Army & Navy CEO Jacqui Cohen highlights retail value for students

Nov 02, 2012

Jacqui Cohen, President and CEO of Army & Navy, being interviewed at the Beedie School of Business by CKNW host Bill Good.

Jacqui Cohen, President and CEO of Army & Navy, sat in front of a live audience at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business to share her insights and experience as head of one of Western Canada’s most iconic discount retail store chains.

The event was part of the Beedie School of Business’ partnership with prominent Vancouver radio station CKNW, which sees SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus play host to “The Chief Executives”, a series of live radio interviews conducted by CKNW host Bill Good, profiling some of the country’s top executives.

Good opened the interview by asking what Cohen had wanted to be when growing up. She revealed that she had always envisioned herself going on to work in Army & Navy, which her grandfather, Samuel Cohen, founded in 1919. Cohen claimed that she had retail in her blood, and that her first job was at the age of 13 selling children’s clothes in the store basement.

Enquiring as to what the secret of the Army & Navy stores’ success was, Good pointed out that they had outlasted other iconic retail stores in the area such as Eaton’s and Woodward’s. “It’s all about the price and the value,” Cohen replied. “People like a deal, whether you are on welfare, at university or living in West Vancouver, and at Army & Navy it’s all about value. No one comes down for the location, but all we have ever been about is bargains.”

Cohen then discussed the impact of the financial crisis on the company, explaining that despite their status as a discount retailer, they had been affected in much the same way as high-end retailers. “Every store is now a discounter, offering deals to the customers to try and increase sales,” she said.

Good next brought up the subject of the flagship Army & Navy store’s location, commenting on the commitment Cohen has shown to the area over the years. Cohen spoke about her immense pride in keeping the original Army & Navy store in its downtown eastside location, and revealed that there had been many occasions when she had been advised to move the store away from the neighbourhood.

“The location has changed a lot over the years – there was a time when people were probably hesitant to park their cars there,” said Cohen. “I love the area, I used to feed the birds in the park when I was growing up. People used to tell me to walk away from the area but my grandfather started there and the next generation of Cohens is now there too. I am proud of being able to walk out of our flagship store and have people thank me for staying in the area.”

Cohen moved on to discuss the company’s sales strategy in the face of increased competition from other discount retail chains such as Target and Zellers. She explained that the company’s philosophy is not to take on the bigger brands in all markets, but to concentrate on what they do best. She went on to explain that Army & Navy’s key growth areas were in menswear, fishing and camping equipment, describing these products as their category killers.

Asked about her management style, Cohen described it as “passionate”, noting that she is renowned amongst her employees for speaking her mind. She joked that although she is opinionated, she is easy to get along with, provided everyone agrees with her opinions, prompting laughter and applause from the audience.

Throughout the interview Cohen fielded questions from the audience, touching upon her decision to drop out of university; the qualities she looks for in an employee; past television commercials Army & Navy has run; her intent to step back from the day-to-day running of the company in order to travel more in the near future; and her tendency to refer to all the Army & Navy stores as her “children”.

Finally, Cohen spoke about an occasion where her team had encouraged her to marginally raise the price of an established product. Cohen revealed that against all advice she steadfastly refused to do so. “We probably would have sold just as many if we had raised the price, but I didn’t want people to see the price increase and think that we were just about making money,” she explained. “I told them not to even show me the studies, I didn’t want to know why I was wrong. My grandfather always followed his instincts, and it’s the one trait in business I have inherited from him.”

The next CEO to be interviewed as part of the Chief Executives Series will be Karen Flavelle, CEO of Purdy’s Chocolates.

For more information about the CKNW Chief Executives Series at the Beedie School of Business, visit http://beedie.sfu.ca/events/

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