On Tuesday, Nov. 29, Footwear News will host its 2016 Achievement Awards in New York, honoring the best and brightest in the industry, including Aldo Bensadoun, the winner of the Manolo Blahnik Lifetime Achievement Award. Read on to learn more Mr. B’s accomplishments.
For years, Aldo team members have affectionately called their company founder and executive chairman simply “Mr. B.” But the inspiration behind Aldo Bensadoun’s nickname isn’t as obvious as it seems.
“A lot of people assume it’s because of our last name, but those of us who started using it had something different in mind: a bee,” said David Bensadoun, who has worked alongside his father for two decades. “My dad is the ultimate cross pollinator. We don’t want our teams seeing each other’s work, so Mr. B is the only one who has carte blanche to walk through every part of the business. He’s famous for stealing samples or ideas from one showroom and bringing them to another one.”
On a recent Wednesday morning in Montreal, the older Bensadoun was buzzing around the company’s modern, art-filled headquarters. The executive, 77, greeted employees in Aldo’s renovated atrium and posed for photos with his beloved miniature yellow Fiat. (He bought the car a few years ago to honor his father, who owned a Fiat in France.)
After making his way upstairs, the unassuming Bensadoun grinned widely as he entered one of the company’s expansive design studios. He ran up to a group of young women discussing a new stretch boot and playfully grabbed the style before giving his stamp of approval.
“It’s so nice to see people who are growing at the company. You watch them become more knowledgeable and more successful, and then you start to learn from them,” said Bensadoun, who is as passionate about his employees as the shoes they create.
While he’s a self-professed product fanatic, Bensadoun — the son of a footwear merchant and grandson of a cobbler — wasn’t initially drawn to shoes. During his formative years in France, he would drop by the family store, but never thought he would become a retailer.
After attending high school in Paris, the student set out for the U.S. to attend college at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he majored in engineering. During that time, he visited Montreal and was immediately attracted to the city’s international vibe and burgeoning art scene.
He later transferred to Montreal’s McGill University and changed his major to economics. “I liked it so much better than engineering,” Bensadoun recalled. Upon graduation, the young French citizen returned home to complete his required service and taught economics for 18 months at a military school.
When he came back to Montreal in the mid 1960s, Bensadoun landed a job as an analyst and was asked to take on a project at a company called Yellow Shoes. He began a full-time stint at the retailer and was soon hooked on the business that was in his blood.
Bensadoun officially launched Aldo in 1972 as a footwear concession inside Le Chateau. He started with a single style, a clog the founder still proudly displays in his office. “No one copied me for three or four years, but I wasn’t making any noise,” he quipped.
Behind the scenes, the entrepreneur was much more focused on corporate culture than commerce. “When I started the company, I wanted to create a model of what I believed society should be,” Bensadoun explained. “To me, there are certain human values that are important. Yes, you can work hard and succeed, but you should not tramp on people. Everyone has the right to succeed, and you should enable them to reach their full potential.”
Bensadoun, a dedicated philanthropist, said his vision for Aldo always extended far beyond the company’s own walls. “In 1985, we were one of the first companies to openly try to find a cure for AIDS. At that time there was a stigma attached to it,” he said. “We weren’t scientists or researchers. We were in the public. So the idea was to make people aware and give them knowledge about AIDS. Since then, we’ve raised millions of dollars.” (Bensadoun and team have also been ardent fundraisers for cancer research and many other causes.)
While the firm made a mark with its charity work, the businessman was also carefully crafting his strategy for taking the company to the next level. After six years, the founder decided to exit Le Chateau and open standalone stores — but he knew the move might be risky. “That was dangerous. We had a captive audience, and it was like being at home and being supported by your parents,” Bensadoun said. “It turned out to be a good decision, but it was hard at the time.”
Another critical turning point was when the retailer stopped selling Dr. Martens in his stores during the 1980s. “We were one of their largest vendors in the world, but we decided we didn’t want to be dependent on them,” he said. Bensadoun’s renewed focus on the Aldo brand paid off, and the company expanded quickly in Canada and beyond. “We were always very international in our thinking, and we were fortunate because our population in Canada comes from so many diverse countries. You could see the possibilities.”
In 1993, the company opened its first U.S. door after some prodding from another key shoe player. “I remember Stuart Weitzman visiting my wife and me here in Montreal and we showed him what we were doing. He said, ‘Go to the States. You will do so well.’ So I guess I should say thank you to Stuart for pushing us.”
Today, the firm — which counts about 15,000 employees globally — operates 465 Aldo and Call It Spring doors in the U.S., and about 1,200 additional locations around the world. All told, the company has about 2,100 points of sale in 95 countries. The wholesale business and e-commerce segments are key growth vehicles, and Aldo is significantly ramping up international operations.
Bensadoun, who exudes calmness and warmth, spoke about Aldo’s evolution as he peered out the window of his office and admired the landscape. “It’s so beautiful to watch the trees grow,” said the founder, who spends much of his downtime planting trees at his country home in Vermont. “It’s the same thing with shoes. You take an idea and create a shoe and watch it grow. The more you ‘water’ them, the more pleasure you get out of them. It’s like that with your family, too.”
Indeed, the Bensadouns share a close relationship inside and outside of the office. Bensadoun’s wife, Dianne Bibeau, serves as VP of strategic initiatives (and personally selects all of the office art), while his son David is the president of Aldo Group North America. David’s younger brother Douglas, who previously held the role of chief creative officer, is on sabbatical and exploring new projects. Daughter Daniela is working for a small fashion company in New York to gain outside experience before she joins the family business. The whole crew plans to reunite for the holidays in Patagonia.
“Aldo is very proud that we work in the company and that we’ve done well, but we are treated just like everyone else,” Bibeau said, adding there’s no separation between work and family life. “We’ve had a lot of bathroom meetings over the years. Our house is a constant design laboratory, a little idea factory,” she said. (Her husband recently snapped up one of her handbags and took it into the office for inspiration.)
“It’s amazing to me how accurate he is in terms of trends and fashion,” said CEO Patrik Frisk, the former VF Corp. executive whom Bensadoun hired two years ago to drive the company forward. “Aldo had the foresight to see that the business and end consumer was evolving very rapidly. He went into this transformation with gusto and determination.”
Frisk, who often travels with Bensadoun on overseas trips, said he admires the founder’s incredible energy and ability to draw people in — no matter where he is in the world. “He always has an entourage around him: newspaper reporters, local team members, operational people,” Frisk said, recalling an excursion to India and Vietnam earlier this month.
“When we walked into our stores, all of the 21-year-old employees had heard about Mr. B. He gave them his time and respect. He’s as comfortable being in that environment with those young people as he is being here in Montreal on Saint Catherine Street. He touches everyone in the same way.”