Simons says Rideau Centre is the place to be

From his vantage point overlooking the ByWard Market in what will soon be the Rideau Centre’s newest department store, Peter Simons sees a different Ottawa than the one he used to know.

 “The first time I came with my brother, I told (him), ‘Let’s go. We’re going to do a store in Ottawa,’” the 51-year-old CEO of the Quebec-based Simons chain said in a recent chat with OBJ.

“We were walking down Rideau Street, and there was a police arrest – really violent; there were guns and stuff – and my brother looked at me and said, ‘This is completely crazy.’ It was another era. The city’s really moved forward. It’s been on our radar for a long time. Sometimes you just need the right place and the right project.”

The downtown Ottawa that Mr. Simons visited a decade ago seems light years removed from a place he believes is in the midst of a renaissance. Now, he says, it’s the right place with the right project: the $360-million expansion of the Rideau Centre in which Simons will take centre stage when it opens its first Ottawa location on Thursday.

During a 30-minute tour of the 100,000-square-foot space in the mall’s newly expanded wing at the corner of Rideau and Nicholas streets, Mr. Simons spoke freely about the store and his company, which was founded in Quebec City in 1840 and is the oldest private family-owned enterprise in the country.

“There aren’t many businesses like us left,” he said.

The fifth-generation chief executive is known for being thoughtful and forthright with the media, and his recent interview with OBJ was no exception.

He didn’t deny being slightly stressed over the last-minute push to complete the store as he surveyed dozens of workers drywalling, sawing and hammering away, but he said the physical structure itself isn’t his main concern.

“We’re really focused now on our staff and our training, honestly,” Mr. Simons said. “I can see people coming to the store more and more, yes, for the building and the experience, but the community experience is just the great people, so we’re really focused on our recruiting now and finding … people that are going to really be committed and understand our values.”

Still, when you’ve carved out a reputation for designing stores that don’t fit a cookie-cutter mould, the actual building is important.

The Rideau Centre location will feature a work from Canadian artist Shayne Dark, which will be suspended in the centre of the escalator atrium. Called Torrential Red, the 22-foot-long sculpture is crafted out of ironwood saplings saturated in red pigment.

“Our stores aren’t just a box,” said Mr. Simons. “These are places that we really care about.”

Clearly a proud Canadian, he said the chain is also working with renowned artist and writer Douglas Coupland on a piece of art to celebrate the country’s 150th birthday in 2017.

“These are projects that don’t happen, to be honest, when it’s not a company from here,” he said. “I’m hoping people appreciate the things that we’re doing.”

Corporate responsibility is a recurring theme for Mr. Simons, whose company is planning a store in Quebec City that will be equipped with solar panels and charging stations for electric cars and will be designed to produce as much energy as it consumes.

The retailer also contributes to the communities in which it does business through various avenues such as providing financial support to Quebec City’s symphony orchestra and Vancouver-based Ballet BC.

It’s never bad for business to be seen as a good corporate citizen, but Mr. Simons insisted it goes beyond that.

“I think consumers are really smart,” he said. “I think there are certain things about who we are that they appreciate. We’re trying to participate in the communities where we’re working. I’m hoping people appreciate that, as another factor that makes us a bit different, and support us.”

As someone who grew up in the retail industry, Mr. Simons is well aware of the struggles of Canadian-based companies in an increasingly cutthroat business climate.

Years ago, he and his brother Richard, the firm’s vice-president of merchandising, made a conscious decision to spend big money to fortify Simons’ e-commerce presence. Since then, online sales have become a major driver of growth for the retailer, which does about $400 million worth of business each year.  

“We’ve put everything on the table to build not a big company, but a modern company,” said Mr. Simons. “We’ve invested enormously in technology and the web and our stores and the experience. Our gamble is we could build a world-class company in retail here in Canada, which is more and more rare. It’s been a lot of heavy lifting. There’s a lot of risk on the table.”

The firm has also invested heavily in its most important resource, giving its entire workforce an across-the-board raise three years ago.

“We’re humble enough to see the risk and the change, but we’ve got amazing people,” Mr. Simons said. “I just keep telling myself, you can get great people together with the values we all share, and they understand why you’re trying to do what you’re doing. I go to bed every night saying to myself, ‘If you’ve got great people, it’s got to work.’”

Rideau Centre renaissance

Simons’ entry into the Ottawa market couldn’t have come at a better time for the Quebec City-based apparel chain, says a prominent local retail analyst.

“In some ways, they are kind of lucky,” said Barry Nabatian of consulting firm Shore-Tanner & Associates.

With a sluggish loonie keeping shoppers at home and planned federal infrastructure projects promising to give the local economy a boost, things are looking up for higher-end retailers such as Simons, he said.

“The Rideau Centre is the perfect place for them,” Mr. Nabatian said, explaining that the addition of luxury stores such as Nordstrom, Tiffany and Michael Kors has made the downtown mall the preferred shopping destination for upper middle-class consumers.

“It has jumped several steps above all the other shopping centres in Ottawa,” he said.

Simons, which is opening its first store in Ottawa this week, will add something new to the Rideau Centre’s mix, Mr. Nabatian said. While Nordstrom is more like a collection of boutique retailers, Simons is essentially a high-end department store, he said.

“They will not compete; they will complement each other. Simons will add a great deal more attractiveness to Rideau Centre.”

Rideau Centre general manager Cindy VanBuskirk says the addition of Simons is all part of the mall’s long-term strategy to broaden its retail mix. The store is one of 21 new retailers that are set to open on Thursday as part of owner Cadillac Fairview’s $360-million overhaul of the mall that began three years ago.

Other brands that will be making their Ottawa debut in the newly expanded Rideau Centre include women’s clothing chain Anthropologie, Spanish clothier Massimo Dutti and NYX Cosmetics.

“We’re really looking to bring new best-in-class retailers not only to the property but to Ottawa,” Ms. VanBuskirk said. “We think that’s a big win for everyone. There’s an audience in Ottawa that wants to have that sort of retail experience. If you can deliver that retail mix and you can deliver an elegant interior environment, you’ve really got a great recipe, I think, for success over the long term.”

Still, she dismissed any suggestion of the expansion being a “luxury wing,” noting the new space also includes retailers that target a broader market segment such as H&M, which is opening a 25,000-square-foot store.

“The fact is we’re downtown, we’re urban,” Ms. VanBuskirk said. “We need to have an H&M, we need to have some of the more popular-priced retailers to complement our offerings at the other end. I don’t think people shop exclusively in any one part of the spectrum. I think customers are very open to shopping at different price points.”

According to Mr. Nabatian, 40 per cent of the city’s households earn more than $150,000 a year. Other malls looking to grab a share of that upscale consumer market would do well to court Simons, he said, suggesting Bayshore Shopping Centre would be an ideal location for a second store in the capital.

“The Ottawa market can for sure support two Simons,” he said. “There is a lot of money in the west end.”