At the Hudson’s Bay Co., long known as “the company of adventurers,” Richard Baker had caught the spirit.
Seven years ago, Baker, the governor and executive chairman of HBC, and his son Jack, then 14, embarked on a three-week “business adventure” traversing Canada and visiting about 100 stores.
“We flew out of New York, brought nothing with us but the clothes on our backs and shoes on our feet, and for three weeks, we visited different stores in different places, mostly our stores. We traveled by train, plane, sea plane, water taxis, to get to the far corners of our Canada, and we blogged the entire trip, took pictures, went fishing, visited the islands around Vancouver, did interviews, taste tests, evaluated our stores,” Baker recalled during an interview. “No one knew we were coming, and we bought clothes as we needed them,” thereby helping Baker and his son size up HBC stores and competitors as well. “I bring my kids to a lot of my business adventures. That way they learn,” Baker said.
A most memorable moment was visiting the York Factory in Manitoba on the Hudson Bay. The former HBC fur trading post, built in 1670, is now a national historic site and considered the oldest wooden structure standing on permafrost. Access is limited, requiring the Bakers to fly to Winnipeg [the capital of Manitoba] take a sea plane to Churchill, and then an hour and a half helicopter ride, where the Bakers spotted polar bears and met with the chief of the Cree Nation.
“The original York Factory is a magnificent large old white building, still in great shape,” Baker noted. “It operated right up until the Fifties when the Park Commission took over the building. Once a year a ship arrived from England with supplies, and pelts from the York Factory would be loaded on the ship sailing back to Great Britain. It was the first department store in North America, buying and selling goods and trading with the native people.”
At a Zellers in Quebec City, Baker blogged about a Canadian edition of the board game Monopoly. “Jack had to have it. When we got back to the room, he immediately opened it to play. This new set uses no paper money and uses computerized debit cards. Jack says ‘load up on this game. It will be winner for Christmas.'”
In another blog, Baker described “waking up to a beautiful sunny day in Ottawa. We looked out the window of our hotel and tens of thousands of people were filling the streets toward the Parliament building. Jack and I walked with the crowd and sat very near the stage in front of the Parliament building. We saw the prime minister and his family and the Queen of England as they walked in and out of the event. A great show.”
At a small Hudson’s Bay store in Place Fleur de Lys, Quebec City, Baker blogged: “A dedicated band of associates working for store manager Nancy Daiqneault are doing a sensational job keeping one of our smallest, least productive Bay stores going. This store, while not as profitable as we would like, looks and feels like a full-line Bay and has every intention of improving and becoming as profitable as possible. This store is like the little engine that could…and hopefully will.”
Baker recapped the journey, saying “It was a chance to visit the stores like local customers and communicate with our team where the opportunities were. Canada retail felt like it was 10 years behind the U.S.,” specifically with the brands being sold and the infrastructure. “But that’s no longer the case.”
Among the lessons learned, Baker became clear on deciding to sell Zellers, and saw “tremendous” growth opportunity at Hudson’s Bay. “Jack actually told me I ought to sell Zellers. We did shortly after,” to Target, which in 2015 closed all its Canada stores.
“We view Canada as a very strong economy, turning into the Switzerland of North America,” Baker said. “There’s also great human diversity in Canada. Individuals from around the world who want to come to the U.S. and can’t get in, go to Canada. That is strengthening the economy.” Compared to the U.S., “Canada is a much gentler environment, though similar in that people are very interested in global brands and highly focused on fashion. Toronto is dressier than New York. It’s more like London.”
On Thursday, Hudson’s Bay, in partnership with Cadillac Fairview, kicks off its “Grand Portage,” in Clover Point Park, Victoria, B.C., to raise funds for the Great Trail across Canada, which wends through urban and wilderness areas. The 66-day journey will be led by the three Canada Trail Portage ambassadors, hired by HBC, to paddle and lug HBC’s signature striped canoe, in and out of the water. The event will raise money to add 2,200 kilometers of trail to make the 24,000-kilometer Great Trail continuous.
From Clover Point, the team will travel to Victoria’s Inner Harbour where they will be joined by Olympians Simon Whitfield, Conlin McCabe and Adam Kreek, and together make their way to Vancouver and the CF Pacific Centre, which is the first of 10 tour stops at Cadillac Fairview shopping centers across Canada. The ambassadors will also have a support team along the journey.
“This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for — to send our adventurers off in exploration of our vast, beautiful country, as they journey along The Great Trail,” said Alison Coville, president of Hudson’s Bay.
“They are helping to raise awareness and significant funds to connect The Great Trail, which in turn helps us honor the thousands of volunteers and donors who have so generously given to this iconic Canadian project,” said Valerie Pringle, co-chair of the Trans Canada Trail Foundation.
At the Cadillac Fairview malls, there will be rustic wood cabins serving as pop-up shops selling the 60-piece Hudson’s Bay Grand Portage collection of baseball caps, hoodies, T-shirts, fishing caps, notebooks, mugs and decorative paddles, among other items. Ten percent of the sales will go to support the Great Trail, except for the paddles and key chains where 50 percent of the purchase price goes to the cause. Donations are also being accepted, and customers can donate Hudson’s Bay reward points to support the connecting up of the Great Trail.
Hudson’s Bay’s goal is to raise one million Canadian dollars for The Great Trail. The Grand Portage adventure will culminate in a celebration in Ottawa on Aug. 26. Since 1992, the Trans Canada Trail not-for-profit organization has worked with donors, partners, governments, landowners and volunteers to create trails offering a range of outdoor experiences on greenway, waterway and roadway.
Taking on The Great Trail as a way for HBC to recognize the 150th birthday of Canada this year. “This is so in keeping with us as a company of adventurers and proud Canadians,” Coville said. “A very big part of Canada is about the outdoors.”