When you’re eavesdropping at a furniture market, you don’t anticipate hearing details about mapping for landmines in Mozambique. Irving Schwartz, President and CEO of Schwartz & Company, was in deep conversation with his friend Angelo Marzilli Senior, Chairman of Decor-Rest Furniture, at a quiet, fountain-side table in Piazza Roma, the courtyard atrium of the company’s facility in Toronto. Over lunch the two men discussed the many activities of the Canadian International Demining Corps, a Sydney-based not-for-profit organization working to ban the use of landmines around the world.
Back in 1996, Mr. Schwartz helped found the Corps. “Landmines contaminate about 70 countries globally,” he told us. “It’s estimated that up to 100 million remain in the ground, claiming a new victim on average every 22 minutes.” This serious humanitarian problem has become one of his most passionate causes and, under his leadership and significant financial support, the Corps has provided a wide range of services in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
The Mozambique project is ongoing and Irving spoke proudly about the Corps’ demining dog-training facility in Bosnia, the largest in Europe. Recently, he personally presented to the Jordanian government and military establishment much-needed equipment to aid in essential demining in that region.
At home in Cape Breton Island, Irving’s influence and interests are, to say the least, multi-faceted. He focuses primarily on furniture retailing, cable television, information technology, food processing, real estate and the travel and hospitality sectors. In addition, he has both invested in and strongly supported a variety of industries peculiar to Cape Breton, fishing, aquaculture and coal. And he was active in the development and operation of a local nursing home.
It all began when his parents, Rose and Abraham, both from Russia, met in Canada, married and initiated the Schwartz dynasty. In 1922, the young couple opened a combination furniture and clothing store in the small mining town of New Waterford. A decade later, Abraham died, leaving Rose with five children, one on the way, a hefty mortgage and, fortunately for all concerned, an unbeatable spirit of determination to succeed, both in the development of the children and their enterprise. And she did overcome all the obstacles of “the hungry ‘30s”, depression, and the usual peaks and troughs of the Maritimes’ volatile economy. “She went to the store every day, a fantastic woman.” Rose only left the business when the original store was closed in 1990, almost 70 years after the Schwartz’s doors first opened for business.
During the intervening years, Rose, and beginning at age 13, Irving, grew and built five stores at Glace Bay, New Waterford, North Sydney (now their flagship store), New Glasgow and Port Hawkesbury.
“When I was13 during the War, my mother sent me to Montreal on my first buying trip. She knew it would be an excellent training experience for me, and she felt that even if I made mistakes she could still sell whatever they were! In 1947, at 17, I went to work full time in the store. In school I was good at scraping by. Even then I was always interested in buying and selling. I kept rabbits during my teenage years. They had the advantage, since they multiplied so quickly, that the inventory always increased!”
In 1980, mother and son bought a 73,000 square foot empty factory at the Sydney location and “put 25,000 square feet into showroom, 25,000 into warehouse and rented out the rest to Sobey’s, a grocery store, and to a Sear’s catalogue store. Both moved out eventually and we turned one 20,000 square foot area into a call centre for a U.S. telemarketing company that employs 500 people. We created our own built-in traffic!”
Irving preferred selling furniture and appliances and dropped the clothing lines. But he became acutely aware of the many other potentials that surrounded him and while continuing to grow the increasingly successful furniture stores, began to nibble away at what has become a mini-empire of companies, employing hundreds of people.
An honors graduate of the “Rose Schwartz School of Business”, Irving finished formal schooling at Grade 11 and contrived somehow to experience three months at Mount Allison University and another three months at New York University. This activated his intense interest in the Atlantic Provinces’ educational system. He has been an advisor to the School of Business at Dalhousie University, served as Chairman of the Board of Governors at the University College of Cape Breton, as Director of the National Theatre School and as Chairman of the Cape Breton Chapter of the Hebrew University. In his spare time, he’s played a leading role in developing public/private partnership initiatives for the construction of new schools throughout Nova Scotia.
Rose lived her life based on the importance of personal responsibility to the community and the essentials of honesty, trust and integrity. She taught her children well. Irving felt the need to work with the Children’s Aid Society, the Nova Scotia Division of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, the Lions Club, Junior Achievement, the Nova Scotia Business Capital Corporation, the Nova Scotia Business Development Corporation and the Sydport International Free Trade Zone. As well, he is an active member of the National Capital Commission in Ottawa. People in high places couldn’t help but notice and, in 1997, Irving Schwartz was awarded the Order of Canada.
Irving’s business philosophy is to “offer the public the best value and the best service we can possibly give. Value is number one, together with reliability. I really believe in customer satisfaction, so they know they can buy with no fear, with complete confidence. For years in our television commercials I was the spokesperson, and my slogan was ‘I guarantee it!’ All over Cape Breton Island I was known as the ‘I guarantee Man’.”
In 1958, Irving and the talented Montreal born Diana Usher were married. Diana, an interior decorator, worked with Irving for 12 years in design and as a buyer. “She married me,” grinned Irving, “so she must have good taste.” They have four children, not one of whom work in the stores or family businesses. Margo is a political analyst, Joanne a librarian, Stephanie a teacher and David, a recent law school graduate.
Obviously, succession became an important issue and Irving targeted an intensive search for “the right person(s)”. Eight years ago, Brian Purchase “came on board. He is now 50 percent owner of the business”. Brian is a chartered accountant and, in the role of financial officer, worked in each one of Irving’s companies. Said Brian, “Irving is a local icon, a leader and a booster of the province’s economy. I am from Cape Breton and I always wanted to work with an entrepreneur. There’s no better learning ground and Irving is pure entrepreneur!
“We talked about the direction of the companies and decided we should go right back to the roots of what had made the companies successful in the first place, service, quality and value. He needed a partner because he wanted to have time to enjoy the businesses, yet still engage in all his avocational interests. We’ve created a management team. The latest addition is Jamie Cameron. Jamie has extensive experience in sales, marketing and communications. We also hired Leanne Chiasson, our new comptroller, to help us with our computer systems, very necessary these days.
“We opened Rent-to-Own International Furniture Rentals here in Sydney, and are expanding to a second location in the province, in the town of New Glasgow. We should be open there by August.
“In September we will celebrate our 79th anniversary and it will be an important event. The store will be decorated, there will be free
gifts just for coming to the party, a draw for a trip, refreshments and giveaways with purchases. Next year will, of course, be our 80th celebration and we’re already planning for it. This is an annual two-day promotion supported by direct mail invitations to preferred customers only.
“We use a lot of radio for exposure, live remotes as well as commercials and now Jamie, who has lots of experience in this area, will become our spokesperson. And we’ve been heavily into television starring Irving, “the I guarantee it” man. Schwartz ads appear on a weekly basis in local newspapers.
“Our suppliers are very important to us and we like to partner with them. There is an El Ran boutique within our Sydney store. They supply us with point of purchase and display assistance. We added a Sony outlet inside Schwartz’s when Sony’s local store closed, and we brought over their employees to our location. Actually, we are in the process of gallerizing the store and will target this concept for bedding, appliances and upholstery.
“Irving was one of the founder members of the Allied Buying Group, a gathering of independent stores across Canada. I can’t tell you how helpful this is to me, a new owner at 34! I’m delighted to have the support of Irving and all these experienced people. Joe Ramia (owner of Gallery One, Dartmouth), Todd Smith of Allied, and all the other members have been invaluable. They will be here soon for an Allied Critique Evaluation on two of our stores. We expose everything to them, sales, staff, all our figures and they’ll help us make some key decisions.” This interview was conducted in May. Brian told us they were very pleased with the outcome of the experience. “They gave us lots of good, new ideas.”
“Irving is a huge supporter of the philosophy of networking. Our Allied interaction helps us become even stronger. The threat of the big box is growing in the Maritimes even though here in Cape Breton we are a smaller market and somewhat isolated. With offshore gas exploration and the economy getting stronger, more competition will inevitably come.
“Part of my challenge is to make the company stronger and ready for any threats that may occur. And, as Irving would say, the number one way to do that is to focus on the customer, make our relationship with our customers so great that when the big boxes get here we will be ready for them!”
Irving is 70 years young and busier than ever making business deals to create jobs for Cape Bretoners, implementing humanitarian programmes overseas and, whenever he has an opportunity, playing with his three beautiful grandchildren, Rachael, Sophie and Toby. Without doubt, a “Renaissance man” of the Millennium.
Note: Irving invites fellow home furnishings retailers across North America to join him in supporting the international demining cause. Please call him at home base in Sydney at 902-539-3100. And, of course, this man for all seasons is on line. You can reach him at email@example.com. I promise you’ll enjoy meeting him!