When John Simons opened his first dry goods emporium in Old Quebec City in 1840, you have to wonder if he had any idea of how frenzied the retail landscape would one day become. Then again, if vision is something that runs in families, perhaps he passed some down to his great, great grandson Peter. The 51-year-old President and CEO of the Quebec-based La Maison Simons is a big thinker who wears his family mantle proudly, and with the current expansion of the much-loved fashion and home décor retail chain outside of its native Quebec, the ambitious executive is strategizing and ruminating about retail in untold ways. Together with his brother Richard, Simons first boldly stepped outside Quebec in 2012, with an Edmonton location. A Vancouver store opened two years later. Now, with Mississauga’s Square One store newly opened for business, and Ottawa set to open in August, it’ll be back to Alberta in 2017 for a Calgary launch, followed by a second Edmonton location slated for the summer of 2017. Further expansion is also in the cards, with leases being finalized. Meanwhile, La Maison Simons is poised to compete with the mighty slew of American retailers who are descending upon us. And while Peter Simons claims he’s not nationalistic, there’s a distinct Canadian pride in what he’s undertaken. Couple that with a dedication to promoting Canadian labels alongside Canadian art within his stores, and you have the recipe for some compelling retail. I sat down with the visionary in Toronto recently to talk about his family’s values, why customer service and heart are so crucial, and how art, fashion and beauty can give you the confidence to truly believe what you’re capable of.
J: When you initially masterminded this cross-country expansion, the landscape, was different, both economically and in terms of other retailers moving in….
P: Oh for sure. But I have no regrets. It’s volatile but with 175 years behind us, I think it’s fair to say you think in different increments of time. So I don’t really worry about the moment. I’m thinking longer term. No, I feel good. What you want to do is build something solid, that’s meaningful, and then you have to just believe it’ll have its place, if it’s meaningful. That’s really what we have to focus on.
J: How would you say Simons is different as a retail brand? What kind of a niche does it fill?
P: It fills a unique fashion niche in terms of the assortment we’ve built for our customers. It goes from mid to high end and it lets the customer shop across those price points under one roof in a way that our Quebec customer and the customers we’ve seen in Edmonton and Vancouver are understanding. The merchandise is a large component. There’s a real focus. It’s not about real estate or brand. It’s about creativity and the customer. Maybe that sounds simplistic but it’s not because a lot of retail has turned into a real estate business. You’ve got a million square feet, so show me the best jogger. You have to go from a little section of real estate to little section of real estate. At Simons, we’re really putting together an assortment. And there’s a designed-in-Canada component… It’s also the way we curate the pick in the collection and put it together with other things that makes it unique. The second thing is we’re privately family owned business and we’re going to use it to make some choices about how we run our business and how we build it. And I hope it’ll make a difference to how people see us. I’m really proud of the work we do with (Canadian interior decorator) Samantha Pynn, and (Quebecois designer) Denis Gagnon and (Alberta-based designer) Malorie Urbanovitch, and even (Canadian artist) Douglas Coupland. We can always do more but those are things that don’t happen if our head office is in Wichita, Kansas.
J: Customer service has become a favourite buzz phrase now and people are saying it’ll be what’s going to separate the retailers that survive from the ones that won’t. What does that mean to you, as a retailer who’s set on success?
P: It’s a key part. We really believe in the bricks and mortar because we think it’s a platform for a human connection. For us, customer service starts the moment we pick our people. It’s about values, and it’s about sharing these similar, organizational values. I don’t want to hire your competency. I want to hire your heart and your values. Because you just can’t train desire and values into someone. You can train technical competency, but I really don’t care about it because I think the difference will be made around those really intangible but important aspects. And the stores are just going to be a place for that. I believe in the stores because I believe in people. People say, ‘Oh you really believe in bricks and mortar.’ Well, I don’t believe in bricks and mortar: I believe in a physical place where people of quality and with certain values meet. And I believe that’s part of community and civility. That for me is the heart of our business.
J: You studied engineering and economics initially, and weren’t always clear on getting into the family business. Why did you decide to finally embrace it?
P: I saw an opportunity for a really great challenge. Look, I played university basketball, finished school when I was 22, and at 24 I got a cheque and built a 200,000 square foot distribution facility. Would I had that opportunity elsewhere? A family business is a great opportunity but it’s also a great responsibility. It gives you a place to make a difference. Would I have commissioned (Montreal artist) Guido Molinari at 28 to do something? I wouldn’t have the resources to do it. Would I be working with Douglas Coupland today or having dinner with (Vancouver-based artist) Brendan Tang tomorrow? Would I have thought about architecture and visited Bilbao six times when it was under construction? The family business gives you the ability to do things either for yourself or for the community. I saw that opportunity and I’m happy. It was a building block.
J: How supportive was the family when you first told them you were going to bring art into the fray to the degree that you did?
P: My father was always interested in art and there was certainly an understanding of the importance of the creative artist in the fashion environment. So it wasn’t like this big revolution. It was something that was evaluative. There was a family appreciation. I didn’t have to go to the board and say, ‘We’re going to hire Guido Molinari to do this big installation in the middle of the store. Here’s the return on investment….’ I wouldn’t have wanted to be that guy. I’ve been in those situations and you can’t quantify it. You have to just believe. Maybe today that faith is gone. Or it hasn’t maybe gone for small businesses, I don’t know. But in our business it hasn’t gone. There is intuition and faith and meaning beyond the next quarter.
J: What excites you about fashion outside of the business of fashion?
P: It’s that quest for beauty and I think it’s interpretive. Fashion, as all art, is a reflection. It’s a comment, it’s part of a social dialogue. That excites me. It’s a commentary on where we’re going, and what’s possible. It’s powerful and it’s not superficial. Fashion can give confidence to someone. And through confidence, you can conquer the world. That’s what art’s about. Beauty reminds you what we’re capable of and fashion and its beauty really gives you the confidence to truly believe what you’re capable of.
J: It is wildly empowering for sure.
P: Yeah, so I think that’s thrilling. It’s interesting. It’s constantly changing It’s interconnected to a lot of other fields of visual art and it’s just socially very interesting.
J: It’s a gut thing too for you…
P: It’s real and more than ever I think we need it right now, because you look around the world there’s a lot of bad stuff going on.
J: What about the activity of shopping and buying and accumulating stuff?
P: I do believe we’re at an apex. I can feel with our customer a movement away from just ‘fast fashion’ to more meaningful fashion, to the stories and the creative support behind fashion. It’s in its infancy but it’s about buying less and buying smarter. The disposable thing has gone far enough. Even the high end in Europe is looking at the timing of the shows, and how that’s going to relate commercially. Because we deal with a much more fashion avant-garde younger client than a lot of people, I can feel that influence coming in environmentally and socially. And I’m an optimist. So I think it’s good to be conscious about the impact of your consumption and we’re going to work really hard to be super transparent. We’re just auditing with PwC Sustainability Group in the UK, all our supply chain from our store imprint. We started working on a zero energy store in Quebec City. I think we have the opportunity to go somewhere new and isn’t that what fashion is about, to lead forward to somewhere new and to look at it differently?
J: With all the strides and innovation being made in online shopping, and with talk of designers selling directly to customers in the future, what does the role of a bricks and mortar store become?
P: For ten years we’ve been talking about the idea of how creativity will survive, where it’s going to survive, and how’s it’s going to mass together into not a métropole but a créaopole—a creative metropolis, so to speak. Right now I’m just very excited about having creativity join our organization, and surrounding ourselves with creative people. I think the bricks and mortar element is a no brainer. Yes it’s going to survive, but only if it’s built on a foundation of creative people that understand fashion. I’ve got some clear ideas what we want to do and I want to strengthen it, make it better.
J: You’re idealistic it seems. You see the way things could be perfect, and you try to get them that way.
P: It’s not idealism. It takes a lot of strength to do the heavy lifting and refuse the income today because long term you’re going to build something more meaningful. We could line your pockets and I’m hoping it makes a difference but you don’t know until you play your hand out.
J: Well your passion is palpable…. How do you, on a personal level, keep that up? What gets you out of bed every day?
P: The last five years have been a lot of heavy lifting. Retail’s tough right now and it’s changing so fast and there’s a lot of insecurity. But the best thing I’ve done in the last two years? I love it when we hire great people. That turns me on in a commercial sense. I was responsible for some new buyers coming in. And teaching young buyers what you’ve learned and also receiving their point of view from them—well, that’ll get me out of bed everyday.
J: I guess that’s who the whole company survived for 175 years—one generation passing that wisdom onto the next and evolving….
S: And learning. And the flexibility. It’s not a one-way street. Those young kids come in and they’re well educated and smart. And they’ve got stuff to learn that they may think is old school but isn’t. And they’ve got a lot teach too.
J: Well it’s great to hear that you care so much about it…
S: I’m in a good space in my head right now. I’ve been through ups and downs and through some moments where I woke up and I said, ‘Holy s–t Peter! You’re way out of your depth here!’ But then the other morning, I woke up and I thought, ‘I don’t know whether what we’re trying to build is going to work, but today, right now, I wouldn’t change a person. We’re going to war with the team we have and if I can’t win with these people… Well there’s no way we’re not going to win. But it doesn’t matter when you’re fighting with people that you believe in. That’s why you want to go to work everyday, don’t you?