Conquering the Americas - Day 5
WOW. Arriving in City Airport is amazing. I was not expecting this. Square Marvel comic-type sky-scrapers nestling along the banks of Lake Ontario, pretty islands with pleasure gardens, blue sky and a pink sunset. The short hop from the airport to my hotel is fabulous.
I'm here to meet Judi and Paul, our Reps for the area, but first I have the evening to explore the city and work out if JoJo Maman Bébé will fit in. We are ideal for Montreal, the perfect combination of French nautical traditional children's clothing with quirky, fun British styling. I can understand why the reception has been so positive there. Whereas Toronto looks a bit too edgy for JoJo on first appearance.
Montreal was, and still is, the French stronghold of the country. Toronto became the British enclave, especially after the American War of Independence. King Street, Queen Street, neo-gothic architecture and impressive churches set the scene. It is home to the Hudson Bay Company which in the early 19th Century owned most of Canada. It was also a city where many a fortune was made on the back of the American prohibition laws. Take a trip to the Distillery District and you will see dozens of buildings dating from a time when the city's copious production was smuggled down river to be sold on to the Al Capone era gangsters. Dynastic families like the Walkers and Segrums made their millions supplying the demand. Toronto is now the financial capital of Canada and despite the surprising number of down and outs sleeping in every doorway it has money. But is it right for the brand?
Wheelie case dropped at the hotel; off I go intending to pick up a Bixie bike (the local version of a Boris bike). Just like Paris the first two lock ups appear to be out of order so I give up and power walk instead, desperate for exercise and fresh air. I head down Yonge Street to the Waterfront where the view of the Lake is awesome. I swear to God at one point I saw geese flying in synchronised formation, an aeroplane which has just taken off and the new moon is shining through the masts of a tall ship, all on the backdrop of an incredible sunset! It sounds improbable writing it down - it was too good to be true. Of course no camera to hand and when I do take the photo it does not do the scene justice. I suppose that is the skill of a good photographer. Thankfully I have a good memory.
I think I ought to head for the beckoning CN Tower, visible from almost everywhere. It's the sort of world famous tourist magnet we all feel the need to tick off. Getting there isn't easy with the city being dug up and re-built in time for the Pan Am Games (a sad booby prize for failing to attract the Commonwealth ones). After navigating dead end alleys and scary motorway underpasses I find the base and ... yes it's big, yes it's tall. It was apparently the tallest building in the world for 30 years but actually it's pretty damn ugly from the bottom. It costs over $30 to take a lift to the top and I decide I just don't want to do it. I hate lifts, they make me feel sick, hate heights and probably just because everyone else does it, I really don't want to. So I take a photo and move on.
The city is buzzing. The Toronto Maple Leafs are playing Colorado (hockey of course). So I follow the crowd and watch the game on a huge screen outside the stadium enjoying the aggressive atmosphere, heady with the stench of chips and doughnuts. A great welcome to Toronto.
Judi has been a Rep for 27 years and it was an honour that she has invested her energy and passion in JoJo Maman Bébé. She, like our head of international sales, Mark, jumped ship from fashion buying to sales. Buyers make fantastic sales people. Like poachers turning gamekeepers - they understand the psyche of their clients. The hard sell is out and intelligent help is in. I'm delighted with Judi's showroom situated in a quirky converted factory. Her landlord is a one-time art dealer who has adorned the passage walls with his numerous (unsold) Old Master reproductions. Victorian lanterns are spaced between the doors and the rooms are bright from extensive skylights patch-worked into the high ceilings.
The JoJo showroom has been painted company blue and is luxuriously spacious. We will be shipping over some more fixtures without delay. It's humbling to see the collection on display in this great location. I can't tell you how proud I am that we have got this far. I feel like a start-up all over again. Trying to build a brand in a new territory is daunting and only with the co-operation of these local professionals do we have any chance of success. To think one could emulate the business model which maybe has proved a success at home is total vanity.
But I'm here to learn and help, not just to figurehead the brand. I'm terrified that as the company grows my role will become one of a dinosaur CEO ignorant of the coal face issues. Of course I love working on strategy and managing top down but it would be madness to lose touch. A little micro-management does not hurt from time to time. This is why I am here spending time with our reps. I can learn from them, just like I do from the sales teams in the JoJo Maman Bébé UK stores and our operatives at our Newport DC. We learn more from those working on the ground for us than any number of business consultants. Theory is a fine thing but reality is better.
Judi has 27 years' worth of experience. She can teach me and I'm listening to her advice, lapping it up. The day spent with her and Paul, her assistant and a successful part time actor, is a joy. It's like being back at school. I ask questions and they educate me. In order to survive in a foreign land we need to go back to basics, become like children and shrug off our preconceptions.
The day is spent driving through Toronto, away from the Financial District where I'm staying, and I start to understand the city. This is a really nice place to bring up kids and not surprisingly yuppy parents flock to areas surrounding pretty urban parks. Detached brownstone (and concrete block) houses with cheerful white timber framed front porches have buggies and paddling pools vying for space. Yes, I can imagine JoJo here. There are little parades of interesting stores, apparently independents. The people are intelligent and inspiring and refreshingly 'Canadian'. We visit a stunner of a newly launched little boutique called Love Me Do. The brainchild of an academic turned business woman after having her first baby (oh all right, call her a Mumpreneur if you must), her store is well located in the nappy valley of residential uptown.
I chat to the owner, excited that she is stocking the brand. I tease and encourage and she kindly asks me for advice. My fears are that the product selection reflects the eclectic colour scheme of the interior - orange, lime, purple and beige. It's uber trendy, but we all know the bestselling colours are pink and blue ... But I'm here to learn so I make no comment and remind her that successful retailing is based on two heads - one creative the other financial and sadly the financial must sometimes suppress the creative.
Judi and Paul take me to two amazing restaurants. Cool Toronto reminds me of the Meatpacker area of NYC. I like it but know that once the baby is born we all soften around the edges; the designer exposed concrete lifestyle is replaced with warmer whitewashed floorboards, the neon coloured baby grows we think we might dress our offspring in are replaced with soothing cashmere mix fair-isle combinations - I don't know why it happens but it just does.
Toronto appears too cool on the outside, but dig down a little and I'm pretty sure there is a very big space for JoJo.
Oh ... and why the dog bowls of my title? I'm missing my dogs (of course the man and the kids are missed too) and here more than anywhere I am reminded of them. This city has a heart; dog water bowls outside many stores and restaurants, just sitting there. It's really rather strange.
Next stop Vancouver.