The convergence of Harry Rosen, the man, and Harry Rosen, the corporation, began in 1961 when he moved into a bigger store in Toronto and wanted to advertise his personal tailor shop business.
He asked a customer, who happened to run a major advertising agency in town how he might approach the new strategy. The customer told him he would design some ads but only under the following conditions; Rosen couldn’t change a thing and each ad would cost him two suits, one for the customer and a second for his art director.
Rosen told him about the challenges of breaking through the barriers men put up when shopping for clothes and soon after, the "Ask Harry" campaign was launched.
The first spot featured a shot of Rosen from behind, wearing a suit with one hand on his hip. The ad's text read: "This is Harry. Harry has a store. Harry sells suits. Harry's suits are all naturally tailored. Harry calls this lean, unpadded styling the Cambridge look. Harry specializes in the Cambridge look. If you like the Cambridge look, remember his name, Harry."
"Right from the moment it ran, it was very successful," Rosen says. "We had customers coming in from outside of Toronto, from around the country, in fact. That was the beginning, although I didn't understand it at the time, of the branding of Harry Rosen.”
The advertisements didn’t always go as planned, however. One Christmas season, the company took out ads showing a picture of a woman appearing to have hanged herself via an ugly tie.
"The idea was 'avoid this happening to you Christmas morning by [not] giving your husband this ugly tie. We've got chapter and verse on what your husband or boyfriend would like (including records of sizes and preferences). It's safe to come and buy from us, it won't happen to you,' " explains Rosen.
The local and national media pounced on Rosen for what could politely be described as a lack of sound judgment. But even though Rosen says he kept saying the wrong things in the week's worth of interviews that followed, the business never faltered.
"It was a million dollars of free publicity. I had that happen to me probably a dozen times in my career," he says with a laugh.
Handling media firestorms will soon be the sole domain of his son, Larry, the CEO of Harry Rosen Inc., as the founder plans to take a few months off next year to help his wife recuperate from knee surgery. Rosen realizes he has left some large, wing-tipped and spit-polished shoes to fill.
"I'm trying to ease [Larry] into it. I don't expect him to be exactly like me, you can't be a dead ringer for anybody else," says Rosen. "I wouldn't want to be my son. If he tries to emulate me — it's not that I'm any better than he is, he's bound to be different — but if he basks in my shadow, he'll never develop. He's got to be his own person, I'm going to let him be his own person, and I have up until now," he says.
"He's a man of the cloth, just like me."
Looking back on his rise, Rosen says he quickly came to personally symbolize the Harry Rosen philosophy of quality and customer service.
"People would ask me if I wrote the ads. I told them I didn't know how to write a line. ‘Well, it sounds like you,’ they would say. That's when I realized [my ad writer] was such a pro. He could make it sound like my personal ideology," he says.
To further enforce the public's perception of him, the company routinely advertised that customers who had a complaint could call Rosen himself, not just some faceless person at a call center, and it included his personal office number. The corporate website also encourages people to contact Harry either by phone or his personal e-mail address.
No matter what the company did, Rosen made sure to never lose touch with the most important element of his business, his customers. He still spends every Saturday in his flagship store with a tape measure and piece of chalk in hand. He does the same thing at his other stores across the country at least a couple of times a year.
"I advise people on their clothes, just like any other salesman," he says. "I offer them advice on fabric and what fits them properly. And if they want me to fit them, I'll fit them."
That never-ending interaction with customers provides invaluable information for running the company, he says.
"Every day of my life I serve customers, and I look critically at my interaction with them. No matter who they are, I'm going to be challenged to meet their needs," he says.
"I could become an office type, but if I did I'd be removed from where I think all the stimulus for ideas comes, which is the selling floor. My customers tell me what they think of us, whether we've got up and coming competitors, whether our stuff falls apart or stays together, they tell their good or bad experiences. It's all there, right in the store," he says.
While his official retirement is still a year away, the phasing out of Rosen from the company's advertisements has begun. Recently, a number of well-known personalities, such as former world's fastest man, Donovan Bailey, and actor Christopher Plummer, have appeared in print advertisements dressed to Harry's nines. The ads include three things that person has learned. In Bailey's case: 1. Fatherhood is the best medal of all; 2. Retirement is only the beginning of something else; 3. You have to wear a tie when you go to church.
In the meantime, Rosen says he’s going to continue to keep in regular touch with all of his sales staff across the country to ensure his ideology is transferred to every shop floor.
"They have the sense of being involved on a day-to-day basis rather than occasionally when the boss comes through. But when I do come through, I'm walking the talk. I'm doing the selling just like they are, looking after customers, measuring them, fitting them. So the branding goes beyond my son, it permeates the entire company," he says.