Arts grad Dani Reiss wanted to become a writer, then realized there was more than one way to tell a story
The last thing Dani Reiss wanted to do with his life was go into the family business. Manufacturing winter jackets? No thanks. He’d seen how hard his parents worked at Canada Goose, the Toronto-based apparel company his grandfather had founded, and he envisaged a more creative life for himself. Armed with a BA from U of T, he would travel the world and write. Not a novel – his attention span wasn’t long enough for that – but he thought he could write and sell short stories.
His parents, David and Marilyn, agreed that Dani shouldn’t plan to take over the shrinking company, which they were in the process of downsizing from 100 to 35 employees. It was simply too stressful, and David was heading toward burnout.“We weren’t that encouraging for Dani to start working there,”recalls Marilyn (BA 1967 UC), a U of T arts grad herself and a former English and history teacher before joining the family company. “But compared with travelling to India to write,we thought the business might be the better option.” Besides,Dani needed some travel money, so he agreed to work for three months, focusing on boosting sales. To no one’s surprise,he didn’t like it at all. At first.
But several events conspired to sharpen his interests in the company and cause him to abandon his travel plans. He started reading letters from satisfied customers, people who couldn’t have done their outdoor jobs if not for the company’s jackets. He accompanied his dad to a trade show in Germany, where he discovered that Europeans valued the “made in Canada” aspect of Canada Goose. Increasingly, he was encountering people who had worn the company’s survival jackets in the coldest places on Earth, trekking to the South Pole, filming documentaries on polar bears in Siberia or conquering the world’s highest peaks. Each had a fascinating narrative, and the company’s outerwear products were a meaningful part of that. Not only was it all becoming enjoyable, but it appealed to Reiss’s pursuit of storytelling.
There’s more than one way to write a story, he realized, suddenly galvanized. Instead of writing fiction, here was something tangible and authentic that he could develop. Building the company’s brand could be a creative process. And a lucrative one too. Reiss stayed with the company, taking over from his father as CEO in 2001 at age 27. Since then, Canada Goose has become one of the country’s most successful luxury brands. The signature down-filled jackets bearing the distinctive red-blue-and-white insignia are now as ubiquitous on city streets as on oil rigs and Arctic expeditions. With revenues more than 40 times what they were a decade ago, the company sells about 500,000 jackets annually in over 50 countries, and is valued at an estimated one-quarter of a billion dollars. “I love this company, I love the freedom and creativity, and I love coming to work every day,” Reiss says.
Reiss, 41, a married father of two, is one of a new breed of contemporary CEOs who have developed careers in business without the benefit of a business degree or even a single business course. (Today, fully one-third of all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have a liberal arts degree.) But then, Reiss has never followed a formula. He’s only ever followed his instincts. A quiet boy growing up in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood, he wasn’t much for math or science and didn’t do many sports, but he loved reading. “His favourite book was The Lord of the Rings,” recalls Marilyn. Uninspired by the curriculum at his local high school, Reiss transferred to City School, an alternative program focusing on student-centred learning and ethical citizenship. “It was much more liberal, more creative, and I loved it,” he says. “I’ve always been the kind of person who doesn’t like being told what to do. I like doing things my way.” After graduation he travelled around Europe, again flouting convention. Instead of the usual backpacking and hostelling route, he and his then-girlfriend bought a Citroën AX supermini and lived in the car for a year.
Back home, now a student at U of T’s Woodsworth College, Reiss took courses in his areas of interest – mainly English lit and philosophy, including several ethics courses – and didn’t worry about where they would lead. “I never thought, what am I going to do with this degree? I wanted it for myself.” He didn’t worry about marks, either, often eschewing straightforward essay topics for tougher, more challenging ones. “I figured that getting a BA is important, but how important is getting a 90 in English as opposed to an 80 or a 70?” says Reiss, who ended up with a respectable roster of mostly Bs, with a few As and Cs. Reiss’s natural shyness kept him from contributing much in tutorials. “I think I had a ton to say, but I wasn’t confident enough to speak publicly.” (He admits he still gets very nervous before speaking engagements but pushes himself to do it. “To me, your own personal challenges are more fun than challenges that other people present to you.”)
During his time at U of T, Reiss and two buddies continued running a small computer company in his parents’ basement that they had started in high school, tallying statistics for sports pools – a service that was in demand at a time before stats were easily available online. With such a time-consuming extracurricular, it took him more than four years to finish a three-year degree, graduating in 1997.
While Reiss always respected the history of the family business, it had never beckoned to him. Canada Goose was started by his grandfather, Sam Tick, a denture maker from Poland who, unable to find work in his field when he immigrated to Canada, took a job as a cutter in a garment factory. After a few years, urged by his wife, he opened his own shop, Metro Sportswear, in 1957 and hired six sewers to make woolen garments and snowmobile suits to sell to northern workers. The company was profitable enough to allow Tick to support his family. When son-in-law David took over in the mid-1970s, he invented a down-filling machine, which revolutionized the industry. He also launched the Snow Goose brand. But since that name was already registered in Europe, he called the Europe-destined products Canada Goose; everything else was Snow Goose.
When 24-year-old Dani became involved the summer after graduating from Woodsworth, he quickly learned about the power of branding. As a teenager he had been so opposed to any show of branding that he had cut the green alligator logo off the Lacoste shirts his mother had bought him. “I used to think brands were pretentious,” he says. “I didn’t understand that some of these brands weren’t just showy and flashy but had substance behind them that meant something and that people could relate to.” He discovered not only that customers valued the quality of the jackets but that the Canada Goose label had a special appeal in places that romanticized Canada as a land of open wilderness and crisp winters – the kind of place where people would know about a good, warm, hooded parka. In some circles, the high-end jackets were becoming a status symbol. Formerly available only for men, women in Stockholm were snapping up men’s XS sizes. (Women’s wear now slightly outsells men’s.) Canada was not only cold, Reiss realized; Canada was cool. And this meant that the jackets, always known to be warm, could potentially become hot.
This led Reiss to two key decisions. He made the first decision soon after taking over, the second one a few years later. He abandoned the Snow Goose name and renamed the whole company Canada Goose. And, while many apparel companies were moving their operations to cheaper factories in Asia, he decided to keep 100 per cent of the manufacturing in Canada. “People in the world today want real things,” he says simply. “We have an authentic story, a real product that really works, and there aren’t a lot of real brands left in the world today.” That decision meant consistently high quality but also high prices. Today, the jackets retail from $450 to $1,200, and they’re never discounted.
“Keeping operations in Canada was a very bold move of Dani’s,” says friend and colleague Jordan Banks. Facebook’s global head of vertical strategy and managing director of Facebook Canada, Banks knows branding. “Dani is an incredible patriot, a visionary and a brand builder.” To those who suggest Reiss simply inherited a successful company and took it up a notch, Banks says, “What people forget is Dani transformed a sleepy little business and is now stewarding one of the great brands of his generation.”
In October, the company held the grand opening of its new global headquarters and 8,300-square-metre factory in west-end Toronto. It also recently expanded its Winnipeg production facility. The total workforce tops 1,000. Notable Canadians of all types are happy to align themselves with the product as brand ambassadors, including mountaineer Laurie Skreslet, the first Canadian to summit Mount Everest; ultra-marathoner Ray Zahab, who’s run or trekked across several continents, including Antarctica; rapper Drake, sporting a $5,000 limited-edition bomber jacket with 24-karat gold-plated detailings; and, most recently, top-ranked tennis star Milos Raonic, now endorsing the company’s lighter outerwear.
Over the past few years Canada Goose jackets have increasingly cropped up in Hollywood (on Nicolas Cage, Matt Damon, Hilary Duff). Last year the company became the official outerwear sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Growth is strong even in locales where the temperatures rarely dip below freezing, such as Tokyo. And, in February 2013, the company landed the ultimate magazine cover, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, with supermodel Kate Upton rocking an unzipped Canada Goose white-fur-trimmed parka over nothing but a bikini bottom. Canada Goose was now, officially, hot.
With that hotness comes the risk of counterfeiting, which has become such a problem for the company that its website, in addition to the usual links for “customer care,” “careers” and “contact,” also lists “counterfeit.” The fake jackets, usually made in Asia and sold in flea markets or on rogue websites, may look like the real thing but instead of premium goose down (a byproduct of the poultry industry) they may contain a feather mulch complete with mould, feces or sweepings from a factory floor. The trim around the parka hoods, for which Canada Goose uses coyote fur because it doesn’t freeze or hold water, in the bogus coats could be from raccoon or even dog. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the counterfeiters, in 2011 Canada Goose began adding difficult-to-reproduce holograms to the tags sewn into every product.
The use of any fur at all has brought criticism on Canada Goose from animal rights supporters. “If coyotes were endangered, we wouldn’t use coyotes,” Reiss responds. “But coyotes are overpopulated.” Indeed, some provincial governments have put bounties on the animals. “We use only Canadian coyote, it’s all hunted wildly – we won’t buy from fur farms – and we’re supporting Canadians who’ve been hunting and trapping for generations.” He adds, “I think we’re doing the right thing. Some people don’t. That’s cool. I understand. U of T taught me that – to respect diversity of opinion.”
The company has also been chastised on social media since announcing in December 2013 it had sold a majority stake to U.S. firm Bain Capital, the Boston-based private equity giant co-founded by failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Horrified critics posted angry comments online, such as “Goodbye Canada, hello Bangladesh” and “Now with American ownership, the warm and fuzzy feeling I have is dissipating.”
Reiss isn’t fazed. “Nothing about the company has changed at all,” he says. “My partners at Bain are very much behind our made-in-Canada philosophy. We want to become a truly enduring Canadian brand, and the way we’ve chosen to finance our company does not in any way take away from that.” Manufacturing will continue to be 100 per cent in Canada, he promises, but the additional resources will help grow markets, especially in the U.S. “People have told me before I’ve done the wrong thing, but I know what’s right for this company.” Bain has invested in other growing Canadian businesses – notably national chains Dollarama and Shoppers Drug Mart.
Meanwhile, Reiss has been ramping up his company’s philanthropic activities. Canada Goose spent a long time looking for a charity that could be integrated with the company’s values. It chose Polar Bears International, an organization dedicated to saving sea ice, the bears’ main habitat. Since two-thirds of the world’s polar bears live in Canada, Reiss sees it as a Canadian leadership issue to increase awareness of climate change in the North, where the company’s first customers lived and worked. There’s a Canadian board, based in Winnipeg, as well as a U.S. one; Reiss chairs both. He sees no contradiction between his company’s use of fur on the one hand and his support of animal habitats on the other. “Polar Bears International is not an anti-hunting organization. First Nations and Inuit people in northern Canada hunt polar bears and PBI does not think that’s wrong. PBI stands for the preservation of polar bear habitats so that our grandchildren and future generations can see polar bears in the wild.”
Canada Goose’s other major philanthropic work involves sending discontinued fabrics, zippers and other sewing supplies to the North, where coat-making talent is abundant but materials scarce. There are now four Canada Goose Resource Centres – in Pond Inlet, Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit and Kuujjuaq – where local sewers can help themselves freely to supplies.
Reiss has visited many of the world’s coldest spots, including the geographic South Pole, an experience he describes as “super-awesome.” Canada Goose’s chief marketing officer, Kevin Spreekmeester, says Reiss’s enthusiasm is genuine. “When you see Dani experience something new, you can feel his excitement,” Spreekmeester says. “A couple of years ago we were in Nunavut and Dani jumped out of a boat onto an ice floe in the middle of a fjord. He went for his BlackBerry – which I thought was funny, because there was no reception.” But then he realized Reiss wasn’t trying to phone or text; he simply wanted to type notes. “You could see how inspired he was, the emotions and thoughts just flowing.”
While Reiss still does a little writing these days, he’s not ready to publish, least of all his memoirs. First, he doesn’t have the time. (Such a workaholic, says his mother Marilyn: “Sometimes I think his BlackBerry is an extension of his body.”) Second, he says the story is only half written. He doesn’t know how far the company can go, nor whether he’ll be passing the business down to his children, who are now only six and three. All he knows is that the story will continue. “Give me some more time,” he says, smiling. “I’m not done yet.”
Marcia Kaye (marciakaye.com) of Aurora, Ontario, is an award-winning writer