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Illustration of Larry Rosen, chief executive officer of retailer Harry Rosen. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Larry Rosen, chief executive officer of retailer Harry Rosen. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

the lunch

Harry Rosen chief getting ready for a retail rumble Add to ...

His father became something of a retail legend in 1987 when he posed for the cover of the Report on Business Magazine wearing nothing but a tie. Would the son ever do something like that? “Never,” Larry says.

“My father has always been an enormous risk taker … I’m probably more comfortable not being as much in the limelight as my father. I always joke: My father’s job was to build the business. My job is really not to screw it up.”

He had big shoes to fill. With a $500 down payment, Harry founded the business with his brother Lou in a Cabbagetown made-to-measure shop in 1954. As a boy, Larry hung out at the store, later working summers at the chain. But he never intended to go into the family business full-time. The oldest of four children – only one other worked at the company until she had a family – Larry took a year off after high school to backpack around Europe before getting an undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Toronto and then a joint law and MBA degree at University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

He practised corporate law at a small firm but by the early eighties his father was rapidly expanding Harry Rosen across the country and suddenly gaining a higher profile. “I just felt this tremendous sense of pride and a feeling that I had to be part of it,” Larry says.

He worked in various management positions at the retailer for 15 years before becoming CEO. But he thinks his early years on the sales floor gave him important life skills. His father was a more natural salesman than he was, but he learned. “I’d advise every young person to learn how to sell,” he says. “It helps you in everything – putting forward your point of view. It teaches you how to convince people that they should appreciate something. Even as a parent, you’re constantly selling. Isn’t life about selling?”

For all his pragmatism, Mr. Rosen can still let it go. He’s a guitarist in a band along with his head of store design and manager of the Bloor Street location, jamming hard rock and blues tunes in a downtown studio. (“I wouldn’t play in public.”) Sometimes his 24-year-old middle son, Ian, joins them on drums. The band is called JP & the Tilfords, after Harry Rosen‘s private label JP Tilford line. And true to his methodical ways, Mr. Rosen takes guitar lessons every Sunday.(Interestingly, Mr. Rosen gave the go-ahead for Nordstrom to carry the Tilford line a few years ago; but when he realized the U.S. chain was coming to Canada, he asked it to drop the label, which it did.)

He keeps in shape by going to a trainer three times a week, usually by 7 a.m., and takes a spin class at a fitness club on Sundays. And while he packs his gym clothes for business trips – he travels as many as 100 days of the year – the scheduling and eating out can play havoc with his “perpetual” diet. “I’d be a pretty heavy guy if I wasn’t this disciplined.”

When it comes to his private time, he prefers to travel to more exotic destinations. Last year he went with his wife – a real estate lawyer whom he met at law school – to Peru, where they climbed to the top of Machu Picchu. He will soon take his wife with him to Turkey, where he has an industry conference, after which they’ll take time off to see the sights. Already, he is reading up on the history of the Ottoman Empire.

But it’s the looming retail battle ahead that occupies much of Mr. Rosen’s time. As he strategizes, old disagreements with his father take on renewed significance. Specifically, over Harry Rosen’s expansion in the 1980s and 1990s into women’s wear and the United States – both strategies that the retailer eventually abandoned. “He wanted to keep it going,” Mr. Rosen says. “I was a big proponent of getting rid of it.” He felt the U.S. operation distracted his top executives’ attention from the core Canadian business, and Harry Rosen was too masculine a brand to stock women’s fashion. Still, two years ago, in anticipation of increased competition, Mr. Rosen again considered branching out into women’s clothing through an acquisition. For now, he’s rejected the idea. He figures Harry Rosen has an edge in specializing in men while its key competitors focus more on women.

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