Brian Hill, president and CEO, Aritzia LP
These days, Brian Hill doesn’t spend much time on the floor of any of his Aritzia clothing stores, which he leaves in the hands of some 1,131 employees. Rather he’s charging forward with a major expansion, including a number of stateside openings. Chalk it up to a lifetime in the fashion industry, but the man’s obviously got a knack – Aritzia’s revenue per square foot is four times the industry average. He attributes that accomplishment to the economic immunity of his 15-to-30-year-old target market. “The female demographic of that age is probably the least affected by the economy and economic situations that are going on out there,” he says. “It’s turned out to be one of the most influential purchasing and affluent demographics.” There is something cagey about Hill. As we settle into our chairs in Aritzia’s sun-drenched boardroom in the company’s industrial Alexander Street office, his demeanour is calm. Closed. Poker faced. The president and CEO of the Vancouver-based clothing company has been interviewed about the success of his business countless times; it’s all part of the job, but it’s clear he’s more comfortable doing what he does best – overseeing every facet of B.C.’s most successful fashion retail monopoly.
Though his day-to-day involvement with the company is primarily focused on the expansion of Aritzia, Hill waxes maudlin about his origins in the fashion industry. “Sometimes I get a little bogged down with the technical issues and financial issues and legal issues and big corporate strategy issues that I think I’m decently good at, but I don’t necessarily always find the most invigorating,” he admits, while toying with a cellphone that rings endlessly during our talk. “I think there is a real, tangible pleasure to a customer coming in and needing something and you deliver it for them and they’re happy. There is great gratification in that.” Hill has been aligned with the fashion retail business since birth. The son of Jim Hill, who started (and still runs) Hills of Kerrisdale, Brian spent his youth sorting hangers, washing windows and absorbing his dad’s business tutelage. By the time he reached university, he had a clear grasp of the retail world, but that didn’t prevent him from being kicked out of the commerce program at Queen’s University for poor grades – an experience that makes him laugh, since the university often requests his presence to speak to MBA and commerce students. Saved by a strong performance in economics, Hill graduated in that faculty, then returned to Vancouver to open the first Aritzia in Oakridge Centre in 1984. Capitalizing on the lacklustre fashion retail landscape of the times, he began targeting the emerging teen and young adult market – an affluent demographic that had little on which to spend its disposable income. Unable to source cutting-edge designs from other manufacturers, Hill looked inward for inspiration and established a number of in-house clothing lines to provide trend-setting fashions for his customers. Aritzia’s six private brands and two accessory brands account for 80 per cent of sales and allow the company to target different buyer profiles within its consumer base. “A lot of people thought we did it because we wanted better margins, and as it turns out we do get better margins. But we did it because we couldn’t find what we wanted in the marketplace,” says Hill. “We just thought that we knew more about what consumers wanted, and the suppliers out there weren’t giving it.” Throughout the ’90s and into the millennium, the vertically integrated women’s fashion retail firm built its empire, which now includes 25 locations across the country, two more in the U.S. and three more set to open south of the border. In December 2005, Aritzia announced a new partnership with Boston-based investment house Berkshire Partners, which assumed 63 per cent ownership. Hill is pragmatic about the union, which he says took a staggering weight off his shoulders and has given him the ability to better strategize for the future – not to mention freeing up more time to spend on his road bike, which he regularly pedals up Cypress Mountain. When he owned 100 per cent of the company, in order to expand he would have had to put the entire enterprise on the line, and after 25 years, he says, he wasn’t prepared to risk his life’s work. “It gave me some financial security and it allowed Aritzia to go back to running an offensive business, versus running a business that was in capital-preservation mode,” he explains. With a game plan that includes the creation of eight to 12 new stores annually, and revenue of $170 million this year alone, Hill has become a master of the successful retail environment. He understands today’s young consumer is looking for more than a skirt or pants – they want a full lifestyle experience when they’re still in the store. Upon entering an Aritzia-owned store it’s easy to get swept away in the electric vibe. Loud music, hip interior design, youthful sales clerks and crowds of well-dressed teens riffle through the racks. It’s a far cry from the upscale department store environment in which Hill got his start, but it’s a world he knows well. He created every inch of it. AND THE JUDGES SAY... “Brian Hill has shown remarkable leadership in all aspects of company-building, from his innovative retail concept in 1984 to vertical integration of designing and manufacturing, focus on operations, and hiring several senior managers who started on the showroom floor”