Profile: Well-heeled

Aldo Bensadoun created a global shoe empire.

Aldo Bensadoun's new company headquarters feels like an oddly placed, smaller version of Paris's famed Musée d'Orsay. Set in an industrial park in Saint Laurent, a Montreal suburb, it features the same soaring glass roof as d'Orsay. It also has the same long centre hall, although here the floor is covered in dark Brazilian wood, not marble. A leather banquette in the middle adds to the feeling of being in an art gallery. In this light, airy place, stylishly dressed people stand around talking to each other or on their cellphones, their voices barely registering as a murmur. One would not guess that 600 employees work here, with another 350 workers at the adjacent warehouse.

On an unseasonably warm afternoon in late October, Bensadoun walks down from the second floor by a dark wood, cantilevered staircase. Dressed in a navy corduroy suit and light-blue shirt, he is, at 66, a handsome, fit man, with a light tan setting off his close-cropped white hair. While many chief executives of large companies tend to move quickly, flanked by assistants, Bensadoun comes alone to greet a visitor, seemingly content (for a man who rarely gives interviews) to make a reporter's acquaintance with a leisurely chat about journalism.

We walk first to the company cafeteria. Less canteen than sleek Soho restaurant, the food is fresh and colourful. Bensadoun orders coffee, a double shot of espresso in a mug, and pays $2.80 for it. He is pleased to be complimented on the building. “It's a question of respecting and creating an atmosphere for the colleagues, for the people who are working here,” he explains. “I mean, the Industrial Revolution ended in 1850. It's not a question of being fair. They deserve it. It's them that built the company, and you have to give back to them.”

From its start in 1972 as a shoe concession in Le Château stores, Aldo Group Inc. recently has gone into growth overdrive. An independent entity by 1980, it made its entry into the U.S. market in 1993. In the past few years, it has expanded into 20 countries, including Ireland, Poland, South Africa, Portugal, Denmark, Switzerland, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Malaysia and Singapore. Aldo has 220 stores in the United States, to which it ships merchandise every day. With a total of several hundred stores worldwide, it does more business outside Canada today than inside the country. “At one point,” says Bensadoun, “we saw [the company] only at the Canadian level. We used to have a lot of divisions in order to cover the market.” But since its international expansion, the company has been paring down. The Simard & Voyer, Pegabo and Calderone lines, all higher-priced products, have been jettisoned and their real estate transferred to the company's remaining divisions: Aldo, Transit, FeetFirst and Globo. “We felt that some of those customers were shopping in the Aldo stores anyway,” says Bensadoun. “Tell them they can still shop at Aldo,” he adds, laughing.

Canadian businesses have long been criticized for not being able to expand successfully into foreign markets. Aldo is an exception. A store architect at the company headquarters says he has been drawing up plans at a pace of 20 new stores a month. Being a Montreal-based company has been instrumental in Aldo's ability to become a global player, says Bensadoun. “Honestly, I think Canada is a fantastic place from which to become a global player,” he says. He adds that this is especially true of Quebec, with its strong, vibrant French culture. “I find it's a tremendous asset to live in a multicultural society,” he says. “It opens our minds. It makes us not afraid to deal with people of different languages.” Adds Bensadoun: “When you find yourself in China or in Asia or the Middle East, it is so much easier, I find, because we have an ouverture d'esprit.”

Bensadoun worries that the positive impact of Canada's two languages and two cultures is not sufficiently appreciated by Canadians. For Canada to come apart over the place of French within the federation would represent a failure, he thinks. “I believe that Canada is what the world will become one day,” says Bensadoun, “a multicultural society where you have the influence of different cultures. [Living in a multicultural society] is extremely important for feeling at ease in the world [and] understanding the needs of the rest of the world.”

The sole owner of Aldo Group, Bensadoun says he consciously set out to create a business that was more than just a shoe store. “I wanted to create a company that was a company of the 21st century, in the sense that it was not a company with old ideas, but rather a company where the people have the ability to talk and the ability to express themselves,” he explains. “It's one of our goals as a company to let people reach their maximum potential….You know what's incredible is that we have people today we hired part-time in a store in Chicoutimi, for example. Today, [one of them] is in charge of our store in England. That's wonderful.”

Merit counts more than family ties at Aldo, says Bensadoun. No one in the current management team is a family member, he points out. Bensadoun has a rule that family members have to work outside the company for at least four years after graduating from university. He has two sons, David and Douglas, and a daughter, Daniela. David has been working for the company for the past 10 years, “so, hopefully,” his father says, “he will have enough experience to continue.” Bensadoun says his wife, Diane, also has been “very instrumental” in the company's development.

If David Bensadoun continues in the shoe business, he will be the fourth generation in his family to do so. Aldo Bensadoun's grandfather was a cobbler in Algeria. His father owned several shoe stores in Morocco and France. Bensadoun was born in Morocco, but the family moved to the south of France when he was five years old. One of his two sisters still lives in Toulouse; the other is in Paris. Both were teachers. His brother is a professor of biochemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., the same school where Bensadoun arrived in 1959 with a scholarship to study.

A weekend trip to Montreal changed his plans, however. He fell in love with the city and transferred to McGill University, from which he graduated in 1964 with a bachelor of commerce degree. He went back to France to complete the compulsory military service ? after which he briefly taught economics at the École de Cavalerie de Saumur ? and then installed himself permanently in Montreal. “We had a lot of love growing up, I have to say,” says Bensadoun. “I'm thinking just now, as we're talking, when you've been fortunate to have a good education, and to have love and everything, you have to give back. You think of those horrible things…You know, like in Pakistan, with children being kidnapped from a hospital to be put in a prostitution ring. We have a responsibility to help out these people because if we don't, it's going to turn out very, very badly.”

Bensadoun has a long history of involvement in charity and social issues. Aldo Group is well known for its AIDS campaigns, the first of which appeared in 1985, a time, Bensadoun says, when “it was bit taboo to be connected with AIDS.” Bensadoun says he got involved for the young people who shop at Aldo shoe stores and also for employees of the company. “We had some of our colleagues who passed away,” he says.

This year, Aldo and YouthAIDS created a global campaign to raise awareness and funds in the battle against AIDS. Black-and-white ads ? on the theme Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil ? feature stars including Ashley Judd, Christina Aguilera, Salma Hayek, Cindy Crawford, Penélope Cruz, LL Cool J and Elijah Wood. “We're going to raise between $1.2 million and $1.8 million in four months. It's huge,” says Bensadoun. “That money is going to be put to use in North America, in Canada and the U.S., and in Africa. We're also working in India.”

Bensadoun hopes that through his Montreal-based company, and now his overseas franchises, he is helping to create a better world. When “the people from Saudi Arabia come here, and they sit next to the people from Israel and Lebanon, I mean, can they imagine how beautiful it is? It's nice. It's very nice. You feel like you're doing something.”

On the subject of downtime, Bensadoun sounds like a workaholic in denial. “Business, to me, is my life,” he says. “In the sense that…I don't know the difference between work and not work. Going to a play or going to a meeting, to me, it's very, very similar.” A Monty Python fan, the last play he saw, in New York, was Spamalot. “It is very funny,” he says. “I love the jokes about the French and English.”

As we walk through the mock-up showrooms and design ateliers at Aldo Group's headquarters, one last question: Does he wear Aldo shoes? “Definitely,” says Bensadoun, starting to laugh. “I buy other shoes, but it's only to check out the competition.” Who's the competition? “Everybody's my competition,” he says, refusing to name names. “I'm not going to give any ideas on where to shop.”