?

It keeps us aligned. We put together a competency matrix. We selected the independent members of that board. We have an independent chair of the board. And we use them to guide our decision making, to validate prospective opportunities, and we use them for wise counsel, honestly, in order to ensure that we’re making the right decisions for the company.

How does that advisory board differ from the family council?

The intent of the family council is to educate the next generation on what it means to be a good owner and a good shareholder. How to ensure that the values and the heritage of the company are protected, that the family name is used in line with the views of the family, and so on. And they use the advisory board to be the liaison between their vision of what they see for the family, and the leadership team within the organization. We’re just ensuring that the responsibilities are clear for each of the pillars, and that we’re able to have good communication and good alignment with each of the stakeholder groups.

When Peter handed leadership to you, he said, “Time to maybe put the ego aside.” I noticed he said, “maybe.” How tricky has the transition been?

I couldn’t have asked for a better transition. We have worked very closely together over the last number of years. We have very complementary strengths. We appreciate each other as individuals. We seek each other’s counsel on a regular basis. And frankly, I think both of us know that we don’t have all of the answers to all of the world’s questions, and so we’re stronger as a team.

There was a recent controversy regarding the Simons marketing campaign built around Jennifer Hatch and her advocacy for medical assistance in dying. Whose decision was it to end that campaign?

It was mine.

In the stories I read about that decision, Peter Simons was interviewed, not you. Why did you take a back seat?

We lived through it together, as a team. Ultimately, Peter had been—well, Peter remains—kind of the voice of the brand. And part of his role as the chief merchant is the brand resonance in the market. And given he had been the voice at the launch of the campaign, he remained the voice throughout. And ultimately we felt that it made sense for him to continue to be the spokesperson for that campaign.

And why did you choose to end it?

We were focused on a message of hope, of celebration, relative to an individual’s accomplishment in their life. And at some point, we felt that there was potential for misinterpretation, or potential for hurting certain perspectives, okay? Or being hurtful toward certain individuals or certain groups. That was certainly never the intent of the campaign. And so, when you feel that you’re at a tipping point, where your intent to do good has the potential to do harm, I felt it was best for us to eliminate the risk of being misunderstood.

Going forward, how will that experience inform your efforts to promote Simons?

Ultimately, I think we always have to listen to our hearts. We are well intended. We have to be sensitive to multiple perceptions. Like anybody in the world, we’re not perfect. We learn from those moments where perfection has certainly escaped us. If you’ve made a mistake, you need to withdraw quickly from that mistake and focus on the original intent, which was good, at the very beginning.

1. As a private company, Simons doesn’t disclose financial results. But it says that in 2021, its revenue returned to pre-pandemic levels, and that in 2022, it grew revenue and operating profit by “high double-digits.”

2. Exclusive Simons brands for women include Twik, Icône, Contemporaine, Miiyu and i.FIV5. For men, they include Le 31, Djab, i.FIV5 and Rituels. Its high-end brand is Édito by Simons.

3. Artists include Douglas Coupland and Philip Beesley.

4. Nordstrom opened the first of its 13 Canadian stores in 2014. The company says it lost money every year in Canada, and in March, it announced that it would close all stores by June.

5. When talking about omnichannel retail, Leblanc often uses the term “frontierless commerce.”

6. Simons has 10 stores in Quebec. Outside that province, it has two stores in Edmonton and one store in each of Mississauga, Ottawa, Calgary and West Vancouver. Its Halifax location is scheduled to open in the spring of 2024.

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