Someone other than a Simons is preparing to lead Canada’s oldest private company through the aftermath of the pandemic


“I see this as a renaissance,” says CEO Bernard Leblanc. “We’re starting to dream again, it feels good”

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Things are looking up at La Maison Simons Inc., the Quebec chain of stores known for its avant-garde offerings.

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Thanks to some pre-pandemic investment in e-commerce, chief executive Peter Simons said the business that has been owned by his family for five generations was ready when retail went online-only in the spring of 2020. This was not always easy, but the company survived an event that forced weaker retailers into bankruptcy.

Simons found himself pondering the future of the business. Even though he thinks the company is on the verge of great things, he made a choice that may seem counterintuitive: he decided to step aside. While multiple factors influenced the decision, its biggest consideration was the longevity of a business now in its 182nd year. Few companies last that long, and even fewer family businesses reach the fifth generation.

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The current steward of the Simons Legacy has decided the time has come to look outside the family. “Everyone knows the numbers for all businesses, and family businesses in particular,” Simons said in a March 22 interview.

Peter Simons, CEO of Simons, at the opening of their store at Core Shopping Center in Calgary, Alta..
Peter Simons, CEO of La Maison Simons Inc., at the opening of their store at Core Shopping Center in Calgary. Photo by Leah Hennel/Postmedia Files

It is a maxim that family businesses rarely survive beyond the third generation. “That three is really a curse,” said Paul Desmarais III, heir apparent to the Power Corp fortune. brought together by her grandfather, father and uncle, at an event hosted by the Financial Post in 2019. “I think about it every day. ”

Almost every culture has a saying for it. The Scots observe that “the father buys, the son builds, the grandson sells and his son begs”, and the Japanese say “from paddy field to paddy field in three generations”. Certainly, ubiquity does not make something true. The three-generation rule has been questioned by academic research in recent years, and some argue that family ownership could be an advantage.

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“The unique dynamics, structure and central role of family can help make these businesses more adept at navigating and adapting to crises like a global pandemic, for example,” said private enterprise expert Mary Jo Fedy. and in succession planning at KPMG. , global business consulting. “They also tend to look beyond short-term profits and have a longer-term mindset.”

It’s not about me and my brother anymore. It is to be at the service of the company

Peter Simons

Either way, Simons decided he wasn’t taking any more chances with the legacy of his great-great-grandfather John Simons. “It was time to maybe put the ego aside and be proactive,” he said. “It’s not about me and my brother anymore. It’s about being at the service of the company… and looking forward to a 25-year future.

So earlier this month, Simons promoted Bernard Leblanc, the company’s chief operating officer, to CEO, and demoted himself to chief merchant, overseeing buying and sourcing. throughout the company. (Simons and his brother, Richard, remain majority shareholders.)

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“Excited and optimistic about the future,” Leblanc, a former Bombardier Inc. executive, said in a separate interview. “There’s definitely an element of pressure that comes with it.”

A person carries a shopping bag from La Maison Simons Inc. in Montreal.
A person carries a shopping bag from La Maison Simons Inc. in Montreal. Photo by Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg Files

Simons began as a haberdashery store in Quebec City in 1840, making it Canada’s oldest private business. The fact that he thrived for so long under the control of the family makes him an outlier. According to Robert Sher, founder of Mastering Midsized, a consulting firm that advises midsize businesses, family businesses often make the mistake of appointing a mediocre leader from the family rather than the broader talent pool. “Leadership inbreeding” is also a threat, Sher wrote in an article for; this is where the older generation denies the younger generation the outside mentorship they need to lead the business.

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“Families have a visceral connection to the business that is not transactional,” Simons said. The character of the family is inextricably linked to the character of the business, because it’s not just a business, it’s part of their heritage. “When you’re a family, you want to build a business where you can go home every night and see your kids and you’re proud of what you did today,” Simons said.

From the perspective of generational succession, family businesses tend to take a long-term view. They make financial decisions that might not make sense in the short term, but will likely pay off in the long run. At the start of the pandemic, Simons maintained this long-term approach. “We took care of our suppliers and we took care of our employees,” Simons said. “We didn’t always make the best short-term financial decisions for the company, but we got there…I don’t know if it was good or fair or if we just got lucky. There is a lot of luck in business.

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Families have a visceral connection to the business that is not transactional

Peter Simons

There is also a lot of bad luck. The family behind McCain Foods Ltd. has acrimoniously split over the succession, and tensions within the Rogers family came to light last year as Ted Rogers’ heirs vied for control of Rogers Communications Inc.

Choosing a CEO seems to have been much easier at Maison Simons.

When outside management is brought in, there can sometimes be a breakdown in communication between the family and the company, said Simons, who usually spoke about how succession can go awry. In his new role as chief merchant, Simons said he hopes to continue to serve as a bridge between the two.

There will be a lot of work for the CEO and the new sales manager.

Like so many other companies, Maison Simons is rethinking its supply chains. The past few years have seen rail blockades, rail strikes, all the supply disruptions that have accompanied the pandemic, and now the fastest inflation in over three decades. The company has held its own so far, thanks to strong relationships with its suppliers, but there is no obvious end.

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Inflation and supply chain issues “are the biggest things keeping us up at night right now,” Leblanc said. “We don’t have all the answers yet, but we are monitoring the situation very closely.

Shipping costs are 10% higher than two years ago, so something will have to give. “In some places we’ve had to raise prices, and in other places we’ve been able to stay in control,” Simons said. “I think we have a unique way of thinking about value and creating it.”

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Despite the challenges ahead, Simons is optimistic about the future. He sees the potential to grow the brand’s image outside of Quebec, which has nine of its 15 locations. The company has two stores in Ontario, three in Alberta and one in British Columbia. “The awareness of who we are and what we bring to the landscape is not strong compared to Quebec,” Simons said. “I see this as an opportunity and a challenge.”

Leblanc sees his appointment as a new beginning.

“I consider this a rebirth,” he said. “We’re starting to dream again, it feels good.”

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