Co-founder Roots Canada Ltd.
Education B.A., Advertising
¢ In August 1973, opens the first Roots store in Toronto with partner Don Green. The company’s negative-heel shoe (dubbed the Earth Shoe) is an instant hit
¢ Canadian athletes wear Roots’ negative-heel Puffboot for the opening ceremonies of the 1976 Winter Olympics, representing the firm’s first Olympic foray
¢ Roots is the official outfitter of Canada’s Olympic team from 1998 to 2004; its “Canada Poorboy” cap debuts during the 1998 Winter Olympics and goes on to sell 500,000 units worldwide
¢ Inducted into the Canadian Marketing Hall of Legends in 2005
What convinced you that becoming a successful Canadian retailer in a competitve, international market was possible?
Karim Kanji, Manager, Client Relations
RealCash Bancorp Inc., Toronto
Right off the bat [in 1973] we had a hit in Germany and Holland with the negative-heel shoe. It didn’t last forever, but it demonstrated to us what international sales opportunities existed. Today, I believe Roots can be successful globally because we haven’t lost the true essence of who we are. And in a lot of cases, the more personal your story is, the wider the audience is that you can reach. So I think our job is to make irresistible products in the most environmentally-friendly way, under the right conditions and presented to the public in a very fair manner.
What challenges have you had with quality control in Asia, and how have you overcome them?
Believe me, if we could, we’d be making everything in Canada, but it’s physically and financially impossible. We have had growing pains, but we’re involved with high-quality production in Asia. We’ve been very diligent in dealing only with companies that treat their employees well, that are in good locations, that are physically compliant. We’re very stringent. There are so many different arguments about what free trade did and didn’t do, and how we’re stuck now with so little manufacturing in certain parts of Canada. But we didn’t make these rules. We’ve done everything in our power to sustain our own production facility in Canada, which has never been busier. At the real heart of our company is the Roots leather-goods factory in Toronto.
How has your American upbringing affected your approach to business?
Elsa Brydges, Principal
E.M. Brydges & Associates, Hamilton
I suppose that growing up in America gave me a little different view of business, but it’s hard to determine how being an American has affected Roots. But I think I’ve always appreciated Canada more than, say, many Canadians did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. I had a more positive view and saw the possibilities. We are becoming a global brand, based on our love and respect for Canada. Being Canadian is a big part of our DNA.
What personal characteristics are most important to being a great leader?
Julia Borgan, Marketing Director
ABORG Computing, Ottawa
A great leader has the ability to incite and motivate people, and share a common vision with them. And leadership absolutely comes through acquiring respect from those you’re working with. So I think, first of all, a great leader has compassion. A great leader makes people feel good about themselves, shows them the right path to go down, leads by example, has a tremendous work ethic, has great stamina and obviously has to have business ability.
What was the most important lesson you learned from the demise of Roots Air?
The demise of Roots Air was unfortunate. The good news is that we are one of the major shareholders of Skyservice because of it, and it has been a very good investment. But the demise of the carrier came because of bad judgment and bad marketing ideas by someone else. We licensed our name to it and didn’t control the whole thing, so it was a good lesson. There’s nothing wrong with licensing as long as you control it with an iron fist.
When starting Roots, what was the one challenge that posed the most difficulty?
Fred Spinola, Vice-president of Operations
The Zachry Group, Richmond, B.C.
When we started Roots in 1972, Don Green and I had no business plan, no model and basically were operating on the run. The biggest challenge was to find someone who could make the type of shoe that we were looking to bring to market, which was the negative-heel shoe. Most of the other parts of it came pretty naturally: deciding to have our own stores, finding locations, controlling our own brand, picking the name, et cetera.
What books would you advise a budding entreprenuer like me to read?
Luke N. Onuoha
Babcock University, Lagos, Nigeria
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordecai Richler. Or What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg. And there’s a great book about the advertising business in the late 1940s: The Hucksters, by Frederic Wakeman Sr.
What’s the most challenging issue you’ve faced at Roots, and how did you deal with the mental, emotional and/or physical challenges related to it?
I think the most challenging time for Roots was when business conditions deteriorated in the late ’80s and early ’90s because of cross-border shopping and the arrival of more competitors. But I’m a hockey player, so I welcome challenge and pressure. I have a big capacity for stress. But I also have confidence: in myself, in my partner Don Green, and in the people we’ve gathered around us.
How do you reinvigorate Roots so you don’t end up a tired brand like The Gap?
Battiston Group, Toronto
My daughter says we should “stick to our roots,” and I believe that. But, first of all, you have to ask how you can stay relevant in today’s world, because if you’re not relevant and you don’t give people new reasons to come through your doors, you’re going to get tired. We have passionate management that believes in our culture and our brand, which you need to stay relevant. So we’re still in the game, and that’s a great feeling. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life talking about what you were doing in the ’70s.