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Larry Rosen - family ties

Larry Rosen
family ties
by Renée Alexander
April 2, 2007

Larry Rosen knows Harry Rosen—and he knows he's no Harry Rosen.

The 50-year-old CEO and chairman of Harry Rosen Inc., Canada's leading high-end fashion retailer for men, officially stepped into his father's impeccably shined dress shoes in 2000.

Harry, now 75, founded the company 52 years ago with Larry's Uncle Lou in a single 500-square-foot store in downtown Toronto. He quickly became the face of the company and stayed that way for a half-century until stepping back from its day-to-day operations two years ago.

 
 

Along the way, Harry oversaw virtually all of the company's expansion as it grew to 16 locations in seven Canadian cities and commanded about one-third of the market. (Its 2006 sales are expected to top CDN$ 200 million and a recently announced $50 million renovation and expansion plan is forecast to bring its annual revenues to more than $300 million within the next five years.)

Despite being long-groomed for the position, Larry admits it wasn't easy replacing a man whose name, style, and presence came to epitomize men's fashion in Canada. But he realized many years ago that the best way to approach being Harry's son was not to try to be his clone but instead focus on his own strengths.

"My father is an amazing guy," Larry says. "Those are huge shoes to fill. You don't really try to fill them because you can't. There's only one Harry Rosen. I don't pretend to be what he is. He's the guy who through passion, knowledge, and willpower created a business from nothing.

"My job is a lot easier. We have a culture established by Harry. All I have to do is carry it on. Harry pervades everything in the organization. We're a professionally managed company based on the vision of our founder. Whatever we do, we say, 'What would Harry's standard be?' That's our guiding light."

The two Rosens definitely have different styles, Larry says. His father is the entrepreneur, the original man of the cloth who, when visiting one of the stores, is most comfortable with a tape measure in hand as he measures a client for a suit or jacket. Larry, meanwhile, while also adept in the fine art of fitting, is more apt to gravitate toward the manager and associates to discuss the manner in which service is being delivered.

"I'm part of a team of management," he says. "Our job is to take and extend what is special about what Harry started. So far, so good—it's been working. This isn't uncommon in a lot of businesses. There's often a stylistic difference between the first and second generations. My job is to take something that is already well established in the marketplace and carry it on and make it stronger. That's a different skill set than creating it."

Larry says he will not replace his father as the star of newspaper advertisements that used the tag line, "Ask Harry." There will be no "Ask Larry" sequel, he says. "That wouldn't work, it wouldn't be credible. There's only one Harry. He's the icon."

It certainly could never be argued that Larry didn't pay his dues. While a high school student, he worked in a number of the stores during the summers. After completing a trio of university degrees—a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Laws and an MBA from the University of Western Ontario—and then practicing as a corporate lawyer for a few years, he joined the company as a buyer in 1985.

He then moved up the ladder from a senior manager of store operations to general merchandise manager to a director of the company. In 1997, he was named president and chief operating officer. Three years later, he was appointed to his current positions.

Larry says the company's brand is the same today as it was more than a half-century ago, standing for expertise in quality menswear and building long-lasting relationships one client at a time.

"We don't see ourselves as selling clothing," he says. "We see ourselves as consultants to help people develop a confident personal image. We all want to do the best we can in life. But you can't just be bright—you have to look bright. You have to look successful, not just be successful.

"Nobody wants to hire a lawyer who's scruffy and grubby and makes you itch. People want somebody who looks like a smart lawyer. That's why people invest in their appearance."

Larry stresses the importance of customer relationships because most men can accurately be described as "reluctant shoppers." Ideally, he says, the company can first attract clients in their early to mid-20s, just as they're on the cusp of developing their wardrobe.

"If you can earn their trust, they become loyal," he says. "We keep records of our clients and make them feel positive about the shopping experience. We're not interested in [any] one sale and we don't look at what a client spends today. If he can have a trusting relationship, he'll come back year after year."

But while the brand is the same, it must be treated differently at this stage than when it was new.

"I take a more strategic approach based on business discipline," Larry says. "I want to know what's important to our clients and make sure it's delivered to them in a consistent manner. I'm dealing with a 52-year-old brand—it's a different challenge than starting up a new brand."

Rosen says his father continues to be active in the company, primarily as a consultant, as well as with his charity and board work.

"He's 75 years old and full of energy," he says. "We talk all the time. He's the Wayne Gretzky in my back pocket. I've got one of the world's greatest retailers as a resource. I think he's a genius. He has shown tremendous confidence in us as a team."

Larry says he won't make the mistake of taking Harry Rosen Inc.'s leadership position for granted. He and his team are exploring possible (and logical) brand extensions into cosmetics—such as cologne and shaving products—and shoes.

"We don't believe we're infallible. We need to always be on our game," he says.

Larry, the father of three sons, says he's nowhere near ready to groom one of them as his successor. First, he'd like them each to get a terrific university education. After they graduate, and if they express an interest in the family business, he'll establish standards they have to reach in order to make a meaningful contribution to the company.

So it's not a given that a Rosen will be the next CEO of the company, which employs more than 700 people.

"[Our employees] have families and mortgages," Larry says. "It's a big responsibility to make sure the company is vibrant, dynamic, healthy, growing, and financially stable for those people. You don't take on responsibility at Harry Rosen unless our senior team has tremendous confidence in you. Would I like my sons in the business? Sure. But the most important thing is the health of the business. We owe that to our people so their families can benefit."

After all, that's what Harry would do.

 
  

Renée Alexander is a freelance business and lifestyle writer based in Winnipeg, Canada.

 
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