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Reitmans CEO Jeremy Reitman led the fashion chain with his brother for half a century

By on February 15, 2020 in Articles with 0 Comments

Jeremy Reitman, who has died at the age of 74, was the chairman and CEO of Reitmans, the Canada-wide retail chain his grandparents started in 1926. He and his brother, Stephen Reitman, ran the company together for almost 50 years.

Reitmans was one of the survivors of the “retail apocalypse” brought on by online competition. It was helped by its specialty, women’s clothing, and by the demographic niche it targeted.

“We’ve always built our business on the middle and the lower middle, because that’s where the money is,” Mr. Reitman told The Canadian Press in 2005. “That’s where the people are, and that’s where the broad base of our customers are.”

The company ran ads saying its products were made for real life, unlike the more exclusive fashion labels. “Reitmans: One. Haute Couture: Zero” ran the pitch.

Mr. Reitman, a hands-on executive who oversaw every detail of the operation, watched as the online revolution in retail profoundly changed the way consumers buy clothing.

It was thanks to him that the chain stayed alive when many other stores were closing, according to Diane Brisebois, chief executive of the Retail Council of Canada.

“He was quicker than many to realize the fundamental changes that were overtaking apparel and fashion retailers in Canada, and across the world. Jeremy went to work making the changes that modern retail demanded to ensure the business stayed relevant and successful,” Ms. Brisebois said.

Reitmans (Canada) Ltd. currently operates 587 stores under five different brands: Reitmans, the largest in the group, Penningtons, Addition Elle and two smaller chains. The firm was founded 94 years ago in Montreal, as one outlet. At its peak, it operated almost 1,000 stores, a complex task for Mr. Reitman and his brother, who ran the firm jointly for 48 years. The company closed 37 stores in the latest quarter, and Stephen Reitman says the firm has an aggressive e-commerce platform.

In 2015, Reitmans scored a publicity coup when the company hired the American actress Meghan Markle, who was living and working in Canada at the time, as a spokeswoman for their products. That relationship ended when Ms. Markle married Prince Harry and became the Duchess of Sussex.

The first Reitmans store was founded in the 1920s, the age of the flapper, by Herman and Sarah Reitman on Montreal’s Boulevard St-Laurent. By the time their grandson Jeremy Reitman was born on July 17, 1945, the family business had expanded to a national chain of women’s fashion outlets, run by Jeremy’s father, Jack, and his three brothers. Jeremy went to Westmount High School, then to Dartmouth College, the Ivy League school in New Hampshire.

At Expo 67 in Montreal, he met Sara Schmidt, who was working at the Israeli pavilion, and they were married. They had two children and later divorced.

After earning a degree in economics at Dartmouth, Mr. Reitman returned to Montreal and took a law degree at McGill University. He practised law at the Montreal firm Johnston Heenan Blaikie (now Heenan Blaikie).

“I taught fiscal law and Jeremy was in my class,” said Donald Johnston, a partner at the firm and a former federal cabinet minister in Pierre Trudeau’s government. “Jeremy came to our firm and ultimately, while we wanted to keep him, his father, Jack, wanted to get him back into the business. I used to kid him, saying, ‘You’d rather sell bras than work in a law firm?’ He had a great sense of humour. We got to know each other quite well.”

Stephen Reitman, his brother and business partner, said he remembers when the two of them were called back to work in the family firm.

“At that time, I was doing my MBA, and I was about to go to New York to try my hand at some retail there. Jeremy called me and said, ‘I think if we’re going to do it, we had better start now,’ ” Mr. Reitman said.

Jeremy Reitman’s business acumen was recognized outside the retail world, leading to his appointment as a director of Bank of Montreal, a role he filled for 25 years. On the BMO board, he was head of the audit committee, a key post that recognized his outstanding ability with numbers. He was also on the board of governors of McGill University.

Mr. Reitman donated to Jewish and Israeli causes and one other Canadian charity in particular, Dunham House, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. It is a residential institution for people with mental illnesses.

“Jeremy was very generous to Dunham House and concerned about the issue of mental health and how to deal with it in a practical way,” said Daniel Colson, the home’s founder. “He not only helped fund it but spent a lot of time working as a dedicated board member.”

Outside of business, Mr. Reitman was a keen golfer and a bon vivant. “He was very warm, always smiling, and he had passions in life,” his brother, Stephen, said. He was outgoing and loved being out with friends. One of them described him as a foodie but also a creature of habit. He pretty much stuck to three restaurants in Montreal: Moishe’s, the famous steak house; Milos, a Greek restaurant; and an Italian place near his office in the garment district that had a bullet hole or two from a gangland shooting many years ago. He was well read and always prepared to bring his sharp intellect to bear in heated but friendly debates with his friends. He spent time in Florida in the winter, where he died on Dec. 28.

Mr. Reitman leaves his sister, Sarah; brother, Stephen; children, Alexandra and Daniel; stepchildren, Raine and Rebecca Heidenberg; two grandchildren; and his long-time partner, Penny Rudnikoff.

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .


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