Bonnie of The Bay

She’s smart, fearless and charismatic. Will that be enough to revive the iconic retailer?

Bonnie of The BayBonnie Brooks surveys the huge oil portraits of Hudson’s Bay Co. governors lining the company’s boardroom in downtown Toronto with amusement. “I will say that the guys from the 1600s are better looking,” she says. “Did you see Charles II in the hall? Stunning. Hair to here. Gorgeous.”

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’s surprise appointment as president and CEO of the Bay last August, months after the company was bought by American real estate mogul Richard Baker, is trail-blazing on a few counts. One, she’s the first woman to hold the position; and two, the arrival of the internationally respected 35-year retail veteran provided—for the first time since the HBC traded pelts—the glimmer of hope that the Bay could be, to use that most overused of Canadian sobriquets, “world-class.”

Of course, that was back in those halcyon days before the economy cratered and “70 per cent off” became retail wallpaper. Even then, the prospect of revitalizing the Bay was daunting. Mid-market department stores are on a death watch: so many have folded, Statistics Canada stopped measuring them as a category. “It’s not a viable format,” says Toronto retail analyst John Williams. “They’re squeezed between value merchants—the WalMarts and Winners—on one end, and luxury stores and specialty boutiques on the other. The Bay, whose 92 stores range in size from 1,000 to 100,000 sq. feet and in appearance from shabby to not-shabby, has been subject to multiple failed makeovers over the past decade, helmed by numbers guys who failed to realize that pleasing customers connects to the bottom line. Merchandising was a mish-mash, product inconsistent, sales staff infuriatingly elusive.

Brooks’s return to Canada last September after 11 years in Hong Kong, where she rose to the position of president of Lane Crawford Joyce Group, a conglomerate that runs some 500 stores in nine Asian countries, was greeted with hurrahs. “If anyone can change the Bay, she’s the person,” says designer Glenn Pushelberg of Toronto-based design duo Yabu Pushelberg, who has known Brooks since her days at Holt Renfrew in the 1980s. “There are very few people who could make it relevant today.”

Certainly few have more impressive high-end retail CVs than Brooks, whose experience charts the vicissitudes and limitations of the Canadian industry. A precocious mercantile talent manifested itself early when she was growing up in London, Ont. “I was making and selling Barbie doll clothes—which maybe we shouldn’t tell Mattel—when I was nine years old,” she says. When the other students in her Grade 9 home economics class were sewing gingham aprons, Brooks whipped up a suede suit. In 1973, she snagged a sales job at London’s Biba boutique, then the place in the world to shop, after a post-university European trek. Back in Canada, she landed at Fairweather, part of the now-defunct Dylex chain, as a copywriter and stylist. She rose up company ranks before joining Holt Renfrew in 1981, where again she proved to be a high achiever, running merchandising and PR.

In 1990, she returned to Dylex to recast its Town and Country chain for an older, more affluent customer. Her plan to offer $49 Armani-esque blouses and Donna Karan-quality stockings for $5 a pair was never market-tested. Three months after the relaunch, 15 months after her arrival, the company was shuttered. In 1994, she went to Flare magazine as editor-in-chief, where she punched up the format, before returning to Holts. Though her responsibilities were impressive, the challenges weren’t there for someone who likes to test her comfort zone. In 1987, she decamped to Asia after she was offered a job as senior VP merchandising and marketing at Hong Kong’s then-dowager department store Lane Crawford, owned by the fabulously rich Peter Woo. Pushelberg recalls her early days in Asia as difficult. “She was in shell shock,” he says. “Business is done so differently in Asia—it’s patriarchal, it’s old-fashioned. In the beginning she didn’t understand any of that. She was a bull in a china shop, and I wondered ‘Oh my gosh, is she going to last?’ But the beauty of Bonnie is that she’s an adapter. When something doesn’t work, she’ll find a way of making it work.”

Brooks flourished. Pacific Rim fashion mavens owe her big time for securing rights to dozens of coveted brands, among them Stella McCartney, Chloé, Marc Jacobs and Jimmy Choo. With Yabu Pushelberg, she created luxe retail theatre within the Lane Crawford stores. The flagship International Finance Centre store garnered buzz in style circles for its martini lounge, chill-out CD bar, and art installations by Hirotoshi Sawada and Dennis Lin. Interior Design magazine voted Lane Crawford 2008 retailer of the year. “It was known as the better-than-Barneys store,” Brooks says proudly.

Last summer, Richard Baker, president and CEO of New York-based NRDC Equity Partners, called Brooks to see if she’d work her magic on the Bay. Baker, the son of strip-mall magnate Robert Baker, had catapulted onto the U.S. retail scene, buying U.S. department store chain Lord & Taylor, once-fabulous luxury retailer Fortunoff, and Linens ’n Things. Baker, who sat on the HBC board, bought HBC for $1.1 billion after owner Jerry Zucker’s sudden death last April, believing it offered great synergies. There was talk of turning some Bay locations into Lord & Taylors and selling Fortunoff product through the stores. Baker sought out top-notch merchants, hiring Jeff Sherman, a former executive at Polo Ralph Lauren, as HBC’s president and CEO.

Sherman had worked with Brooks when she secured rights to Polo’s Club Monaco brand for Lane Crawford. Baker, who had met Brooks at a dinner, says his one video-conference meeting with her wowed him. “She was absolutely perfect,” he says.

Brooks tends to provoke those sorts of accolades. “Bonnie’s one of my favourite people on the planet,” says her friend, Fashion Television host Jeanne Beker. “She’s fearless.” Former colleagues are besotted. “We’d all love to work with her,” says David Riddiford, CEO of the Irish department store Arnotts, who worked with Brooks at Lane Crawford. “Bonnie’s whole essence is about communication. She is a fabulous networker and fabulous negotiator and she believes in bringing people onside.” Pushelberg says Brooks defies stereotypes of the driven female executive: “She’s not a ‘tough broad.’ She’s endearing and she’s engaging and she compels you to do things; it’s her nature.”

It was time to come home, Brooks says. She missed her family. She’d also reached a professional impasse, having successfully mentored Peter Woo’s daughter Jennifer Woo, who’d been named president of Lane Crawford stores in 2003. U.S. retailer Barneys New York talked to her about spearheading its Asian operations, and it would have been a good fit, Brooks says. But she’d have been pitted against her former colleagues. Returning to Canada was always in her plan, says Riddiford. “She often talked about going back as a university governor but that wouldn’t have satisfied Bonnie. She’s always on the move—learning to play mah-jong, or learning the piano. She can’t sit down and read a book like the rest of us.”

Brooks says she talked to Sherman and was shown a detailed five-year plan before making her decision. She didn’t visit the stores, fearing the task ahead would seem Sisyphean. Some might see that as denial. Brooks says it was necessary: “I knew if I did that it might alter my plan. It would probably serve me and the company better for me to retain a fresh attitude toward the business.”

The executives’ shared vision is to make the Bay the dominant Canadian department store by improving the quality of its brands, its stores and its service, or as Sherman refers to it, “the customer experience.” When Brooks came on board, the assignment was likened to turning the Queen Mary around. Five months later, the Titanic might seem the more apt nautical analogy. The economic downturn has dampened sales of clothing and furniture—department stores’ core businesses. HBC laid off 1,000 workers in February, more than one-third from the Bay. NRDC Equity Partners’ other retail assets have tanked: Linens ’n Things went into bankruptcy last year, Fortunoff filed for bankruptcy last month. In January, NRDC provided Lord & Taylor with a US$60-million cash injection, the Bay with US$70 million. Operations were centralized. Sherman took responsibility for all of the retail banners, including Lord & Taylor. Meanwhile, competitors lie in wait. Shoppers Drug Mart, for one, is aggressively nipping at the Bay’s No. 1 position in cosmetics.

Yet, sitting on one of the tattered chairs that surround HBC’s long boardroom table, Brooks appears as buoyant as her name. “We’re having the best year of anyone in North America,” she says. “We were up comparative stores in January and well up in February. One could say ‘Did you have a bad year last year or is this part of the management team or is it good luck?’ ” She laughs. “But to be up in this size of business at this moment in time is really unique.”

She does feel the pressure, she says: “On one hand, I feel we can ride a big wave of enthusiasm; on the other, it’s a little daunting.” People are rooting for the Bay to improve, and not only because these are times in which failure hurts everyone. A desire exists for a good quality, full-service department store. “If I could, I’d do one-stop shopping,” says Beker. “Who’s got time to go to 15 stores?” Designer Brian Gluckstein, who sells his GlucksteinHome line at the Bay, believes the format has the potential to provide “relevant, exciting shopping experiences,” citing France’s Bon Marché, Galleries Lafayette, and Harvey Nichols as examples.

The chain’s vendors were thrilled with the arrival of a chief executive whose vision extends beyond Bay Days and scratch ’n save coupons. “The Bay has not been run by a merchant for a very long time,” says Canadian House & Home publisher Lynda Reeves, who sells the House & Home line there. Gluckstein sees Brooks’s luxury pedigree as a benefit, and was impressed by Brooks’ curiosity. “She’s amazing,” he says. “She’s smart, she’s engaging, she’s interesting and interested.”

Brooks arrival has stoked staff, Reeves reports: “They’re so excited to have someone who loves retail, who wants to be on the floor, who understands the customer.”

Of course, as is the case with anyone as detail-oriented and high-achieving, Brooks “can be as frustrating as hell,” says Riddiford. “She can overwhelm you; she has so many ideas and so many strategies. You’re swept along in this typhoon of enthusiasm and innovation. There can be a trail of disruption and confusion, but at the end of the day she gets what she wants. She created things that are beautiful.”

George Yabu and Pushelberg say they were horrified when Brooks told them she was going to the Bay. “We said. ‘Oh gosh, Bonnie, what have you done?’ ” says Pushelberg. But before long, they too were swept up. “We had all worked together on these high-end exclusive stores and now there’s a big behemoth of a Canadian icon and how can you make it engaging and make it specifically Canadian, which would be kind of groovy,” says Yabu. “She’s got enormous challenges but if her bosses give her the scope she could make something pretty amazing, world-class.”

Just how much scope is possible in the current climate is the big question. Brooks has excelled in businesses run by rich owners with deep pockets. But the crash of Baker’s other retail holdings raises uncertainty about his ability to fund HBC. New York retail analyst Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, sees shades of Robert Campeau, another high-flying real estate mogul who drove headlong into retail, only to have it all crash down. He sees the recent US$60-million cash injection into Lord & Taylor as a red flag. It’s not clear if Hudson’s Bay Co. is tied into Lord & Taylor’s loan agreements, Davidowitz says. “There might not be a way to close the Bay and keep Lord & Taylor or close Lord & Taylor and keep the Bay.”

Baker says the five-year plan is still viable. “We believe that Canada can certainly afford to have one well-run national department store,” he says. “In the U.S., there are 10.”

Brooks says the US$70 million injected in HBC in the past two months puts the Bay in a much better position than many quality retail businesses. “We are still on the vendor’s positive lists, which is much better than many of our U.S. neighbours.”

Since her return, Brooks has been hoovering up information. She enthuses about the data provided by Bain & Company, even though the presence of retail consultants often bodes ill. She’s still trying to figure out the Bay’s shape-shifting target customer: “It’s different by store type and market,” she says. She’s willing to pick anyone’s brain, even turning the tables on a Maclean’s interviewer: “Do you shop at the Bay?” she asks, taking notes.

Brooks’s strategy will be outlined to the HBC board in April. Shoppers will see changes in the stores by late spring, she says. “Brand by brand, piece by piece, we’ll build our share back.” Her priority has been to review merchandise: many brands will be dropped, others added. Brooks has told vendors that she supports a “buy Canadian” philosophy and also that’s she’s seeking exclusive international labels. When asked about the rumour she’s in talks with Britain’s Topshop, she laughs. “We’re talking to a lot of interesting people,” she says. Which means there might be some retail drama if Brooks begins poaching brands sold at Holt Renfrew.

The economy has forced a re-evaluation of the overall plan, she says, before giving it positive spin: “But it also has possibly sped up the process by encouraging us to become a nimble operator. We need to build and funds will be somewhat limited over the next year or two, and that will give us a little more time to determine where we want to go.” Yet she knows there’s an urgent need to spend on stores and on service. “Oh, we’re very aware of that,” she laughs, quick to note that the layoffs focused on the backroom and didn’t touch the floor staff.

She has spent the day talking to designers and architects. She has talked to Yabu Pushelberg but their involvement has yet to be determined. Creating retail theatre is the linchpin in Brooks’s MO, says Riddiford: “A lot of people try to improve profitability by cutting costs and dumbing down, but Bonnie’s view is the opposite—you have to drive sales and drive customers and you’ve got to excite them. She knows that big-space stores have to have excitement, whatever the level of market.”

Brooks’s biggest challenge right now, says Sherman, is to hold tight: “I think her greatest challenge is being able to be patient because she knows exactly where she wants to take the business.” This will be difficult for Brooks, says Beker, who observes that her friend throws herself into whatever she does “150 per cent. She lives it and breathes it,” she says. So enmeshed is Brooks with her new assignment that she’s reading Peter Newman’s three-volume history of the Hudson’s Bay Company and realigning her own closet. Her fall 2008 wardrobe, with its pieces from McQueen and Prada, was purchased at Lane Crawford; spring 2009 will come from the Bay: “I have my eye on the new floral collection from Isaac Mizrahi for Liz Claiborne. Have you seen it?” she asks, ever the enthusiastic retailer. “It’s in all the U.S. and Canadian fashion mags for spring. Fantastic! Even Oprah is wearing it!” Yes, if anybody can change the Bay, it’s Bonnie Brooks. Which means that if she doesn’t, no one ever will.

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