Ask the legends: John Forzani

Written by ProfitGuide

Chairman of the Board, Forzani Group Ltd.

Age: 60
Education: B.A., business administration, Utah State University, 1971

Career Highlights:

€¢ Joins the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders as an offensive lineman in 1971; team wins Grey Cup that same year
€¢ Opens Forzani’s Locker Room, with friend Basil Bark and brothers Joe and Tom, in Calgary in 1974
€¢ Forzani Group Ltd. acquires Sports Experts Inc. in 1994 to become Canada’s largest specialty sports retailer
€¢ In 2001, the Retail Council of Canada names John its Retailer of the Year
€¢ Forzani Group eclipses $1 billion in annual sales in fiscal 2006

How do you develop superior customer service in a retail sales environment?

Frank Charman, Team Manager
Convergys, Halifax

First of all, we try to hire the right person: somebody who is an outdoors or sports enthusiast. Then we offer a good incentive plan. We like to pay a commission-, combined with provincial minimums against the commission, so that employees can still make provincial minimums during really slow periods. We also spend a lot of time and effort training people, both in selling skills and product knowledge. We try to assign them to specific departments—say, hockey or shoes—so that we don’t have to train them in every single product. So, somebody might be a shoe expert or a clothing expert or a hockey expert. One of the biggest things we’ve done that has contributed to our success is to communicate on a daily basis what’s happening and what we expect. A store manager might say, “Today, our budget is to do $10,000, and this is how we think we’re going to do it,” or “This is the first day of the big hockey sale and these are the 10 items that have been advertised heavily.” You don’t have to go nuts. Just give them three or four points: “This is what we expect, these are some of the hot items, have a great shift.”

How are you addressing the labour shortage?

Kerry Jothen, CEO
Human Capital Strategies, Victoria

Our store managers are expected to recruit as part of their general mandate, and they are always on the lookout for new personnel. I’ve seen this many times when I’ve been to lunch with a group of store managers; if the waitress is good, somebody will ask her, “Hey, do you want to get into sporting goods?” So, recruiting is active, as opposed to just waiting for people to show up. And, obviously, if you have happy staff, you’re going to get referrals. One of the great benefits of Forzani’s is that we are in an industry that is “cool,” if I may use that old-fashioned word.

What great lesson from the football field have you brought to your business?

Karim Kanji, President
Makk International, Toronto

What I really liked about football is that more than half of football players never touch the ball. It’s unlike hockey, baseball or basketball. In football, only a select few get the ball. That means the other 70% of athletes on the field have to think in a team sense—that if I do my job, for instance, the quarterback has time to make the pass. That whole teamwork philosophy is what business is all about. Your finance guy runs the finance department, and he does his job. Your HR person does their job. If everybody does their job properly, we will build a solid company that will move forward.

We’ve seen a lot of public companies turning to private equity lately. Why did you choose to be a publicly traded company?

Gregg Oldring, President
Industry Mailout, Edmonton

Forzani Group went public in 1993, and I’m very happy we did it for two reasons. One, I think that public money is a very efficient means of financing. It allows you to raise the necessary funds to expand in a most efficient manner. Two, it instills in the corporation certain disciplines that are absolutely necessary if you want to grow big. To report properly, the company must develop a whole host of internal functions that really help you understand your business and force you to look at issues that are happening all the time.

How important is the shopping “experience” to Forzani Group?

J.F. Ben Purcell
St. Stephen, N.B.

Creating the right atmosphere is just huge for us. When somebody comes in, our aim is to have stock, friendly, knowledgeable staff and a nicely decorated store. We need to be convenient and to have parking. The whole customer experience has to be pleasant. When that guy leaves the store thinking, “Hey, that was great—I’ll come back here,” then you’ve got a customer for life.

How do you keep your company lean, innovative and customer-driven without getting bogged down in heavy bureaucracy?

Daniel F. Engels

One of the hardest battles we have is to maintain flexibility and the lean attitude, which means you can move in any direction at any time without being tied down. It’s a huge problem. We try to have the businesses across the country operate the same, as much as humanly possible, because you just can’t have people do whatever they want to do at any time in any given situation. So, we have Canada-wide pricing, Canada-wide training programs, Canada-wide incentive programs. It’s a very difficult thing to try to manage efficiently and at the same time not end up with infrastructure that’s so slow to react that you’re missing opportunities.

Why did you let go as CEO in 2003?

Andrew J. Szonyi, Executive VP
First Nations Equity Inc., Toronto

The company was running extremely well, we had very capable management and I wanted to step back and do the things I like to do and spend a little more time with my family. And not an insignificant part of the equation was that sometimes entrepreneurs don’t make the best managers. Maybe I’m not the best guy to manage the business when sales start to approach $1.5 billion. And I’m okay with that.

If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

Shafiq Ebrahim, Manager
Online Strategy and Client Experience, Small Business
RBC Royal Bank, Toronto

The biggest problem we ever had was in 1994, when we bought Sport Experts in Quebec and tried to merge the two businesses. It was extremely painful for the shareholders and myself. We had a huge loss one year, all directly related to tripling our size in one fell swoop. I wish I’d had more experience at that time so that we could have handled that differently. But the bottom line is that the company is on very solid footing today—I wouldn’t want to change a lot.

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