Bonnie 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.