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

Gordon
Giant Tiger CEO Gordon Reid meets then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006, just one moment across a lifetime of retail achievements. Photo provided.

When the retail behemoth known as Walmart took Canada by storm in the mid-1990s, it sent shudders down the spines of countless homegrown store owners who feared they’d be trampled in its wake.

But Ottawa businessman Gordon Reid, an accomplished retailer in his own right, saw things a bit differently. Instead of wasting energy worrying about Walmart, he threw himself into figuring out ways to beat the U.S. retail juggernaut at its own game.

For example, the founder of discount chain Giant Tiger combined skiing trips to resorts south of the border with scouting trips to nearby towns that had been hit hard by Walmart’s arrival. He wanted to find out what competitors who’d survived the onslaught had done to adapt, and whether he could bring those approaches to Canada.

“He just said, ‘I’ve got to get more information. Let’s start figuring out the solutions,’” explains his son Scott, a member of Parliament for the Eastern Ontario riding of Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston and vice-chair of Giant Tiger’s board of directors.

Clearly, all that research was worth it. Giant Tiger not only survived Walmart’s arrival, 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 says. “They would come into town and they’d put everybody out of business except us.”

One cool cat

It’s just one case among many, he says, where the elder Reid’s measured, methodical approach to problem-solving paid off in spades.

“Other people will panic in a crisis. He doesn’t,” Scott says. “When other people are terrified, my dad is calm. When other people are ecstatic, my dad is calm.”

That even-keeled state of mind is reflected in other aspects of Gordon Reid’s personality. His unassuming style is one reason the Vancouver native is not a household name in Ottawa retail despite a business pedigree that rivals any big-name entrepreneur in the country.

“The (business) lifespan of Gordon Reid has been extraordinary. A lot of people would have said, ‘I’m out of here’ a long time ago. But age never really stood in the way.”

“He’s a man who understands humility,” says his friend Tom d’Aquino, the former president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Council of Chief Executives (now the Business Council of Canada). “Sometimes people build significant businesses and it goes to their head. Not in the case of Gordon. He’s always remained a very grounded individual.”

Since Reid opened the first Giant Tiger store in the ByWard Market 57 years ago, the chain has expanded to more than 245 locations across the country, and the company now employs more than 8,000 people and generates annual sales well north of $1 billion. The 85-year-old who first started working at the old Simpson’s department store in Montreal at the age of 13 still puts in five-day weeks at the office, long after most of his peers in the industry have traded in pounding the merchandise floor for strolling up the 18th green.

Reid’s passion, dedication and enduring commitment to Canadian retail made him the clear-cut choice to receive OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Best Ottawa Business Awards.

A lifetime in retail

Reid’s path to retail immortality began more than 70 years ago, when he “fell into” his job at Simpson’s as a way to help pay the household bills.

“He was smart and they found more and more responsibilities for him,” his son explains. “Within a certain length of time, it was the thing he knew.”

By the mid-’50s, Reid was a travelling salesman, hawking Japanese-made sporting goods and other merchandise to retailers in Quebec and later the United States. On his trips 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.

Reid 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. He 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.

After struggling for a few years to establish his credit rating and buying out the original co-owner ​– “It was touch and go for a while,” Scott says ​– Reid slowly began expanding Giant Tiger to nearby towns, including Brockville and Pembroke. In 1967, Reid partnered with Jean-Guy Desjardins, the manager of the outlet in Maniwaki, Que., to establish the chain’s first franchise.

“The fifth store (in Maniwaki) was the one that really made the business, because up until then my father was struggling trying to run all these stores with limited success,” Scott says.

Today, Giant Tiger’s unusual franchise model​ – the company retains a 49 per cent ownership stake in all of its stores while charging just a $1 franchise fee in return ​– is one of its hallmarks. Scott Reid says it makes ownership much more financially viable for prospective franchisees and still provides them with a healthy income once the stores are entrenched in a market.

With smarts, attention to detail and an unmatched work ethic, Gordon Reid and Giant Tiger have tackled every challenge in the volatile world of retail ​– from the arrival of Walmart to the emergence of online shopping ​– head on. Well into his eighties, the firm’s founder continues to leave no doubt as to who is calling the shots.

“The (business) lifespan of Gordon Reid has been extraordinary,” marvels d’Aquino.

“A lot of people would have said, ‘I’m out of here’ a long time ago. But age never really stood in the way.”

And as more than one rival retailer has found out the hard way, neither has the competition.