As the new President and CEO of Roots Canada, Jim Gabel has been tasked with steering a cherished national brand into a new era. It’s an exciting move for the company, but the question begs: How do you take a heritage company into the future, all while maintaining its integrity and authenticity? It’s no small challenge, but with previous stints at Adidas, Reebok and Wolverine, he’s more than ready to step up to the plate.
When you’re taking over a brand as intrinsically Canadian as Roots, succession planning takes on a new meaning. What have you had to do above and beyond a typical succession plan that makes it unique?
I think that time offers so many benefits in succession planning. If you think of businesses that are founder led, where one of the founders runs into health issues, or there’s a disagreement, or the business becomes financially challenged, whatever the things are that prevent the ability to have time to plan, the decision becomes compressed. If you look at this business, it has none of that. It has two healthy founders that are best friends and incredible business people. And a business that has terrific momentum. Don [Green] and Michael [Budman] certainly didn’t have to sell the business, but the fact that they had time on their side to think through what the ideal scenario would look like in terms of their future involvement and the type of people they wanted to bring into the business, and the type of relationship they wanted to have with the business ongoing, they’ve had that luxury of time to be very articulate and clear of what their expectations were. When I started having discussions with Don and Michael, and Searchlight [Capital Partners], it was clear to me that this was a very unique environment that was going to need a leadership team that understood the way the business was, and the values of the business more than anything else. The number one element for me when I joined the company was the cultural fit. The succession that is going on is taking the better part of six months to understand the brand with greater depth of detail.
How do you plan on keeping Don [Green] and Michael [Budman] involved?
Beyond being on the board of directors and being directly involved as minority shareholders, we have very specific touch points in terms of products and marketing ideas, and organizational development changes. While they’re not in the business every day, or certain weeks, over the last six months we’ve defined very clearly where we want them involved in the business. For the rest of the staff, I wanted to make sure there were specific touchpoints we’ve identified where they can expect to have the two founders involved with the business.
Talking about leadership, what do you think makes a strong leader?
A strong leader needs to be very comfortable with their role and capabilities. I’m certainly not here to replace Don or Michael. The things they’ve done so well with the brand in terms of being the face of the brand and the celebrity element, that’s not what Jim Gabel is about and that’s not why they hired Jim Gabel. It’s understanding what the role is and what you bring to the company. We don’t have a desire to be more corporate, however I will say that we will be more strategic. There is a difference between the two. Corporate involves hierarchy and the things that drive corporations are not what we are looking for. We are looking to be more strategic in areas like IT, how we plan our real estate on both a regional and individual store footprint, and how we work with our staff. Those are the things that I bring to the business because I’ve been around those before. Those are areas that I think this business will excel in by having more strategy.
How do you intend to maintain Roots’ authenticity while still growing?
We understand and spent a lot of time understanding what makes this brand tick. We clearly understood that leather factory was a key pillar for the brand. It’s understanding that the culture we have from coast to coast is inbred in the brand. Those are non-negotiables. Those are things that you buy and have to retain because that is going to be the foundation of the brand. And then what happens is you figure out how you amplify those messages so that it’s not just appropriate for Canada but also the other markets that you’re in. And we’ve done that very successfully in Taiwan, for example, where we do not shy away from the fact that we’re a very strong Canadian company. You may not see much Canadian product in those stores, but you see Canadian pride and how we talk to the marketplace about being a proud Canadian brand. And fortunately, Canada is very exportable in terms of the values of how people are looking at this country.
What do you think a great brand should do to engage and communicate its corporate culture, both internally and externally?
If you think of product values like comfort, style, functionality and versatility, and brand values like openness, heritage and integrity, those are things that you can start weaving through your company culture, through your in-store experience to how you develop your products and communicate through your various channels. If you look at the figures, two-thirds of the content this year in the digital sphere will be created by the end consumer, not the companies. So the idea of companies constantly pushing down content is one strategy that may be shed by a lot of them. When a company crosses a threshold where a consumer is just so engaged with that brand that they want to create their own content, and they want to share that with people because of the experience they’ve had with that brand, that’s really when you get a consumer-focused and engaged brand. We do not take that relationship for granted any day of the year.
Speaking of creating content, what are your thoughts on influencer marketing?
I’ve been around some huge brands with athletes that are endorsed on a global scale. I think the difference between those companies and our company is that we don’t pay our endorsers or ambassadors. There is no contractual agreement. They’ve reached out to us not because of a dollar we’re going to pay them, but because they like what we stand for as a company and a brand. If that’s why they have contacted us, we’d be happy and thankful to have a conversation with them. We’ve been fortunate that a lot of celebrities really like our brand and we don’t ask a lot from them. In return, the public sees that the relationship is very authentic and is less about a person pitching a product and more a personal relationship with a brand that people want to talk about.
Roots has always had a great relationship with the entertainment and sports worlds. Recently it’s really solidified its relationship with the music community, collaborating with brands and artists like OVO and the Weeknd. How do you see the brand entrenching itself further in that culture moving forward?
I would expand that beyond music and say it’s really about Canadian culture. We really think the position of the brand is around the open air and the whole idea of openness — an open society and being very embracing of our elements of Canada. We encourage people to get into the outdoors and the open air, and we’re really open to a lot of things that brands wouldn’t be receptive to.
What are the biggest challenges that you see ahead?
Right now the biggest challenge for us is prioritizing. Don and Michael, and the company, have been highly nimble in the past. Speed to market and being nimble is a competitive advantage that any company would love to have. When you’re nimble and a certain size, that’s one thing. But as you become a larger company and you’re running 107 stores across this land and a bunch internationally, you have to be more strategic. We have to look beyond three months commitments and see what the next 12 and 18 months hold. So it really comes down to prioritizing where we want to invest. If you look at my experience, and I’ve bee fortunate to work with a lot of great brands, we will be much prouder in how we talk about our product stories and amplify those messages. We have not talked nearly as loud or proudly about those. If I look at next year, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to amplify that message than the celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary and confederation. We’ve earned that right. There are a lot of things that money can buy, but it can’t buy heritage. We are one of a handful of brands that have earned the right of over 43 years to celebrate in a very Canadian and Roots personal way.