“A Favorite Recent Promotion Was Leon’s Luau. We used a combination of direct mail, television and newspaper, a special offer discount coupon, free gifts when customers came to any of the stores, an extra discount on specific products and a grand prize of a trip to Hawaii.”
Tom Leon plays a pretty mean game of golf. His son, Terry, laughs, "A whole lot better than mine!" At 77, Tom is the respected and active Chairman of the Board of Leon’s Furniture, one of Canada’s largest home furnishings retailers, generating over half a billion dollars in sales annually. There are 49 Leon’s stores scattered across Canada in nine of the 10 provinces, and more than 2,000 employees are proud to work under the Leon’s banner.
It is in recognition of Tom’s "outstanding contributions to the home furnishings industry, exemplary service to his community and personal business achievements", that the Ontario Furniture Manufacturers’ Association named him as the very first Canadian Retailer of the Year. And the entire Leon "family", both personal and corporate, will celebrate with him when he receives his Award at a gala event in Toronto’s International Centre’s new Aviation Ballroom May 31.
"Mr. Tom", as he’s known in the industry, certainly deserves the honor. Intelligent and fun loving, he comes by his wisdom, persistence and strength of character honestly. The Leon traditions of integrity, community service and compassion date back more than 100 years.
It was at the turn of the last century that Alban Leon left Lebanon to seek his fortune. A born salesman, he literally worked his way around a good portion of two hemispheres, South America and the United States, finally coming to rest at Welland in Southern Ontario. The town was appealing although relatively small. Because of its situation on the heavily trafficked Canal that connects Lakes Ontario and Erie, it was busy and prosperous.
At first Alban sold clothing door to door from a suitcase. He saved most of his hard-earned profit to finance the purchase of a small building in the town’s working class district. In 1909, The A. Leon Company officially opened the doors to its long and profitable history. Alban stocked pants, blankets, shoes, linens and other soft goods which he sold at "a fair price" to a rapidly growing customer base. Immigration levels were steadily rising and many new Canadians had difficulty obtaining credit of any kind. Mr. Leon believed in them and helped them, endearing himself to his loyal customers.
Once he had established a sound business foundation, Alban went back to Lebanon to claim his bride, Lena. Together they built their dynasty of 11 children. As they grew, all worked in the store, dusting, sweeping and washing the display windows.
Decades passed, and Alban and Lena’s eldest son was to be married. They decided that a mattress would make an excellent wedding gift. When delivered, they discovered it was impossible to take it into the small, crowded store, so they leaned it against an outside wall. But not for long! A customer spotted it and walked in, wanting to buy it.
Alban rationalized that the wedding was a few days off and there was time to obtain a substitute, so he sold the mattress at a few dollars’ profit. He was amazed. This was food for thought. The profit was much larger than could be made on soft goods. The rest is history!
Leon’s has always been a family affair. When Alban died in 1942, the operation of his now thriving business became the responsibility of his sons and daughters. They worked diligently together, developing extra space around the nucleus of the original store to house an ever-growing selection of merchandise.
In the ‘50s, Tom and his brothers began expanding to other centers throughout Southern Ontario. Tom married in 1949, adding seven more energetic Leons to the family team. These children made their proper contribution and Tom now has 19 grandchildren.
Tantalizingly, Toronto beckoned. The largest city in Canada, Toronto was and is a highly competitive environment. The brothers executed a clever strategic move. They purchased the business of an existing retailer with a good reputation, a learning curve in action! After a discrete passage of time, Toronto stores were opened under the Leon name. These stores soon became synonymous with great values on a huge selection of brand name merchandise.
By 1969, a new wave of expansion seemed logical, and Leon’s Furniture successfully went public and was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The family to this day has retained majority ownership of the shares.
In 1973, Leon’s pioneered the first warehouse showroom in Canada, a massive 150,000 square foot building, the leading example of "big box" retailing in the country. Leon’s is famous for its television advertising, punchy, off the wall, funny, fast-paced and informative, using their creative flair effectively to introduce a then radical approach to retailing. Again, an extraordinary success story, and Leon’s began to erect huge new showrooms across Canada.
By the early ‘80s, they realized there was a need for showrooms in smaller towns. The business was consolidating and smaller independent operators were finding it increasingly difficult to compete with larger retailers. Many Leon’s customers drove great distances to shop at their large metropolitan sites. Obviously, they were asking for local Leon’s stores in their areas. The concept of Leon’s franchise stores was born.
There were many applicants, but only a select few entrepreneurial retailers demonstrated the attributes of the ideal candidate, a solid reputation for service, integrity, dedication and a drive to excel matching the parent corporation’s. A rare breed. These adventurers have prospered, and the franchise division has grown dramatically over the years.
There are now almost 50 locations across Canada from Newfoundland to Alberta. Leon’s shares intensively researched marketing knowledge and material with the franchises. Corporate offices are connected via computer and the Internet to all their stores with systems and procedures on the leading edge of retail technology. Very important, the franchises have full access to Leon’s enormous volume purchasing power.
Sales have risen consistently from $289 million in 1996 to $524 million by the year 2000. And they’re still climbing the mountain.
Terry Leon, the firm’s CFO, shares his father’s ebullience. He credits the stores’ 2,000 associates with exceptional professionalism and support. "Our team of associates is our greatest asset."
He described the company’s approach to marketing. "The in-house marketing team is responsible for overall planning. We retain two agencies, one used for media buys and the second for creative conceptualization. Our marketers work closely with them, brainstorming to envision and develop promotions.
"A favorite recent promotion was Leon’s Luau. We used a combination of direct mail, television and newspaper, a special offer discount coupon, free gifts when customers came to any of the stores, an extra discount on specific products and a grand prize of a trip to Hawaii.
"Special event promotions are usually the most successful, a large event in a short period of time with heavy media and special offers."
The extensive preferred customer list was developed about eight years ago and is utilized for direct mail four times each year. "In general, special event promotions are offered first to preferred customers. We give them a unique offer, not given to others.
"The future? Maybe we’ll sell on line. We’re working on our website. Once it’s really up and running, we’ll see. We need to discover whether or not the consumer wants to buy home furnishings that way. Maybe appliances. But we believe that most customers want to sit on upholstery and touch casegoods. It’s a fashion purchase, traditionally touchy-feely. And our prime consideration is ensuring customers would receive the same level of service as is now provided by Leon’s stores."
The Leon stores are used as a benchmark in Canadian retailing, and Tom Leon’s Award could not be more appropriate. He and his wife, Connie, work hard in their community, sharing their good fortune with others. Back where it all started, in the town of Welland, Tom became a politician and served the citizens as Alderman. He is Chairman of the Board of Centenary Hospital and has promoted the Cardinal’s Dinner, a huge annual charitable event. And so that no avenues are overlooked, he has formed his own charitable foundation.
Alban Leon had a vision and a kind heart. A powerful genetic inheritance.