Rare is the media mention of Bonnie Brooks that doesn’t highlight her au courant sense of style. From a 1984 Globe and Mail society piece on the Toronto film fest’s opening gala: “Holt Renfrew vice president Bonnie Brooks Young came straight from the office in Armani.” And a 2001 profile in the Toronto Star: “Pausing for a photograph outside the Céline show in Paris…wearing a Gucci suit, Narciso Rodriguez boots and bag, and a luxurious Fendi fur.” And again, in 2009, in a Maclean’s profile of the Bay’s new boss: “With her blond bob, grey Alexander McQueen sweater dress, ballsy black Yves Saint Laurent boots, and willingness to playfully tweak tradition, Brooks offers a stylish foil to the sober gallery of white men in dark suits who trace the company’s lineage back to 1670.”
Brooks, president and CEO since August 2008, has accomplished many things in her three-plus years on the job—by the Bay’s own accounting (and as a privately held company, there’s no other kind), sales are stronger now than they’ve been in more than a decade, up 9% in the second half of 2011—but chief among them has been rebuilding the Bay brand in her own image. Brooks is fashionable, she’s with it, she’s got the smoky radio voice that makes men weak: in short, she’s not like her fuddy-duddy predecessors George Heller or George Kosich—the men in dark suits (designer unknown) who supposedly drove the storied Hudson’s Bay Co. into the ground.
She has, as just about every industry observer will tell you, made the Bay relevant again. “Bonnie has started the process that nobody thought was possible— bringing back the magic of the department store,” says Toronto retail consultant Wendy Evans. So in late January, in a big vote of confidence, Richard Baker—the Bay’s American billionaire owner—added authority over the fusty New York City– based retailer Lord & Taylor to Brooks’s portfolio, expecting a similar turnaround there.
Like the Bay, Lord & Taylor is a retailer that has long traded on its heritage: founded in 1826, it is one of the oldest upscale chains in the U.S., and was the first to open shop on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. It exudes a certain Kennedyesque charm, but it is not particularly cool or modern—and that is where Brooks comes in. Baker, reached by phone in New York, is quick to point out that the 47-store chain, centred in nine northeastern states, is “making great strides,” with sales up 20% over the past two years. But, he adds: “I believe Bonnie and the team will continue to make progress and continue to innovate. Bonnie is always an agent of change.”
As we wait to see what the changes at L&T will be, a question arises: Just how much of the Great Bay Makeover has been a triumph of marketing—a discipline Brooks mastered through her years at Holts, editing Flare magazine, and reinventing stodgy Hong Kong–based retailer Lane Crawford—and how much of it consists of substantial, and sustainable, change? Designer boutique the Room, at the Bay’s flagship stores in Toronto, Vancouver and (soon) Montreal, has certainly garnered a lot of positive press, as has Brooks’s exclusive arrangement to market the hip Topshop brand in Canada. But those measures, and the general trend to edit and upscale the Bay’s brand selection, have benefited only a fragment of the 90-store chain. David Ian Gray, a retail strategist based in Vancouver, says that there remain huge differences between the Bay’s flagships (the so-called “A” stores) and the bulk of stores in suburban malls and small towns—the “B” and “C” stores, in places like Medicine Hat, Alta., and Sydney, N.S.—which Gray says don’t have the same selection or service, and none of the magic.
Brooks’s reign at the Bay has also benefited from the stunning collapse of Sears Canada, which “is just M.I.A.,” according to consultant Maureen Atkinson of J.C. Williams Group. Parent company Sears Roebuck has treated its northern outpost as a cash cow, stripping all the profits out of Canada—“and those stores have become really sad,” she says. It is in that context that the Bay has remade itself, stealing market share in the process.
That competitive advantage won’t last long, with U.S. retailers Nordstrom and, more notably, Target setting up shop in Canada over the next couple of years. But Richard Baker says the Bay is ready—noting that 80 of its 90 stores were renovated last year. “We are as focused on the bottom 50 stores as we are the top 40 stores,” says Baker. “We’ve added back inventory, we’re improving merchandising and we’ve upgraded the facilities.”
And, of course, he’s got Bonnie Brooks. Baker insists that Brooks understands the consumer intimately, and has “the creative capacity to differentiate the business and make it exciting. She’s done it before.” And at Lord & Taylor, Baker is counting on her being able to do it again.