How Aldo became one of the world’s largest footwear retailers
An olive tree sits in the middle of an impressively modern, one million sq-ft lobby in the surburban Montreal headquarters of the Aldo Group. A curious sight considering that olive trees are not native to a city where the weather viciously swings between hot, humid summers and bone-freezing winters.
“The olive tree is a visual reminder of our roots,” says Dianne Bibeau, the wife of Aldo Bensadoun, the 71-year-old namesake of the company. Bibeau is the curator of the group headquarter’s impressive 350-plus piece art collection. It ranges from works by Damien Hirst; up-and-coming Canadian artists, and even members of the Aldo Group’s staff.
The roots she is referring to are those of Bensadoun’s — affectionately known in the company as “Mr. B” — who 45 years ago, as a humble Algerian-Canadian shoemaker, founded the eponymous company that has grown into a one of the world’s largest footwear retailers. Today, Aldo has more than 3,000 stores in 100 countries around the world, the largest of which — an 8,000sq-ft store — is in Dubai Festival City.
It’s a hard thing to grasp, that this privately-owned company — now headed up by Aldo’s son David Bensadoun — with an annual turnover of approximately $2 billion, all started with a simple wooden clog.
“The first shoe that I created was inspired by a Swedish clog,” recalls Mr. B across the breakfast table to a small group of press hanging off his every word. “I remember discussing with some friends about how we could create a more trendy version of the wooden shoe, so I adapted a traditional Japanese design, with some high-quality Italian leather.”
Eighteen pairs of that initial design were made in Italy in 1972, before being taken to Montreal to sell in a concession stand. “They sold out after three days,” says Mr. B. “So, I went back to Italy to make some more. In total, I think we sold 60,000 pairs.”
Since that time Bensadoun went on to develop an end-to-end, vertically integrated business model, which focused on offering up-to-date products in the latest trends and styles, at affordable prices. He was working in ‘fast-fashion’ before the term had even been coined. Indeed, like H&M and Zara in the apparel sector, Aldo saw the market opportunity to turn around lightening-quick designs, manufacture them and get them in stores in 12 weeks or less.
Today, the Aldo Group has grown to include multiple brands including Call It Spring and a handmade men’s shoe offering respectfully titled, ‘Mr. B’. Earlier this year it purchased the footwear and accessory business, the Vince Camuto Group, which underlines the potential it has to create a new footwear powerhouse, merging Aldo’s retail strength with the Camuto Group’s expertise in wholesale.
Later, when we have time to sit down with Bensadoun in one of the many thoughtfully designed spaces in the company’s HQ, he seems a man at ease. And, why wouldn’t he be, he has created a shoe empire…
“I hate it when people use that word,” he corrects me. “I’ve never said that to anyone before, but the word “Empire” goes against the very philosophy of the company. It makes me think of a business that is dominated from the top-down. That is not true for Aldo, which is about sharing ideas and inspirations and working together. That is very much at the heart of what we do.”
A little embarassed, we push on, discussing his more notable business achievements, to which he replies with a modesty that he is well-renowned for: “I’m terrible at business!” he laughs. “I’ve always been driven by the creative side of things. What I did was bring in very capable and talented people who complement each other, so I can focus on what I am good at.”
After spending the day hearing glowing reviews about what it is like to work in the company from various levels of staff — on site they have a full gym; a room for trialing new cutting-edge retail technology; a vegetable allotment; expansive common areas and green spaces and, yes, even a Starbucks — what is clear, more than anything, is ‘what Mr. B’s good at’ is channelling his personal values into the companyand the people who work there.
“Building company culture has become very trendy in the past 10 years,” he says. “Business schools now teach the importance of values in work culture, but, I think that’s a B.S. way of looking at it. Core values are not something you should need business people to teach you, they are something that you live your life by.”
When asked what are the values he lives his life by he replies rather matter-of-factly: love, respect and integrity.
“You not only have to respect the people you work with, but also the customers,” he says. “I hate it when a designer says to me that the customer is not going to understand something. In most cases, the customer is more advanced than we are!”
As a journalist, getting to spend fifteen minutes with Aldo Bensadoun is not common. At 71, and having successfully passed on the reigns of one of the world’s biggest footwear companies — don’t call it an ‘empire’ — to his son David, he is under no obligation to explain his methods, let alone defend them. But he does so with grace and charisma.
“One of the biggest lessons I learnt was the importance of being honest with yourself, and the people you work with,” he says “Relationships will continue to grow to the next level if people feel that they can be open and honest with each other.”
Perhaps the small olive tree growing in the foyer of the grandious, global HQ is not so much a reminder of the brand’s roots, but rather a symbol of Mr. B, himself.