Jeremy Reitman, chairman and chief executive of Reitmans Canada Ltd., has died, leaving a legacy as a builder of both his family business and Montreal’s fashion industry.
Reitmans, Canada’s largest women’s apparel retailer with 587 stores under five brands including Reitmans, Penningtons and Addition Elle, announced his death on Sunday. Reitman died “peacefully in Florida on Saturday,” according to his obituary in the Montreal Gazette. He was 74 years old, according to a company spokesperson.
Reitman, a graduate of Darmouth College, McGill Law, Westmount High School and Camp Kennebec, worked for more than 40 years at the family-controlled, publicly traded business his grandparents Herman and Sarah Reitman founded in 1926 with one shop on Boulevard St. Laurent in Montreal. Reitman’s stock fell 1.74 per cent on the Toronto Stock Exchange to close at $1.13 per share on Monday.
He held the role of director since 1975 and was named chairman and CEO in 2010, the start of a challenging decade for Canada’s retail industry as it grappled with the entrance of large U.S. competitors and the explosion of online shopping.
Reitman will be missed as an icon in Canada’s retail fashion industry, said Retail Council of Canada chief executive Diane Brisebois, who has worked with Reitman throughout her 25 years at the industry group.
“It’s difficult not to know Jeremy if you’re in retail. It’s an iconic family and an iconic brand,” Brisebois said, describing Reitman as a jovial but no-nonsense kind of guy. “Jeremy was very focused on his business, on the growth of his business.”
Reitman leaves a rich legacy as a champion of Montreal’s fashion industry and as a mentor to people getting into the apparel business, Brisebois said.
“He and his family were part of the building of Montreal as a centre for apparel and fashion,” she said. “People will remember him as a builder in the industry.”
Under the leadership of Reitman and his brother Stephen Reitman, who serves as president and chief operating officer, the retailer survived the disruption of the past decade when its peers Jacob, Mexx, Comark and Express couldn’t make it work in Canada.
Brisebois sees this as a compliment to the brothers. Family retailers are often run tightly, but she said the Reitmans brought on people who were able to support the changes that needed to be made to grapple with new competitors and the digital shift.
“They were not afraid to make tough decisions when the market became quite disrupted,” she said. “They’ve built a very strong ship.”
Still, Reitmans wasn’t immune to the industry-wide hardships. It launched an activewear line called Hyba to try to take on the ‘athleisure’ trend, but it closed the standalone stores in February after they didn’t get enough traction. In its latest quarter it closed 37 stores, primarily due to lower sales from its plus-size brands, according to company documents.
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In the past decade, Reitmans shrunk its store footprint by 40 per cent from a peak of 980 stores in 2010.
“They were probably one of the most vulnerable because of the number of stores they had,” said Maureen Atkinson, a senior advisor at global retail consultancy J.C. Williams Group.
Jeremy Reitman and his family were part of the building of Montreal as a centre for apparel and fashion
But Reitman was forward-thinking enough to invest significantly in digital even though some of his competitors didn’t embrace online shopping fast enough, said Atkinson.
“I have really been an admirer,” she said. “They have the right mixture of understanding the Canadian female but then also being open to change and innovation and understanding that they do have to change.”
Reitmans also hit a home run with a partnership with actor Meghan Markle, who was named a brand ambassador in 2015 before she became world famous as Prince Harry’s fiancé and then the Duchess of Sussex. The contract ended as planned in 2017.
“I’m not sure they foresaw she was going to marry a prince, but she epitomized the kind of brand they wanted to communicate… really fashionable but achievable for the average Canadian woman,” Atkinson said.
In an interview with La Presse earlier this year, Reitman said he was focused on trying to maximize both bricks and mortar stores and e-commerce. He was also working to reduce delivery times and personalize email marketing.
In his obituary, Reitman is described as a devoted and loving father and stepfather, an adoring grandfather, a dear brother and a beloved partner that will be missed by many.
“A passionate golfer, skier, Moishe’s regular, toastmaster and philatelist, Jeremy was also a strong supporter of Israel and Jewish causes and a most devoted friend,” the obituary stated.
A funeral will be held in Montreal on Thursday.