This is the latest entry in a series from Report on Small Business called Who Owns That. We've asked readers to identify their favourite small businesses from across Canada, and we track down the owners so they can tell us their stories. The answers are edited for style and flow.
Introducing Louise Dirks, the owner and CEO of Edmonton-based Gravity Pope.
Question: Let's start with the basics. Can you briefly describe your business, including when it was founded, what it does, how big it is, and number of locations?
Answer: I opened Gravity Pope in 1990. It started as a footwear boutique on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. Originally, there was an espresso bar in the back (pre-Starbucks) but eventually that changed into a clothing area. I opened a second footwear location in Calgary in 2000, and a third footwear store in Vancouver in 2004.
What has made our shops unique from the beginning is the extensive array of footwear we carry, from popular sport, comfort and lifestyle brands, to hard-to-find fashion and hand-made artisanal footwear. We import a lot of footwear brands direct from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Holland and Germany.
Because of our unique product base, we started to receive more and more online inquiries, and in the fall of 2005, we started our first online boutique. Then in 2007, we moved the clothing area from the back of the shoe store in Edmonton to its own location a few blocks away, and a few months later we opened a second clothing store in Vancouver. Again, we continued to find clothing and accessories to spice up the product mix and we imported those direct from England, France, Belgium, the United States and Italy.
It was also around 2007 that we started our own private-label footwear collection. We developed products that were missing in the brands we purchased. This has taken off nicely, and today, a good portion of our business is our own Gravity Pope footwear label.
In June, 2012, we opened two franchise stores, Dr. Martens (the iconic British footwear brand) and Camper (a Spanish lifestyle footwear brand) in West Edmonton Mall.
And most recently, in November, 2012, we opened our biggest venture to date, an all-in-one footwear, clothing, accessories and apothecary Gravity Pope boutique on Queen Street West in Toronto. We felt the timing was right for a few reasons. The location was in a good spot in an up-and-coming area – a little off the beaten path, but still accessible – the space was perfect for our needs as it has great street exposure, a beautiful multi-level showroom space, and all the requirements to hold inventory in a spacious basement.
And the customer demand has become significant over the past few years. As well, we have noticed that Toronto and surrounding areas have become one of our most important online markets. During the past eight years, our online business has not only flourished but it has provided excellent exposure to Gravity Pope all over the world.
Q: What inspired you to be an entrepreneur and to enter this industry?
A: I have always loved fashion and I enjoyed working retail when I was first out of high school. Then, while I was studying clothing and textiles in university, I became involved in an import shop and I started travelling to buy products from all over the world, including Morocco, Turkey, Guatemala, India and Nepal. I discovered I loved buying, importing, merchandising and selling these beautiful artisanal goods.
I started importing footwear into the import shop. This led to opening Gravity Pope, the first footwear boutique in 1990. I filled the shop with footwear from trade shows I would frequent in London, New York, Germany and Italy while on my way to Morocco, India or some other exotic country. When I found things I liked, I bought them, shipped them and customs-cleared them myself.
Our eclectic mix of product gave Gravity Pope a unique flavour in the marketplace. People loved the new exciting brands we would bring in and this inspired me to bring in more unique new exciting products. I love buying and selling – informing the market.
Q: Who are your typical customers, and how do they find you?
A: Our customers love fashion. They are male and female, young and old. They find us in many ways. Sometimes it is because they have discovered a brand abroad and Google it to realize that we carry it. Sometimes they come into our shops to get inspired because they know we have a great selection and knowledgeable staff. Sometimes they come in to tell us about a brand and we search it out for them.
Our customers are sophisticated and stylish and want to keep up with fashion. They love the unique atmosphere of our shops. They also want to be unique and find something special. Our customers are smart. Our customers are often professionals seeking a little more. Our customers like quality and simplicity. They love to find something new among their favourite designers.
I am a huge advocate of promoting new designers from all over the world. I look for simple, clean, functional designs that pay attention to detail, quality and longevity. I love full grain leathers and natural fabrics.
Q: How many employees do you have, and what is your role in the business?
A: Currently, Gravity Pope employs approximately 160 staff, many of whom have been with the company for several years.
I am the CEO of the company. I wear many hats (all of them fashionable). I oversee all aspects of the company in conjunction with several key employees. I oversee all administration, inventory management, marketing and creative, and I am the chief buyer for the business. I oversee all aspects of product purchased and I work closely with a team of brand managers who all immensely aid in the buying process.
Q: You've been identified by one of our readers as a standout business. What do you consider the key element of your success?
A: A key element to the success of Gravity Pope is our unique approach to business. We have grown organically and created policies and procedures out of the need for structure. Hence our company structure is unique to Gravity Pope.
As well, we offer the consumer something very special by having an amazing selection and a unique product mix. We have a wide variety of footwear genres, clothing and accessories. This gives the consumers confidence that they are purchasing what is right for them.
We respect and value our customers, and we employ loyal, dedicated people who want to think outside the box and make a difference. We spend time to train our employees about all aspects of our products so they, in turn, can enlighten the consumer in an educated way.
This, in combination with a lot of hard work, long hours and constant dedication, are the keys to Gravity Pope's success.
Do you have a favourite small business you'd like to learn more about? Make suggestions and join the conversation on the Globe's Small Business LinkedIn group, use the comments field, or email us at email@example.com. You can follow the series on our Pinterest page.