Leadership Lessons from Honest Ed’s

The workplace culture behind the retail institution

Photo credit: A Nerd’s World

On December 31st, 2016 Toronto’s iconic Honest Ed’s department store closed for good. This weekend the Centre for Social Innovation will host one final farewell bash — Toronto for Everyone — celebrating the massive cultural impact the store had on the city.

Over the course of its 69 years at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor, this unmistakable retail landmark become recognized as a local institution. But at 160,000 square foot, I’d argue the department store should be remembered as much more than just a cultural bedrock. It should be a business case study as well.

Honest Ed’s may be a relic of times past, but the values it upheld to create its one-of-a-kind corporate culture are as a relevant as ever.

In winter of 2016, just before the store shuttered for good, I had the opportunity to interview a longtime employee on his lived experience of work at Honest Ed’s. Frank Mirabelli, a buyer, worked at the store for 49 years. He started in April 1967 while at a nearby high school and held a long list of positions over his years. He met his wife there in 1972.

Frank Mirabelli, Retail Buyer (photo: Traven Benner)

As we sat in his office just off the sales floor two months before the store would shutter, he flipped from past to present tense describing his time with the store fondly. During the conversation I was struck by how many learnings for large organizations could be gleaned from his experience. I have conducted countless stakeholder interviews with employees and management of fortune 500 organizations. But Frank’s reflections were littered with leadership lessons told from an increasingly rare perspective — that of 40+ year longstanding, loyal, wholly engaged employee.

Below are a handful of those valuable lessons in Frank’s words. Honest Ed’s may be a relic of times past, but the values it upheld to create its one-of-a-kind corporate culture are as a relevant as ever.

1/ HELP EMPLOYEES EMPATHIZE.

Empathy begins with having a clear sense of who your customer is. Selling to an underserved market of new Canadians, Ed Mirvish saw the value in hiring from the same communities he was aiming to reach.

It’s a place that all the new immigrants came to. Whoever came to Toronto knew about Honest Ed’s. They found out through friends, word of mouth, you know.
Whether they spoke English or not, they were able to shop here. They would find somebody who spoke their language because our staff here is a multicultural staff. You didn’t even have to speak English to work in this place. That’s how it was…. from the start.

2/ PROMOTE PEOPLE TO PROMOTE CULTURE.

Ed Mirvish recognized that developing your existing staff built employee loyalty and grew a stronger corporate culture. It also saved money that could be passed on to the customer.

I started part time and slowly I started to get promoted…. Mr Mirvish, he always promoted within. I don’t have a business education. I don’t have a College degree. Everything I learned I learned it here by physically doing it and listening to my seniors…. That’s how I learned it all. And I think I did well. I built a good reputation for myself and the store.

3/ OFFER FREEDOM & FORGIVENESS.

Good leaders know autonomy begets engagement. Show your employees trust and they’ll get the job done nine times out of ten. That other time, just forget about it. If your people are not failing occasionally, they’re not learning.

We became comfortable because he allowed us to run the place. We had no restrictions. The only thing he wanted to see at end of the month was you did a good job selling the products and you made money. That’s all…. Here I could place an order for $50 or $20,000 and I don’t have to check with anyone. So he gave us that freedom.
….If we made a mistake when we did the buying he would talk to us, but two minutes later it was forgotten. And the only thing he expected from us was don’t make the same mistake, that’s all. We all make mistakes. That’s how he was. And that’s what we learned from him. And a lot of the coworkers here, a lot of them have been here 50, 40 years, 30 years, so we became like brothers and sisters. And I don’t think there are so many places that have that now.

4/ EARN RELATIONSHIPS.

Longstanding employee relationships translate into longstanding customer relationships. Honest Ed’s lived this formula for 69 years.

We have a base. More or less, everyday, you see the same faces. And you begin to be friendly with them…. we got older together I guess. They bring their grandkids. And we’re friends — not just customers, we’re friends.
I get a lot of people like your age and older that come and say, “oh you’re still here, I used to be a little kid and shop here”. And that makes me happy and proud that I’m still here and they remember me.

5/ STAY TRUE TO YOUR CORE.

Amidst intense competition, a differentiated position is everything. Honest Ed’s saw its everything-by-hand, no-tech experience as a distinct selling feature, not a detriment.

We do everything by hand here. There’s no computers. We have a computer up in the main office, only one. We have an email, only one. But you see my office here there’s just the phone, nothing else.
We get a lot of young people now, especially from the university…. I listen to them and to them this is like a museum: another world, another age. We are like in the 60s, probably 50s. But it’s ok, I’m proud of it. I don’t have to be in this time…. it makes it different from anyplace else.
It is a good thing. It’s not a backward thing. It’s who I am and who we are. I know you cannot please everybody.

*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. It was conducted as part of an exhibit titled the Museum of Contemporary Work which will show in 2017.