Uncovering Bonnie Brooks’ Influence
BY CAROLYN LAWRENCE
As the first female president and CEO of the Bay, Bonnie Brooks continues to prove she has what it takes to run with a great opportunity and lead neglected institutions to the forefront. With a history in the retail and fashion industry that spans some 40 years Brooks has worked hard to carve out an ever increasing and influential role. Born with an innate sense of style and ability to see a trend before it happens, this determined woman has achieved some enviable power roles.
This August, Bonnie shared what’s behind her dominant force: an extremely hard working woman, dedicated to the science behind the art of fashion — a true trendsetter.
BONNIE, HOW DID YOU GET TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
I started on the bottom of the ladder at an entry level position styling a photo shoot at Fairweather. I wore the latest fashion trends to the interview — platform shoes and a white mini dress. I’m confident that outfit got me the job.
After that, I started styling more photo shoots, writing copy for ads and for internal communications and doing fashion direction for the store. And before I knew it, I was the assistant advertising manager and did special events and fashion shows across Canada. During that time, we opened over a hundred stores across the country.
I worked there for seven years, and then moved to Holt Renfrew as the director of marketing, where I became vice president before I was 30; I’ve had upper movement from there. Now, I’ve been on the executive committee for retail companies for more than 25 years.
I think I moved up fast because I remember my father telling me he had fired his secretary. I was just a little girl when that happened and it stuck with me. I asked him why, because we knew her. Why was he firing her? He explained to me it was because she only did what he asked her to do. So, I’m not sure if I just wanted to learn and do as much as I could or if it was because I was absolutely petrified of being fired.
I always try to do more and I always took more responsibility without being asked. As a result, in 1986, when Galen Weston bought Holt Renfrew, he wanted me to take over the buyer’s office. I’d been there for six years and was the vice president of marketing. But he made some changes at the top and there was no one running the merchandise office. Buyers were coming to me [to see] what’s new, and he saw that.
HAS THE CORNER OFFICE ALWAYS BEEN A PART OF YOUR VISION?
I think so. There were two games I used to play when I was little. One was office and one was fashion. I would play with my dad’s paper work and I would shuffle things around and pretend it was my office. I would make Barbie doll clothes and sell them. I was always interested in fashion and clothing, and I was always interested in business. It’s quite funny when I look back. I didn’t recognize it then of course, I entered the fashion business because I love the clothes.
HOW DO YOU DO IT? HOW ARE YOU DRIVING THE BAY INTO THE FOREFRONT OF RETAIL IN CANADA?
The fashion business is fast, the business in retail and the business in fashion. And interestingly, all retail business is fashion-oriented. It doesn’t really matter what you are selling and there’s always going to be a trend in the market for a particular item, or particular colour range. There’s a fashion element in every business we are in. And the fashion business is partially art, but mostly science. I think you have to have a good sense of the art, meaning that you have to have a certain style, but in addition to that, the science is the key. Science is the analytics and the research side of the business. And research and development are important to us, just like it’s important to the pharmaceutical company. We have several services that we use that are fashion and trend and consumer forecasting services, and we also do a lot of our own research in terms of making sure we have a presence at all the major fashion events, fashion fairs, of course, the fashion shows in Europe and N.Y., and we have a team that is dedicated to researching, monitoring and sharing all that information.
We gather and guard that information very carefully to make decisions ahead of the curve, so it’s educated risk mitigation. And we make sure our senior executives are fully aware of what’s going on in the market place. In regard to retail, our team is pretty much on top with what’s going on industry-wide.
WHAT SPECIFICALLY DOES YOUR LEADERSHIP SYTLE BRING TO THE BAY?
I think I am counted on to constantly keep up the standard and keep pushing the bar and I continue to strive for excellence. It’s not that I’m a perfectionist because I don’t think you can be a perfectionist and still motivate people. People have to want to be the best. They have to want to do that for themselves, as well as for the team and for the company. So I think what I try to do is motivate people to exceed their own expectations and that’s my favourite saying, “A man’s reach must always exceed his grasp.” That’s really how I like to see each day. We did really well today; can we do even better tomorrow?
HOW HAVE YOU RAISED THE BAR AT THE BAY?
This year we want a 20 per cent increase to our women’s wear and we are doubling our women’s footwear business. Those are bold goals in our environment, where a one per cent increase per year would be acceptable in most department store businesses. Here we are adding considerable business which moves people outside of their comfort zone. We don’t encourage sleepless nights, but we make sure every barrier to success has been addressed and that we have a plan in place for each part of the business to succeed to achieve those high goals. We dissect every move we are going to make and goal, and we bring it down to small pieces to ensure that it can actually be delivered and we make it happen.
We also did some research in the market and we knew that the market space was available to us, so this wasn’t just instinct. So like I was saying before, it’s partially art, which is the instinct and the gut feeling, but it’s also the science because the research numbers are showing us the market was there.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST DEFINING MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER?
I think the defining moment [was] when Galen Weston made me the executive vice president of Holt Renfrew, and it boosted my confidence; my personal confidence. I was in my mid 30s and up until then, I hadn’t really felt 100 per cent confident. When someone who you admire gives you a large piece of responsibility in the company they own, it gives you the confidence you need to step up to the plate.
WHO HAS BEEN YOUR ROLE MODEL?
My first role models were the senior women and owners at Fairweather, who taught me a lot. Some still give me advice, which is terrific.
I had the good fortune to work with Dave Nichol, he was developing President’s Choice for Loblaws. He also helped me with our private label program at Holt Renfrew. He was a great model in terms of innovation and creativity. And I had the opportunity to work with some the best designers around the world. Having an international network of creative people, even Tyler Rulay, there are a lot of people that I’m connected with around the world who think the same way in raising the bar and also being part of innovation.
HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR DAY TO DAY?
I practise yoga at home at least three times a week, if not more, and I practise meditation; both are essential for me to recharge the body and the mind. And well, it’s the summer and I have a cottage, so I’m here on the weekends. But I often wonder whether I could do this job if I had a family at home. I do have a number of people on the team, on the senior executive team, that do balance family and their work and are very good at it. I’ve seen it in action and I know it can be done.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE SUCCESS?
The day I feel successful is the day I will have to retire, because I don’t ever feel success. It’s the castle that I’m always striving to reach and I don’t expect to actually have in my hands, because when you achieve one success, you want to achieve another success. Great success is the ultimate or the end. For me, there’s always more to do and something better than what you did the year before, and [a] healthy career that keeps growing. Once you reach success you should move on to something else because the last thing you want to do is become redundant.
WHAT IS YOUR POWER OUTFIT?
I learned along the way that you don’t have to dress like a man to have the male side of the boardroom to take you seriously. You can dress like a woman and still be considered good at your job and professional, although it’s really important to know the difference between dressing for day and dressing for evening. Women have to be careful not to show cleavage during the day, etcetera, because it’s important to be taken seriously.
My power outfit is to be confident. Today, the women I see, the CEOs I see in the U.S. and around the world are all wearing dresses. Your power uniform can be in style and chic and in fashion. It’s a matter of the lines on the dress and how you wear it and tailor it. So, for me, it would definitely be a well-tailored dress.