The word on the street was that the venerable Harry Rosen was slowing down and perhaps easing into retirement in his 52nd year in the retail business.

Hah! Don't believe it for a minute.

One day, Canada's legendary retailer of high-end men's wear is at his condo in Florida. The next day, the company's founder, owner and executive chairman is in Toronto at the office of Harry Rosen Inc. for meetings and a photo shoot. The day after that, Harry is jetting to Florence, Italy, for a fashion show and to mingle with the company's major vendors.

If this is slowing down, Don Cherry is a fashionplate.

Ken Kerr, Business Edge
Legendary haberdasher Harry Rosen checks out his threads at his company's flagship Bloor Street men's store.

After more than half a century in business, not that much has changed with Harry Rosen. At 72, he's still the face of the company and, if you're lucky, you might catch up to him on Saturdays at the company's flagship store on Bloor Street.

He'll be the natty one sporting a tape measure and tailor-made smile.

1. Were you from an entrepreneurial family?

"You might say so. My father (Abe) established his own business off and on, with limited success. He was most often into the junk business. After being discharged from the army in 1944, he opened a junkyard in Callander, Ont. I sort of hung out there in the summers and did some yeoman work, you might say. But, as was the case with most of his enterprises, it didn't work out. He had a partner who was also a discharged veteran, and somehow my father's partnerships always came apart. Interestingly, my father was very natty. He had suits tailored for him and he liked to have colour in his neckwear. He was pretty much of a dandy and a handsome man, too. He looked good in his clothes."

2. What sparked your interest in the retail men's wear business?

"When I was 17 or 18, I somehow or other found a summer job that I extended into a year's stay, in a tailoring factory that made men's clothes. I just caught the bug. Through that experience, I learned about the making of clothing and the end wearer. I started to take an interest in men's shopping habits, and what it took to please them. Finally, when my studies weren't particularly successful, I started to think about establishing my own store."

3. So how did Harry Rosen, the business, get started in 1954?

"I remember getting ill (in 1953), being bedridden and very feverish, and I couldn't write my exams (for courses at the University of Toronto). I was reflecting on life and I decided that the thing I was most suited for was to have a shop of my own. I shared that goal with my employer, Sam Lebo, who was a wonderful man. He encouraged me and said he'd do everything he could to help me succeed. I remember the fever broke and I went out with my dad on a trip in his truck. That's when I told him I'd like to go into business. He didn't have any capital, but he offered to get a loan for me. I found a location in the east end of the city (in Cabbagetown) in an incongruous place to sell better-class clothing. It was a roof over my head and empty shelves. I didn't have the money for inventory, but I knew manufacturers of fine clothing in Toronto and got them to put lengths of cloth in my store on consignment. The overhead was extremely low because of the neighbourhood we were in. The store opened on Feb. 4, 1954. It cost $500 to start the business (with his brother Lou, who still works at one of the Toronto stores)."

4. What was your strategy in building the business?

"I did what I'd always imagined would meet with success, and that was to build relationships with men. Once they had a sense of confidence in me, they would publicize you to others. They would talk about how they had found this young struggling guy who seemed to have some ability in this out-of-the-way place. I then networked my way through the publishing business and the advertising agencies. By 1957, we were sort of the household word with the advertising agencies in Toronto of which there were about two dozen. On Friday afternoons, the advertising reps would knock off, have a two-martini lunch and kill the rest of the day at the store. They'd bugger around, meet their peers and tell lies. The business was basically built on my so-called expertise and my comprehension of men as consumers and ability to get them over the fear of buying clothes. In 1961, I moved to an off-centre location in the downtown core on Richmond Street and there I really had what I'd always envisioned my business - a real snobby men's-club type of store."

5. How did you market your business at the new location?

"That year, I met a fellow named Stann Burkhoff who was in the advertising business. He came in to buy some clothes and I developed a relationship with him. Through that relationship, he wound up doing some ads for me and I paid him by giving one suit to him and one to his art director. Together, they developed the 'Ask Harry' campaign. Those ads ran in the Globe and Mail and just accelerated the growth of the business. In my discussions with the advertisers, I started to understand marketing, something I wasn't educated about."

6. What's the most important lesson you learned in building your business?

"How to understand men as consumers and build relationships with them. Those relationships are founded on their respect for my knowledge, my honesty and my desire to do well for them. If men enjoy what they're getting, they're your best advertising."

7. Do you think too many retailers today are neglecting the customer-service aspect of business?

"There's still good service at specialty stores, but the department stores have one way of solving their problems of expenses. They always cut back on their people, so the service just isn't there. But I think even department stores today are learning about the advantages of service, although you don't see much evidence of that in Canada. I see it (improved service) in the United States. Nordstrom has kind of carried the torch, and now all the department stores in the U.S. are working at trying to service the customer better. Still, they have a long way to go to catch up to my friends in the U.S. who are specialty-store operators."

8. In your view, how well dressed are Canadian businessmen today, compared to your early years in business?

"There's been a lot of confusion created by business casual (wear) because men just don't get it. They don't know how to look elegant once they take off a tie. They're coming around but very, very slowly. Men have various lifestyles to dress for today and merchants like ourselves have grasped the opportunities.

We have business casual attire, business elegant dress in suits and formal wear such as tuxedos. When I started in this business, the nearest thing you had to a vision of man being casually dressed was a man who took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He still had his tie on. For merchants like us today, it's not just a pure tailoring mentality. If you want to get more dollars, you've got to make men understand the different lifestyles."

9. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate Canadian businessmen from a fashion standpoint?

"I think across the land, I'd rate them sort of seven out of 10. I would say Toronto men are best dressed because we have more commerce here, but Montreal men are more fashionable in a sense. In Calgary, men are buying and dressing well, but it seems to be that when they get casual there's only one look that dominates - and that's jeans. Yet, there are many other ways to dress casual. We're in such an eclectic period where casual and formal come together, where you see a man wearing a suit jacket over a pair of jeans. And it's cool. It looks good. That's the whole trick in business casual - wearing a jacket of some kind. Today, we have a data bank of information on our customers such as the business he's in, his hobbies, his athletic activities and his affiliations."

10. When is the fedora coming back?

"I wear one, but I must say the airplane and the automobile killed the fedora. Now it's just too much trouble."

11. Your son Larry is chief executive of Harry Rosen Inc. How is the transition to giving your son more responsibility working out?

"It's been good. He's been in the business almost 20 years now. He was a lawyer with an MBA, came into the business as a buyer and has grown to this point, where he's the obvious successor (as executive chairman)."

12. How does Larry's style differ from your own?

"I came into the business on the selling floor and I'm still very comfortable serving customers. I consider that a very meaningful way of learning what people think of you, what they think of your services and how they react to your merchandise. To me, it's a laboratory. The moment I'm on the selling floor, I'm interacting with customers. I'm not a good observer. I have to get my hands into it and be involved. My son has a different style of management. I think he'll be successful, but his interaction with customers is not primordial. It's not his way. He observes and learns from others. But I get my information first-hand. Is one better than the other? I can only say if the end result is right, what's the difference?" 13. Are you planning to retire any time soon?

"I hope that I will remain healthy and involved. I feel as though I'm on top of my game currently. I read what's going on in the industry. I don't feel out of step at all. I don't feel that I've become old in terms of my comprehension of current lifestyles and the language of youth. And I continually watch young people. Observing young people, for me, is critical to learning what's happening and what's going to happen. I don't find their music altogether to my liking, but I see their values and see what they're thinking. I hope I'm not a fossil just yet. If my health holds up, I hope I can continue to make a contribution - but I do understand the differences in styles of management. I don't want that to lead to any clash at all. I can see someone being successful doing it differently than I do it. In fact, that's exactly what's happening. And the objectives are the same - to build customer relationships, to buy quality clothing and educate the public on how to justify the prices of our merchandise."

14. I understand you've sold suits for as much as $25,000. Who is buying those $25,000 suits?

"Oh, just one person in my lifetime. The cloth was a prize clip. I expect that price will be succeeded because the fabrics are getting better and better."

15. I would assume that Don Cherry isn't a customer of yours. Is he someone you could work with? "No, I couldn't work with him. That's costume, a costume that I don't even want to understand. He's a showman. His attire is off the wall. It doesn't appeal to me at all. What I bring to dressing a man is an antithesis of his outlook on dressing. I think his attire is pretty much an extension of his own thinking."

16. What was your best year for sales and what's your vision for the company?

"We don't have the exact numbers yet for 2004, but we're on track to have the best increase in sales and profits that I've ever seen. Our sales for 2004 will be about $170 million from our 16 branches across the country. We will be doing some major projects, including renovations of existing properties for the next couple of years. But I still would like to target the women's business and go into major metropolitan centres in the U.S. (with men's stores). We went into the U.S. in 1999, going into Buffalo, but it was the wrong market. We sweated it out, made a small profit and closed the store.

In the next year or two, if renewal of existing properties goes well and our sales and profits continue to be strong, we should be ready to expand into women's stores and also open stores in the U.S. within three years. The women's business is a great catalyst in developing men's business. Women still have a tremendous influence on men. Friends of mine in the U.S. with men's shops who have gone into women's shops have done very well."

17. Who's the entrepreneur you most admire?

"It was Stanley Marcus, (the former chairman of Neiman Marcus luxury retail stores). He died at 96 (in 2002). He was always accessible to me and was a man with tremendous integrity and idealism. A man of vision."

18. How important is money to you?

"It's not all that important. I think that I derive satisfaction from our reputation and the position we've carved out. I have great pride in our reputation, the quality of goods that we sell and our relationships with our customers. That's invaluable to me. After that, it's important that it pays off in profit."

19. If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?

"I'd like to have been smarter earlier. I'd like to have gone further in school, taking a degree in business. With a business degree, I think I'd have had more vision and the ability to manage better. I'm not unhappy with the end result, but I think I could have made more progress more rapidly with a better education."

20. If the Harry Rosen stores vanished tomorrow, what would you do with your life?

"With the knowledge I've accumulated about men as customers and what it's like to operate a retail business, I think I would either start a new business or I would very likely consult for people who I know and respect in the world markets. Training staff is still something that is in its infancy. Merchants get around to doing that after everything else is done, but I consider it one of the principal things for being successful. Last summer, one of the heads of Saks Fifth Avenue said to me: 'Come and train our staff.' I don't need a job like that, but if I wasn't operating our business, I could keep busy utilizing the knowledge I have of retail. I'm still very confident in my abilities to understand the contemporary world, but I may be deceiving myself.”

Harry Rosen

* Born/raised/age: Toronto/72.

* Title: Founder/executive chairman/owner, Harry Rosen Inc.

* Education: High school, honorary doctorate in commerce from Ryerson University.

* Family: Wife Evelyn, four children.

* Career: Harry has operated the Harry Rosen stores since 1954 when the company was founded.

* Tying One On: Harry's personable approach to fashion enlightenment is reflected on the company website, which provides forthright pointers on everything from tying a tie to finding places in Canadian cities to loosen your tie.

* Accolades: Harry recently was a recipient of the Pitti Immagine Uomo Award from the Italian fashion community, joining the likes of Elton John and Giorgio Armani. He was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada in 2004. In 1987, he was named Retail Marketer of the Year and won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Retail Council of Canada.  

* Community involvement: Rosen's longstanding association with the Canadian Cancer Society is just one of several commitments he has forged with charitable Canadian organizations.

* Passions: Reading, music, fitness.

Henry Rosen Inc.

* Brass: Larry Rosen, CEO; Harry Rosen, executive chairman.

* Profile: A family-owned company for 51 years, Harry Rosen Inc. is a retailer of high-end men's wear with 17 locations in Canada's business centres. The original 500-sq.-ft. shop in Toronto was the building block for today's stores, which average 10,000 sq. ft. Today, Harry Rosen stores account for 33 per cent of the Canadian market for high-end men's wear.

* Accolades: The company has been recognized among Canada's 50-best-managed companies for three straight years.

* Website: www.harryrosen.com

* HQ: 77 Bloor St. West, 16th Floor, Toronto, M5S 1M2

* Phone/Fax: (416) 935-9200/(416) 515-7067.

(Gyle Konotopetz can be reached at gyle@businessedge.ca)