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Kyle Scott/The Globe and Mail

Max Dubois, co-CEO of Altitude Sports

Alex and I were high school friends, and we were working in the back of the little Altitude Sports store on St. Denis Street in Montreal. It was 2008, and I was director of marketing. After I started, the web outgrew the bricks-and-mortar business pretty fast. We thought there was an opportunity to be the leading online technical-clothing retailer in Canada, and Alex and I convinced the owner to let us buy the business in 2011. We bought the stores, too, but our vision was always to push online. We closed our last store in the summer of 2019.

Being online-only allows us to carry about 90,000 SKUs per season—more than would ever fit in the biggest outdoor store. And we don’t need to replicate our inventory in every store—we can buy just a few of a certain model because there’s a niche there.

A big pillar of growth for us is our Marketplace, which we launched in November 2018, after two years of development. It allows our brand partners to sell directly to our clients when we don’t have a product in our warehouse, and we take a commission on the sale. We also own The Last Hunt, the only website dedicated to discounted outdoor gear and apparel in Canada. This is how we sell our extra inventory, and our brands' extra inventory, too. We don’t want any of our more than 400 partners to have any reason to sell through any of the giants of this world because they have better service than us. That’s what inspired us to offer same-day shipping in Montreal in September and next-day shipping to Toronto the following month.

The COVID situation was rocky. We were moving our warehouse when the pandemic started, and when the CERB program came out, we lost 40% of our warehouse employees overnight. At the same time, we would get 300 resumés when we posted a job—we needed people urgently, because we wanted to keep our service agreement with clients. I’m proud to say that we managed to hire back 70% of the people who left when CERB was announced.

From a business perspective, the pandemic turned out to be really, really good for us sales-wise. It was a gold mine in terms of client acquisition, too, because everyone went online across Canada and found Altitude Sports for whatever they were looking for, without us having to increase our cost of acquisition. And because of what was happening in the market, some companies were struggling or closing stores. This meant our brand partners got stuck with extra inventory. This really accelerated our plan to integrate major partners into the Marketplace.

We see ourselves not only as a hybrid of city and nature products, but also as a hybrid retailer and tech company. But tech companies aren’t built with the same profit timeline as retailers. It’s important to keep the balance between hyper-growth, like we’ve had over the past years, and profitability. For us, it’s very important to stay profitable every year, which makes us more sustainable as a business, especially with this COVID crisis—and who knows what’s going to come next.

Interview by Alex Mlynek

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