'It's the right time': Ottawa retail pioneer Gordon Reid steps down as CEO of Giant Tiger

Gordon Reid
Giant Tiger founder Gordon Reid meets then-prime minister Stephen Harper in 2006, just one moment across a lifetime of retail achievements. Reid announced Monday is he retiring as CEO of the retail chain he started in 1961. File photo

The only CEO Giant Tiger has ever had is stepping down after nearly six decades on the job.

Gordon Reid, the former travelling salesman who built the Ottawa-based company from a single store in the ByWard Market 59 years ago into a multibillion-dollar chain that competes toe-to-toe with multinational giants such as Walmart, said Monday he is officially relinquishing the role of chief executive and chairman of the discount retailer.

Paul Wood
Giant Tiger president and chief operating officer Paul Wood will become the company's CEO.

Paul Wood, a longtime Giant Tiger executive who’s served as the company’s president and chief operating officer for the past year, takes over as CEO effective immediately.

Reid’s son Scott, who had been serving as vice-chair, will replace his father as chair of the board.

Reid, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade two years ago, will remain on the board as chairman emeritus.

“It’s the right time for me to step down,” he said in a statement. “This change is all part of the natural evolution of leadership at Giant Tiger that sets the company up for success for the decades to come. We’re fortunate to have a strong leader in Paul who has a solid understanding of the business and our growth plans.”

The notoriously publicity-shy entrepreneur is renowned in the industry for his methodical, low-key approach to making Giant Tiger and its iconic cat logo a king of the fiercely competitive retail jungle in Canada.

“Other people will panic in a crisis. He doesn’t,” Scott Reid told OBJ two years ago. “When other people are terrified, my dad is calm. When other people are ecstatic, my dad is calm.”

That steady-as-she-goes demeanour has served the elder Reid and his company well, even in the face of stiff competition from aggressive foreign competitors. Thanks largely to his inspired leadership, Giant Tiger not only survived Walmart’s expansion into Canada in the mid-1990s, it thrived, deliberately setting up shop near its larger rival and daring the U.S. firm to beat it on price and quality of merchandise such as women’s fashion.

More often than not, the nimble cat got the better of the department store colossus.

“In the end, we made more money because of Walmart,” Scott Reid said in 2018. “They would come into town and they’d put everybody out of business except us.”

Billions in annual revenues

From its humble beginnings on York Street in 1961, the chain has grown to more than 255 stores from coast to coast and today employs 9,500 people. As a private company, Giant Tiger doesn’t reveal exact sales figures, but Wood said Monday its annual revenues exceed $2 billion.

The 17-year veteran of Giant Tiger’s executive suite said the company is well-equipped to tackle pressing challenges such as the explosion of e-commerce and subsequent shift away from brick-and-mortar retail during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s growing in significance for us every day,” the Smiths Falls native said of the company’s online presence, before adding that traditional physical stores will remain the foundation of his road map for growth.

“There’s still market potential for us (in brick-and-mortar locations),” Wood said, noting that discount retailers are gaining a growing share of the overall retail market in Canada.

As chief operating officer, Wood oversaw the chain’s recent acquisition of 36 stores in Western Canada from franchise partner the North West Company as well as the opening of its state-of-the-art distribution centre in Johnstown, south of Ottawa, and the construction of its new head office on Walkley Road.

The incoming CEO said Giant Tiger’s defining hallmarks, including its franchise model, will remain unchanged.

“It goes back to staying true to those values,” he said. “We've been able to carve out a niche, a pretty loyal following, and we seem to grow and build upon that foundation every day.”