Aldo's sprawling, ruthlessly efficient global empire

Shoemonger Albert Bensadoun has no rivals anywhere near as big in what is a highly competitive industry

Photograph by Richmond Lam

In the summer of 1954, a 15-year-old boy named Albert Bensadoun boarded a boat in Morocco. Albert was chaperoning his sister Anne-Janie and her date as they crossed the Mediterranean to France. On this trip, Albert met a girl he fancied, who told him that his name was confusing. There were two other Alberts on board, she said. Why don’t I call you Aldo?

For the Bensadoun family, the boat ride was significant for two reasons: his sister would end up marrying her date, and Albert’s new name stuck. Six years after stepping off that boat, Aldo Bensadoun moved to Montreal and started what would become the largest fashion footwear company in the world.

Today the Aldo Group sells some $1.8 billion worth of shoes a year and has 1,600 stores in 80 countries around the world. As the company celebrates its 40th year in business, the brand commands a virtual lock on the vast (and vastly profitable) middlebrow global fashion footwear market from its Montreal head offices. It has also succeeded where other Canadian companies, from Le Chateau to Canadian Tire, have failed: converting success at home to success abroad.

The secret, apart from the vaguely European-sounding name bestowed on Bensadoun, has been the company’s ability to detect and synthesize fashion trends, then distill the results in footwear form faster and at less expense than anyone else. The company then sells its wares through the Aldo brand and Call It Spring, its lower-priced cousin, as well as through its wholesale division to JC Penney and Coles Shoes. “The high-volume fashion industry is all about chasing trends,” says Montrealer Brandon Svarc, owner of the fashion line Naked and Famous Denim. “They’ve got to pump it out and get it on shelves as quickly as they can.” Aldo does just this, and because of its huge number of stores around the globe, the Montreal shoemonger essentially has no rivals anywhere near as big or efficient in what is an otherwise highly competitive industry.

At the heart of the operation is Aldo Bensadoun himself. Today, “Mr. B,” as everyone is meant to call him, is a kind-looking 72-year-old with perfect, almost luminescent white teeth and dark brown eyes that seem to smile whenever he does. He often strolls, almost invisibly, about Aldo’s cavernous glass-and-stone headquarters in an industrial section of Montreal.

He got into the shoe business, he says, “by accident.” He arrived in Montreal in 1960 on a weekend escape from Cornell University and was enamoured enough with the city to stay for good. In the mid-’60s, the self-described hippie who hung out at Café Santropol, then a hothouse of Communist ideas in Montreal’s Plateau district, landed a job with the president of Yellow Shoes to design a system of shipping shoes between the warehouse and the store. Bensadoun wanted to strike out on his own, and on a visit to Italy he saw how women were wearing clogs under their bell-bottom jeans. With Italian designer Gianfranco Fornari, he grafted the leather upper typical of a Swedish clog onto the elevated sole of Japanese geta wooden sandals. He sold them out of a Le Château consignment space in downtown Montreal. “I had maybe 60 pairs of clogs—they sold in a couple of days,” Bensadoun says. “And that’s how it started.”

Bensadoun was adamant about keeping the company private and based in Montreal, and by the mid-’80s the chain had 95 stores in Canada. It was only in 1993 that the company expanded into the U.S. “We were a very conservatively financed company,” says Aldo Group international president Norman Jaskolka. “We were able to go to the U.S. and say, ‘We’re going to do this right, we have time.’ ” Aldo’s international foray, meanwhile, was a happy accident. In 1994, Montreal businessman Samuel Nezri pitched Bensadoun on opening an Aldo franchise in Israel; its success spawned similar franchises in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Today, Saudi Arabia is one of the company’s leading markets, with 51 stores. (There are 37 in Israel.) The majority of Aldo’s global stores are franchises. “We probably earn 80 to 90 per cent of the profits we’d make if they were our stores, without putting up any capital,” says the company’s global retail president David Bensadoun, Aldo’s son.

At its heart, Aldo’s ability to get eyeballs on its new designs as quickly as possible stems from its truncated production cycle. The company’s average turnaround for a shoe, from conception to store shelf, is 12 weeks, versus the industry standard of 17. The Perusia, a suede pump encrusted with hundreds of metal studs, is one of the 1,600 shoe styles from Aldo’s spring-summer collection. That the shoe looks as if it was artfully butchered by some DIY squeegee punk is no coincidence. “That ’80s-referenced styling was big from a clothing standpoint in the last 18 months, and there was a couple of key designers like Marc Jacobs and Miu Miu that ended up showing studs in their collection,” says Aldo’s son Douglas Bensadoun, who is Aldo’s creative director and VP of marketing. When high-end fashion designers co-opt a street-level fashion conceit, a trend is born—and by January 2012, one of Aldo’s product development teams decided it was worth chasing. The group developed a prototype called a confirmation sample by March 1; two weeks later, it decided to apply the design to a “ballet flat” type shoe. Both designs are made in China.

On May 1, the company rolled out the Khabou flat at Aldo’s American stores. The Perusia, with its 3½-inch heel, is the edgier of the two; it was only offered in select “high-fashion” locations where “you can introduce some crazy new styling and see if it takes. You won’t find that out in Sarnia, Ont.,” says David Bensadoun. “Once you confirm that the styling is acceptable and that people are willing to pay ‘x’ price for it, you can then commercialize it and turn it into a money-maker.”

The experiment a success, the Perusia was rolled out in four colours in Aldo stores worldwide, as well as online, which accounts for 10 per cent of company sales. Retail price: $100—about 10 per cent of the price of the Miu Miu version that partly inspired it. Often, though not in the case of the Perusia, Aldo will create a version of its shoe designs in synthetic for its Call It Spring stores and JC Penney at a lower price point, a relationship David Bensadoun says is akin to “Audi and Volkswagen.”

Aldo repeats the process roughly 3,200 times every year—once for every pair of shoes it develops. Though he’s clearly comfortable with its progression, the company’s huge, dizzying global machine at times baffles Aldo Bensadoun. The self-described “old hippie” smiles and shakes his head when asked if he foresaw any of it when he moved to Montreal so many years ago. “No, no way. The idea was to be happy and to have fun.”