Interview: Larry Rosen

CEO of Harry Rosen

IBR: Growing up as a child of Harry Rosen must have been interesting. Did you always want to carry on the family business?

LR: My father, who’s now 85, is still one of the wisest and most interesting people I know. He never put any pressure on me to join the family business. I worked part-time in high school and university selling at our store. I liked to sell, I liked the fashion, and I liked the clothing. I received my bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto and obtained a law degree and an MBA at Western and Ivey. I was practicing corporate law for a year or so in Toronto at a smaller firm and I was enjoying work. However, that was at the time when my father started expanding Harry Rosen nationally in the early 80’s and I was very interested in what he was doing. I told him that although I loved law, I found the work he was doing even more interesting and I asked him whether or not he would be interested in having me join Harry Rosen. He told me that he would, but there had to be an understanding that I was going to have to learn the business and establish my own credibility in the eyes of a lot of people. I joined Harry Rosen in 1985 and I’ve been here for 32 years. I transitioned through many different positions. I started as a buyer, and then got promoted to manage a group of stores. I progressed to VP of Corporate Affairs, then to President, and in 2000 I became the CEO. I’ve been the CEO now for 17 years.

IBR: What are some of the most valuable lessons that you can share from your journey?

LR: There are so many. The first one I learned in my early days at the company. I was very anxious to establish myself as a credible force at that time so my leadership style was too dominating. It was quite obvious that I was putting business results ahead of personal relationships, which forced me to sit back and analyse my interactions with my co-workers. I altered my personal leadership style to a more respectful and inspirational style. I’m very impatient with achieving goals, but I learned if you want to succeed, you can’t be impatient. You have to work with people and coach people.

During the business cycles at Harry Rosen, I learned that sometimes everything you do seems to be an out-of-the-park home run, and other times it’s like you are swimming in quicksand. Having survived a number of business cycles, you learn a lot about building long-term goals and strategies. Also, you learn not to become over confident when times are great and learn not to let the tough times discourage you.

IBR: What skills do you think are necessary for a leader to drive sustainable change in an organization such as Harry Rosen?

LR: I think it’s important for a leader to understand that he or she doesn’t have to be the main source of ideas. Instead, the leader should be one who facilitates team ideas and contributions. In fact, if other people feel that they are major contributors to the company’s strategy, and you give them the proper credit, they’ll be a lot more productive. I’m in the fashion business; it’s a young man’s business. I’m now 60 years old, and I don’t expect to have ideas on the latest trends in fashion or technology. I have to depend on a lot of smart young individuals to help develop our virtual strategies. Good leadership is recognizing when you need to engage and get strong input from others.

IBR: You mentioned that you earned an MBA/JD from Ivey and Western. In what ways do you think your Ivey education has helped you succeed as an CEO?

LR: There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for my Ivey education. The business frameworks I learned at Ivey are utilized everyday. I lived it, I breathed it, and I don’t think that Harry Rosen would be a success today if it wasn’t for a solid business education. Retail is not the most sophisticated industry; bringing strategies to retail and being a strategic company is a real advantage.

IBR: Under your leadership, Harry Rosen expanded sales and added new stores to eight major Canadian markets. How were you able to achieve such success?

LR: When I took over as CEO, there was a serious recession. However, we were never afraid to invest in our business, regardless of where we were in the business cycle. When you’re investing and growing your business all the time, the natural tendency for most businesses is to cut improvements and capital investments during difficult times – we didn’t. Our stores continued getting better through good and bad times. We kept gaining market share in the quality men’s segment to the point where we now have approximately 40 per cent of the quality men’s segment in Canada. That’s because, through every tough business cycle when everybody else retreated, we kept moving forward.

The other thing that has allowed us to grow to well over $300-million in revenue is my father’s operating philosophy. He had a tremendous passion for customers because they are the company’s most important asset. My team and I lived his philosophy. There’s a culture in our organization that was founded by my father, and we haven’t lost sight of that. I didn’t invent the philosophy, but I make sure that it continues.

IBR: How has e-commerce changed how you deliver your value proposition to customers, and what kind of opportunities or threats do you see from e-commerce?

LR: E-commerce to Harry Rosen is more than just another sales channel. The reality is that customers want options, and e-commerce provides them with a means to conduct research. Even though we make a lot of sales online, traffic on our website often translates into foot traffic in our stores. For every dollar we sell online, we earn four or five more dollars of in-store revenue from clients who found us through our website. Even when we get returns, most people don’t send their purchases back. Customers return items to the store, and we have a great opportunity to engage them and develop a relationship with them. We’re in the fashion business and people want to try things on, see how it looks on them, and want to have it altered properly. Those services can’t be provided online. We also have Virtual Harry, where associates can connect with their clients through their version of our webpage. Associates have their own personal portal, where they can sell to their clients online. The reality is, technology is impacting retail dramatically, and we want to be at the forefront. However, we want to incorporate technology in a different way from others, adding the personal service element to it. Anyone can set up an e-commerce website business, but bringing a personal touch is more difficult.

IBR: In a Globe and Mail article, you highlighted the importance of discipline. How do you think people, especially young people, can put more discipline into setting their objectives or goals?

LR: You have to understand what the most important things in your business are, and make sure you’re on top of those things. A lot of people let a lot of extraneous stuff enter their lives, they spin their wheels, and they work on ancillary projects. But you have to make sure that you focus on the big button stuff, know what is driving your business, and spend 90 per cent of your time on the essential things. That’s the kind of discipline that I believe in. Understand what makes your business successful, and make sure that you spend the appropriate amount of time on what you need to be spending time on. I’m surprised at how easily distracted people are from the big issues.

It’s also very important for young people to clarify their goals and make sure they’re sticking with it. One thing I always say is “it’s really important to find an industry that you love, get into it, and really learn it.” People are too willing to hop around. They get to know a little about a lot of things, as opposed to being really interested in one thing. My whole life, at least the last 32 years, has been a study of retail. It’s the study of human behaviour. I’ve gone my entire professional life trying to understand customers, what makes them tick, and what makes them want to make a purchase or go from one retailer to another, and that’s what I do. There’s not a lot about men’s retail that anybody can teach me. There’s something to be said for being really focused in an industry and really learning it and being excellent at it, instead of hopping from career to career, or industry to industry.

IBR: What are some pieces of advice you might have, whether in life or work, for young people who want to be future business leaders, entrepreneurs, or CEOs?

LR: First, find an industry you love and get in it. Get your foot in the door, and stick to it. Don’t just get to a job and think you have to jump to the next challenge. Get into the industry and really learn something. Roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and learn everything you can about the business. Be patient and be ambitious; tell people where you want to go and ask them how you can get there. Use mentors to help you get there. Think big, think long term, think strategic, be ambitious, and recognize that you can’t do it yourself. Leadership is about working through people, inspiring people, and giving people credit. If you can’t do that, you can’t be an inspirational leader.