Ask the legends: Harry Rosen

Written by ProfitGuide

Executive Chairman, Harry Rosen Inc.

Age: 74
Education: Dropped out of high school

Career Highlights:

€¢In 1954, opens his first store on Toronto’s Parliament Street with his brother, Lou
€¢Becomes executive chairman in 2000, handing chairman and CEO duties to his son, Larry
€¢In 2001, wins an award for Lifetime Achievement from the Retail Council of Canada
€¢Is named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2004

You have locations across the country, but you provide service that one would only expect at a small, family-owned store. How do you still make each customer believe they are the most important one you have?

Catherine Proulx, Managing Partner
twistmarketing, Calgary

From the very first day, it has been our intention to befriend the customer. We try to enter into some sort of personal relationship with them, where we learn something about them and always use that information to help sell them the right things. As we expanded, I would go from store to store and work on the selling floor. It meant so much to the staff to see that the principles we espoused in training were in fact the practices of senior management. That’s the glue: management walking the talk. We’ve also been able to select the kind of employee who enjoys living by this idea that there’s nothing more important than the customer.

You’ve been around a while and have accomplished a lot, professionally and personally. But when did you first feel that you had “made it”?

Peter Allen, President
Electrical Contacts Ltd., Hanover, Ont.

I really got the sense that we were an established entity when we opened our Richmond Street location [in Toronto, in 1961]. That store was a true reflection of my philosophy of quality, permanence and updated classicism. I knew that we were a destination store because we were open late two nights a week, on the edge of the business district, where nothing around us was open after dark. In the summer, we drew people from across Canada. After we left that location, men would tell me about the comfort and good feelings they’d enjoyed at that store.

If you could change a business decision you made in the past, what would it be and why?

Lorne Merkur, President
Adwear + Promostuff, Toronto

When we were well positioned in the seven major markets in Canada, I felt that there wasn’t any further growth available and decided that the place to start in the United States was Chicago. I found a location that was right on the Miracle Mile, with Saks Fifth Avenue in the other part of the building. Midstream, the developer sold it off to another developer, who wanted to renegotiate after I had already come to a verbal agreement with the previous developer. I walked away in spite and wound up going into Buffalo. If we’d gone ahead with Chicago, it would have altered the whole future of Harry Rosen in the U.S. Instead of that, we went into the backwoods and paid the price for it.

How is the Internet affecting your business today, and what is your prediction for the role of the Internet for high-end, high-touch retail businesses like yours?

Mark Organ, CEO
Eloqua Corp., Toronto

Two years ago, I would have argued that the Internet would not mean anything at the quality end of menswear, but I now disagree. I believe that we’re a strong enough brand to sell certain commodities and particular private-label products on the Internet — our customers would buy them online for the convenience. I think we have to be in that business, and I think that’s certainly the future. But I don’t think you can sell tailored clothing nearly as well as sportswear or furnishings or gift items. I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow technology is developed where a person can be pretty accurate about the fitting required, and this clothing will be sold on the Internet.

Will you try again to expand into the U.S.?

Razor Suleman, CEO
I Love Rewards Inc., Toronto

Yes. I have no doubt that North America will be a single market within the next 25 years — there will be no such thing as having to account for what you buy in the U.S. We speak a common language, our fashions and lifestyles are all very similar, and the market to the south is very big, so it beckons. Also, while luxury department stores control a major part of the better clothing market in the U.S., they don’t have a sense of the selling floor and their services are lacking. Consumers just live with it, and the retailers buy their loyalty by giving them points and everything else. We’ve never had to do that. We buy our customers’ loyalty through the services we provide and the satisfaction they get through their purchases. I believe that our principles apply in the U.S. There’s lots of room for us there.

After accomplishing so much, how do you stay motivated? What draws you to your business every day?

David Prairie, Associate
Leman Group, Toronto

I often say that I’m in the people business. I know about tailoring, I know about quality. But I really enjoy people. And I enjoy the satisfaction and pleasure they get out of making the right purchases — that’s the opiate that keeps me going. For instance, I have an appointment next week with a woman who called two months ago, wanting to bring her son in so that he could buy his first suit from me. I love doing that. It’s gotta be in my DNA. I’d be just as dedicated, I expect, if I was doing something else — I just happen to have chosen the apparel business.

What did you focus on when your business was going through a critically tough period? Scott Bruyea, Owner
Kwik Kopy Design & Print Centre, Toronto

When a lot of people were out of work during the recession of the early 1980s, some retailers found the going tough and traded down. I never traded down. I found it very difficult to compromise our approach to quality, so I looked at other ways to make the quality proposition all the more important. I felt that it was the time to make a case for why an investment in clothing would be a benefit, helping people acquire a new position or make the most of the opportunities out there. So, we produced a manual that went into the Library of Canada called The Complete Guide to Dressing. At the same time, I had to make our staff more keen than ever to deliver on the promise of this guidebook and to build relationships with our customers. It worked.

Ask the Legends is your chance to pick the brains of Canada’s greatest entrepreneurs. Upcoming guests include marketing maverick Miles Nadal, the founder of MDC Partners. Send your questions and suggestions for future profiles to

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