Bonnie Brooks has a black belt in retail make-overs, but can she bring shoppers back to The Bay? By OLIVIA STREN
I’m sitting on a toilet in a cramped fluorescent-lit bathroom at The Bay’s downtown headquarters, struggling to hear Bonnie Brooks over the din of a blow-dryer. It’s 9:30 a.m. (I’m her second appointment) and the newly minted CEO of The Bay is having her hair and makeup done in preparation for the day’s photo shoot. There’s no time to lose; one gets the impression this woman hasn’t experienced an idle moment in the past 40 years—which is why I find myself squatting porcelain-side, competing for eye contact with a mascara wand. Even her name has a sort of exclamatory, assertive bounce—not a syllable to spare. It’s the sort you’d expect to title a high-end women’s department store or a type-A careerist character in an ’80s sitcom. Brooks is frighteningly competent and has a charming way of inspiring deference, even obedience (I would have sat in the sink had she suggested it). In the retail industry, she’s considered a messiah—someone who could inject glamour into an East Side Mario’s. Or even into The Bay. Her current mission is to drag Canada’s dusty department store out of its moribund past and into a sexier, more profitable present.
Brooks has built a career out of her ability to swankify retail landscapes. She was part of the original power team that revived Holt Renfrew in the late ’80s, and has only just returned from a decade-long stint in Hong Kong, where she was president of the Lane Crawford Joyce Group’s quintet of companies, helming 500 stores in nine Asian countries. Still, her latest appointment presents unique challenges. The plan: to bring romance back to the oldest company in Canada. She excitedly rattles off a list of just-learned facts: The Bay was once run by King Charles II’s brother; it was run by Royal Charter for the first couple of hundred years; and its trading empire once extended over one twelfth of the world’s land. “The Bay has incredible glamour,” she says with conviction. Positive thinking is obviously part of the Brooks playbook.
Operating 94 outlets nationwide, the last of Canada’s old school department stores has long been stuck in a past when shopping was about one-stop function—a vast retail steppe set to bad lighting and muzak, staffed with salespeople who generally forget to look alive. And while retail is becoming ever more specialized, the Bay-style department store—hawking everything from panino presses to pencil skirts— is arguably defunct.
Add to that the fact that the company has gone through two seismic shifts in as many years. Brooks’s August appointment was part of several major management changes at HBC. In 2006, the Canadian company was purchased by North Carolina billionaire Jerry Zucker, who had planned to attract a more upscale customer. His unexpected death in April left The Bay, once again, on shaky ground. New owner Richard Baker (principal at NRDC Equity Partners, which owns Lord & Taylor) has a reputation for acquiring faded brands and bringing them back to life. Enter Bonnie Brooks.
Raised in London, Ontario, she started designing and sewing outfits for her Barbie dolls at nine years old and has worked in virtually every area of the retail business since. In the early 1970s, she took a life- altering trip to London, England, and rather than return home as planned, she landed a job as a sales girl at Biba boutique, known then for its innovative merchandising and modern atmosphere. “London, at the time, was the height of fashion excitement,” she recalls. From then on she knew what she wanted to be and returned to Toronto eager to enter the industry. She began at Fairweather—working her way from stylist and copy writer to head of marketing—and eventually moved over to Holt Renfrew to take a job as director of marketing (later executive VP). At Holts, Brooks helped bring in virtually every high-end fashion label—Gucci, Prada, Armani, Dior. “I remember sitting outside the president of Christian Dior’s office in Paris in the late ’80s. She kept us waiting for several hours; she did not want to give us the brand. Finally she came out of her office, and within an hour and a half, we had it.” Trailblazing is Brooks’s raison d’être. Among her every-day jewellery is a bracelet inscribed with her MO: “Go not where the path may lead, go where there is no path and leave a trail.” Her Hong Kong legacy is impressive. Both Lane Crawford (which won the 2008 international retailer of the year award) and the fashion plates of the Pacific Rim (now bedecked in previously unavailable brands like Chloé, Stella McCartney and Christian Louboutin) have Bonnie Brooks to thank.
Brooks is already courting new brands for The Bay—“That started week one,” she assures me with a mischievous grin—but she won’t name names until they’re official. Whether shoppers will be ready to buy new tricks from an old dinosaur remains to be seen. At 900,000 square feet and eight floors, The Bay’s Queen and Yonge location is a retail wasteland (sales per square foot are estimated at just $142, compared to an estimated $480 at Wal-Mart Canada). Brooks acknowledges that in its current incarnation, the store may be its own worst enemy: most customers, for example, have no idea that The Bay opened a fashionista- friendly boutique—Maison B.—earlier this year. The reason: it’s tucked away on the third floor and almost totally indistinguishable from the regular women’s collection. Brooks says that in the future, merchandise will be trimmed and focused on the core customer (identifying that customer is at the top of her to-do list). She’s also talking facelift with long-time friends George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg, who revamped several Lane Crawfords.
The makeup artist finally steps away from his subject, beholding his work with admiration. Brooks, however, is less satisfied. “I like my lips to be lips!” she says, flipping open her Chanel compact to redo the pout herself. She closes the compact decisively 10 seconds later. “There!” she announces with a ta-da! smile. If you want the job done right, get Bonnie Brooks to do it.