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Normand Ciarlo is Business Partner at Holt Renfrew Ogilvy, Montreal. Here Normand talks to us about…

My career in retail didn’t start in a traditional way. I was actually a professional dancer for 14 years, finishing my dance career on cruise ships! I guess you could say, whether in dance or in retail, my career has always been about performance, about being on stage, and probably about being in the spotlight too. On a cruise ship you live, sleep and eat with the customer. The reality is there are good customers, and sometimes not so good customers, but you have to live with the good and the bad when you are on the ship, you have to build connections no matter your differences, and you have to make the very best experience for them, and for yourself. I always say the cruise ship taught me customer service the hard way — and it gave me a high level of resilience and discipline. 

When I decided to move away from professional dancing, a friend suggested that I go into retail. I applied for a job in a cookie shop and they saw the potential in me and offered me the job of manager instead. I immediately felt at home in a customer service role, retail was something that came naturally to me, and it turns out that I really enjoyed the leadership aspect too — something I had experience with as the dance captain onboard the cruise ships. Looking back, it’s amazing how quickly my career in retail took off, I was really able to apply my experience and express my personality, and I was also lucky enough to have some great mentors along the way. 

I knew a lot about Holt Renfrew through my husband, who has worked here for 12 years. My career had taken me from the cookie shop, to big corporations like Apple and The Gap, often working in multilocation roles which involved a lot of travel. When a role came up at Holts, a recruiter contacted me and invited me to apply. I didn’t really know what I was walking into, I didn’t know the luxury market so well, but I was determined not to let luxury intimidate me — it turns out it was sort of an advantage to come to the sector with fresh eyes, especially with the Ogilvy acquisition on the horizon. The rumour mill was humming about the merge of the two stores, Holt Renfrew and Ogilvy. I knew that the family had just bought Ogilvy and they were going to do a brand-new project in Montreal, that really triggered my curiosity. So, I applied for the job, hoping I was going to be involved in that project — and a year later I was on that team. I was a bit worried I would be bored working in just one location, but I have been with the company for eight years now, and I have never been so busy in my life! 

I was really scared at first but I didn’t let it show, I just went in and was completely myself — a rallyer and customer service provider. I work through our people and allow the team to guide me by listening and responding. I wasn’t trained to be the leader of the store, the employees told me what they needed, and I listened, and I was the right person to do that listening. When I’m looking at 400 of them, I’ve got 400 pairs of eyes on me — and that’s where my experience on stage comes in handy — I am comfortable being in the spotlight. As a leader, you can’t be afraid to fail, but you have to know that you are going to fail in front of a lot of people. 

Holt Renfrew Ogilvy is a beautiful store. We have created something really special in the merger of Holt Renfrew and Ogilvy, a leader in luxury on the east coast of Canada.  Montreal is a really fashionable city, and most of our customers have said that a luxury destination is way overdue — we have been able to bring brands here that we didn’t have before, and we have created this jewel in the city.

My greatest achievement so far is probably merging the cultures of Ogilvy and Hot Renfrew — there are always negotiations and adjustments to be made, but I think everyone really benefitted from that mix of cultures and it gave a lot of our people room to grow. Holt Renfrew and Ogilvy used to be in competition, and then all of a sudden, they are expected to be sisters living together, and that can sometimes affect people. I think it worked so well because we were very aware of the impact it could have from the get-go. My mantra during the whole merger was ‘nobody’s doing anything wrong here, but maybe just doing things differently’. My emphasis was always on what we can learn from each other, and I think when that message filtered through, we were able to transition really well. The actual merger lasted five years, and that is a long time to keep people engaged and motivated. I think we did a good job — it kept me awake at night — but I do think we did really well.

I think the pandemic taught us new skills and I really, truly, believe that we're going to come out of this better people in the end.

I think that everybody started 2020 from point of view of being scared of the unknown. As a leader, I have to be very transparent. I am not the expert on everything that’s going on right now, so we just had to remember that we were all this together, and it was a new experience for everybody. We did a lot of checking in to see how people were feeling and how it was going, which made us realise very quickly that with Covid there is always two sides to everything. Through staying in touch with people from the store whilst it was closed, we realised that Covid really was not just affecting retail but everybody — family, kids, grandparents. You may be coming to work with a smile on your face, but your husband could have just lost his job. There is a story behind every story, and we have to be aware that everybody is dealing with other stuff, and it is a very challenging time.

I tried to make the store a safe haven, especially for the staff. A place where you could escape the Covid funk for a few hours every day. Once the initial fear had subsided a bit, we started to experiment and innovate with the customer experience. The community has totally changed how we communicate with one another, and we have learned to do things differently too. 

I think the pandemic taught us new skills and I really, truly, believe that we’re going to come out of this better people in the end. Some people just choose not to change, and they’re going to want to stick to their old ways, and that’s their choice. Anybody that has a sense of timing, or an emotional intelligence, will realise that we have got to do things differently from now on, it’s not going to be like it was before. I think this past year will distinguish the good leaders from the great leaders. 

The best thing about living in Montreal is absolutely the diversity. But also, in Montreal, we work to live we don’t live to work. I earn my paycheque in order to treat myself to a nice dinner, or a nice vacation or, you know, a nice piece of furniture — that’s the culture here. Canada in general is known for its diversity and inclusion, but Montreal is especially rich in that way. We have two official languages, French and English, and no matter where you are from — the Middle East, Asia, Brazil — you’re a Montrealer. Our differences are already built into the city, and that’s one thing I really love. I have lived in many countries, and I was always come back here — culture is incredibly important. That was reflected when we opened the new store, the marketing campaign was all about the community. We didn’t make it all about the product, or the store, we made it about the people, the spirit of the city. There is an openness here, it’s very welcoming. And we love a good party!

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