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Attention to retail

By James Martin | December 7, 2015
Attention to retail
François Roberge

President and CEO François Roberge has turned apparel chain la Vie en Rose into a booming international business by adapting to its customers’ needs

“Fundamentally, I am an entrepreneur adventurer,” says François Roberge, President and Chief Executive Officer of Boutique la Vie en Rose. “I’ve been in the garment trade for 34 years. It’s not work; it’s a pleasure – and I like the risks.”

Roberge is also used to turning heads, whether it’s for transforming a struggling women’s-clothing company into a thriving international chain – or for his commitment to developing functional and feminine bras for mastectomy patients. Then there’s his company’s stock in trade: comfortable, elegant and sometimes racy lingerie. But what caught the eye of the Canadian business world in March 2015 wasn’t a new line of swimsuits or underthings from la Vie en Rose. He got everyone’s attention by purchasing one of his competitors – after they’d filed for bankruptcy protection.

It was Roberge’s fourth attempt in 12 years to buy Bikini Village. With the Canada-wide swimwear retailer $6-million in the red and about to post a $6.4-million net loss for 2014, the time was finally right. (The price tag was right too: reportedly less than $4-million.) But given that La Vie en Rose’s once-strong competition was on life support, why bother?

Where some CEOs might have celebrated the demise of a rival, Roberge lamented the waste of untapped potential. “Bikini Village has a good brand that I can develop on the international stage,” he says. “I don’t want to criticize the previous management, but their e-marketing was nonexistent – in the year 2015! You learn that you have to water your plants for them to survive.”

Roberge bought la Vie en Rose in 1996, when it was a small Toronto-based lingerie chain that was bleeding $1-million annually. People said he was crazy, he remembers, but he thought its 23 stores, most of which were in Ontario, with a few stragglers throughout the Eastern provinces, could fill a niche: fashionable lingerie for women looking to shop somewhere fancier than a department store but wanting a different style than La Senza. Roberge moved operations to Montreal and began what he calls an “aggressive” expansion, particularly within his home province of Quebec: “If I did not cover the Canadian market, someone else was going to do it.” He started turning a profit that first year.

Today, la Vie en Rose has 320 stores; a little more than two-thirds are in Canada, with the rest spread across 18 countries in the Middle East, Central America and North Africa. Its lingerie, swimwear and sleepwear lines are designed at company headquarters opposite Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. The garments are manufactured overseas but largely distributed from Montreal. Roberge employs 2,400 people in Canada. Global sales are in the neighbourhood of $200 million.

“I realized that, with only 35 million people, Canada is a small market,” Roberge says of his decision to grow la Vie en Rose worldwide. “When you travel, you say to yourself, ‘There are six billion people in the world, and three billion of them are women.’ There is a lot of potential.”

Realizing that potential has meant opening 50 stores in Algeria, Kazakhstan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – countries that might not be top-of-mind for less adventurous retailers looking to expand their markets. “That’s the question everyone has: How do you do sell lingerie in Saudi Arabia? I would answer by saying that it’s important to have a flexible business model,” Roberge explains. “In our collections, we have items that respond to specific needs in specific countries – our customers really appreciate that because not everyone does it. In our 38 stores in Saudi Arabia, we’re building a Ramadan collection. The shorts aren’t really short - they’re long.”

In other countries, Roberge notes, businesses need to be flexible on more than just product: Even something as seemingly standard as stores can work differently. “There aren’t changing rooms in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “Women buy something, then try it on at home. If it doesn’t fit, they throw it out, then come back to the store to buy something else. That’s how business is done. At the same time, things do change. Five years ago, only men worked in stores there, and women customers had to be accompanied by a man. Today, women work in the women’s-clothing stores and men aren’t allowed in. It’s important to be able to adapt yourself.”

Roberge’s interest in the global marketplace does not come at the expense of his home province. Quite the contrary. He is, after all, a proud third-generation Quebec retailer. One grandfather was in the garment trade, the other was a shopkeeper, and his father was a pharmacist. Roberge himself got his start at age 19, driving a truck for Les Boutiques San Francisco, his uncle’s Quebec-based clothing chain. (That uncle, Paul Delage Roberge, also served as CEO of Bikini Village until 2003.)

He met his wife, Lina Di Liello, when they worked together at Les Boutiques San Francisco; today, she is la Vie en Rose’s Vice-President of Buying. Their three children, now young adults, grew up around the business, and one is already working at the Montreal headquarters. “Our retail roots run deep,” Roberge says of his family, and he doesn’t want to be the end of the line. In 2008, he began working with a group of entrepreneurs to build an international fashion cluster based in Montreal. The cluster, now called mmode, has a three-pronged mission: to coordinate activities and events between fashion industry players and stakeholders; to educate the public and government about the fashion industry; and to increase competitiveness by offering entrepreneurial support and strengthening educational and research partnerships with schools and universities.

As mmode’s honorary president, Roberge is a passionate advocate for nurturing exchange and collaboration in Quebec’s fashion world. This industry gave me everything when I started as a truck driver in 1981,” he says. “My children will be taking my place. That’s why I want my industry to succeed, here in Quebec and globally: for them and for their generation.”

Looking ahead to the next 18 months, Roberge intends to stabilize Bikini Village, keeping 48 of its 52 stores in Eastern Canada and expanding the chain westward. Internationally, la Vie en Rose will keep growing in the Middle East. It has also recently opened a test shop in Panama, with Tunisian locations to follow in 2016. Roberge has his sights set on China, Indonesia and India too. (The company’s Asia and Middle East expansions are supported by a distribution centre that recently moved from Dubai to Hong Kong, a more central location.)

Since 2008, Roberge has focused on shoring up the company’s e-commerce capacity; online purchases now account for 3 per cent of sales, and he wants to boost that number to 10 per cent within four years. Later this year, he’s also planning to launch a new la Vie en Rose website that will cater to U.S. customers, with a Bikini Village equivalent to follow. Yes, François Roberge has plenty of ideas. “Vision,” however, is not a word he’s entirely comfortable with.

“It’s not a vision,” Roberge says. “I’m hooked on the excitement.” He admits that la Vie en Rose has grown into something far beyond anything he could have predicted when he bought the company in 1996. He recalls dreaming about one day having 100 stores; now he’s aiming for 1,000 within 15 years.

The trick, he says, is to be flexible but remain focused: “Stay close to your customers so you’re not making decisions disconnected from their needs.”

For example, he’s not in Saudi Arabia to change anyone’s way of life, he explains. “I’m there to do business. When I go to Russia, I’m working with a different culture. When I go to India, it’s a different culture yet again. Same thing in Japan. That’s the international business model. It’s crucial to learn to adapt yourself, to create new products but still keep your core values – in our case, to still develop our clothes for the women who will wear them. As la Vie en Rose has adapted to each new market, we’ve stayed true to our core values: comfort, good prices and helping women look beautiful.”

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