‘Gordon was a giant’: Giant Tiger founder Gordon Reid dies at 89

Gordon Reid headshot
Giant Tiger founder Gordon Reid has died at the age of 89. Photo courtesy Giant Tiger

Gordon Reid, the pioneering businessman who founded discount chain Giant Tiger and built it into one of Canada’s most successful and recognizable retail brands, has died.

Reid passed away peacefully at home on Saturday after a brief illness, the company said Monday. He was 89.

“Gordon was a giant within Canada’s retail sector, an innovator who reshaped the industry,” Giant Tiger interim president and CEO Gino DiGioacchino said. “To us, he was also a friend and mentor. He will be greatly missed.”

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The retail industry was a lifelong vocation for Reid, who got his start in the business working at Simpson’s department store in Montreal when he was just 13.

Reid eventually became a travelling salesman, hawking Japanese-made sporting goods and other merchandise to retailers in Quebec and later the United States. On trips down south, he noticed an emerging trend: traditional department stores were losing ground to a new class of retailers that offered a wide range of goods at discounted prices. 

“I thought, ‘Boy, this is going to happen in Canada, too, so I better get going,’” Reid told Canadian Retailer magazine in 2010.

That epiphany led Reid to set up the first Giant Tiger store in the ByWard Market in 1961. The savvy entrepreneur surveyed the Canadian market and determined that Ottawa, with its large proportion of workers with stable, middle-class government jobs, would make an ideal place to launch his own discount store.

Reid found a business partner and pitched in $15,000 of his own savings to get the now-iconic George Street location up and running on May 3, 1961. 

The venture got off to a bit of a shaky start, but Reid never quit. He slowly began expanding Giant Tiger to nearby towns, including Brockville and Pembroke, in the mid-1960s. 

In 1967, Reid partnered with Jean-Guy Desjardins, the manager of the outlet in Maniwaki, Que., to establish the chain’s first franchise. 

Since then, Giant Tiger has grown into a retail behemoth with more than 265 locations across Canada, 10,000-plus employees and annual sales exceeding $2 billion.

‘Profound respect for franchisees’

Catering to budget-minded customers, the retailer has become famous for offering a wider selection of goods than dollar stores in smaller, more intimate layouts than the big-box chains.

As the discount retail sector became ever-more competitive with the arrival of Walmart and other chains such as Dollarama, Giant Tiger thrived on finding the sweet spot between its rivals. The store has an “interesting price point that is above Dollarama but below Walmart,” retail analyst Bruce Winder explained when the company turned 60 in 2021. 

Giant Tiger also set up locations in small towns, main streets and suburban communities that weren’t well-served by other big discount chains. Along the way, Reid cultivated a crop of experienced store managers who had a significant stake in the operations – the majority of Giant Tiger outlets are franchises.

“Mr. Reid always had a profound respect for the franchisees that were so instrumental in building Giant Tiger,” DiGioacchino said in an email on Monday afternoon. “He was well-known for picking up the phone and calling stores weekly to hear about their wins and challenges and would be sure to take that valuable information back to his support teams for prompt action. 

“He understood that Giant Tiger was built one store, one community, and one customer at a time.” 

The lifelong entrepreneur’s smarts and tenacity made him a legend among his peers.   

“He decided on what his business model would be way back in the early ’60s and he stuck by it,” Reid’s longtime friend Tom d’Aquino, the former president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Council of Chief Executives (now the Business Council of Canada), said in an interview Monday afternoon. 

“It really says a great deal about his business acumen.”

But even after the chain famous for its bright yellow signage and familiar feline logo expanded far beyond its Ottawa roots, Reid never became complacent. 

Well into his eighties – long after many of his peers had traded in pounding the merchandise floor for strolling up the 18th green – Giant Tiger’s founder was still a regular fixture at the company’s Ottawa headquarters. Reid stepped down as chairman and CEO in 2020, after nearly six decades at the helm. 

‘We will all feel his loss’

The retail lifer accumulated an impressive list of accolades. He received the Retail Council of Canada’s lifetime achievement award in 2010, and eight years later OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade bestowed a similar honour upon Reid at the Best Ottawa Business Awards. 

“When you look at the success of Giant Tiger, you understand where that inspiration came from and where that passion came from,” retail council president Diane Brisebois said. “I think we will all feel his loss.”

Despite his company’s prominence, those who knew Reid well say the Vancouver native preferred to avoid the spotlight.

“He was a very quiet man – in many respects, very understated – but certainly a man with very strong views,” d’Aquino said.

Unlike some business leaders who only focus on issues that directly affect them like taxation and trade, Reid had a keen interest in subjects that went beyond the bottom line, such as defence policy, d’Aquino added.

“He wanted to be informed, he wanted to be engaged,” d’Aquino said. “I remember him saying to me maybe more than once that one of the advantages that he saw of being part of the council is that it exposed him to policy areas that a traditional businessperson wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about.

“He wasn’t just an entrepreneur who was only interested in generating profits. I admired him greatly.”

Brisebois said Reid proved invaluable when the retail council was lobbying government about potentially thorny topics. For example, he once invited federal officials to tour a Giant Tiger warehouse to get an up-close view of how retailers navigated supply chains.

“Being based in Ottawa, he had maybe a more sophisticated understanding of how government worked and the complexity in government,” Brisebois told OBJ on Monday. 

“I remember saying to him, ‘You’re bilingual.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not.’ I said, ‘Yes. You can speak government talk and you can speak English.’ He started laughing.”

DAquino also praised his friend for his philanthropic efforts. Over the years, Giant Tiger has donated millions of dollars to charities across Canada.

“He was a believer that one should give back,” D’Aquino said. “And I think he did in significant ways.”

The company remains family owned, and Giant Tiger said Monday no change in ownership or management is expected in the wake of his death.

A commemoration of Reid’s legacy will be held at a later date.

How Giant Tiger and its founder Gordon Reid thrived across a lifetime of retail

‘Staying true to our customers’: Giant Tiger still a ferocious retail force at age 60

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