Leading with Compassion — Interview with Henry’s CEO, Gillian Stein

Sep 28, 2021 | Podcast

On the morning of March 17, 2020 — at the very start of the pandemic — CEO Gillian Stein looked at her COO and said, “We gotta shut this down.”

It was not an easy thing to say for a brick-and-mortar retailer. Within 24 hours, Henry’s stores were closed.

After a startling 90% drop in revenue, Gillian shares her approach to leadership, navigating the crisis, and how Henry’s is innovating and coming out stronger than ever.

Gillian Stein is the CEO of Henry’s, the largest independent camera retailer in Canada. Henry’s is a family-owned business founded in 1909. Gillian has played an integral role in growing the business to over 300 employees with 22 retail stores across the country.

In This Episode

  • How Gillian and her team rapidly changed their mindset after Covid-19.
  • The foresight to see how their market was changing. The company noticed their clients shifting towards “content creation” — like podcasts, streaming, and video conferencing.
  • What Henry’s had to offer to really help their customers tell their stories through technology, and how they changed to the “experience” mindset.
  • How Henry’s is innovating. They created a new team that is focused on developing new markets, new ideas, and revenue streams.

– [TV Announcer] Brand X, brand Y, brand Z, not one sticks. Watch it again in slow motion.

– Welcome to the Sticky Branding podcast. In this show, we are unpacking how companies grow Sticky Brands. My name is Jeremy Miller. I am the founder of Sticky Branding and host of the Sticky Branding podcast. In this episode, I am very excited to introduce you to Gillian Stein. Gillian is the CEO of an iconic Canadian retail brand, Henry’s. Gillian, welcome to the show. Thank you for having me Jeremy. So for most Canadians, especially camera aficionados, we know the Henry’s brand, but for everybody else, we reach an international audience, can you tell us, who is Henry’s camera and what do you guys do?

– So Canada, sorry, Henry’s, is Canada’s greatest camera store. And the technical definition of that is that we are the largest retailer in the country that sells photographic, video and content creation equipment. And yeah, and we’ve got stores across the country. But what we actually do is very different than just selling the product because anybody can sell product. But what we do is we really try to help our customers tell their stories through technology. So it’s about the experience and it’s about tapping into, why are you creating something? What do you want to share? How do you want to connect with people? And helping you solve those problems and come up with the best solution possible.

– I love that because it was, as soon as you start going to that, I think of like the Kodak moment and what photography actually is all about. It’s like, it is such powerful technology right now, but it’s still, it’s telling stories. It’s beautiful.

– Yeah, yeah.

– Now what you also did not say though, is Henry’s has been in Canada for a very long time, over a hundred years?

– Yeah, 110, 110, family business, and I’m the fourth generation to be running it. So, yeah, we’ve got a little bit of history.

– So I’m very curious on this from a family business perspective, I grew up in a family business and from a very, very early age, I thought, you know what? I want to be in the family business. And I tell the story sometimes of when I was a kid, I remember, I think it was in high school, I told my mom when I grow up, I’m gonna be in the family business. And I think she panicked a little, she went white,

– Rightly so.

– Then she smiled, and went okay, that’s nice son. But she talked to other business owners and other family business owners, and they said, you know, what, what you need is you don’t want to have a lucky sperm. You need to create criteria for your kids. And so in my case, they set requirements for my brother and I. We had to have a university education. We had to work in the real world for four years. There had to be a position for us. And we had to bring something to the table. And four years to the day, I basically joined the family business. That was my dream. But what about you? Like when did you know you wanted to get involved in your family’s business?

– So, yeah, so I have a little bit of a different story.

– Okay, good.

– But I grew up assuming that I was never gonna join the family business. It, I mean, it’s always been a, a business that I hold very close to my heart, but it wasn’t something that I aspired to be part of, and that’s would be growing up, especially, so when I, you know, when I was a kid and my, my dad at the time was running the business retail, I shouldn’t even say then, but in general, retail is a really hard business. And I just remember him working exceptionally long hours, you know, and it was Monday to Saturday, right? Cause he had to be there every day and every hour that the store was open. And then, you know, Sunday, he was just, he was exhausted. He was spent. And that didn’t excite me. And in general, I mean, retail is a hard, it’s a hard industry. It doesn’t, I mean, still today is, you know, it’s not a industry that people aspire to be part of. It’s something that you sort of stumble into, and then you discover that you actually love it, but you don’t, people don’t grow up thinking I want to be in retail. And so seeing him, you know, not that I don’t, I shy away from hard work, but it, it wasn’t something that felt like it was, it was what I wanted to do. So I, you know, had a very different career path. I was actually in the world of international development, so totally different. I think the one thing though that I did always pick up from the family business was this idea that business can be a source for good. And that’s because of the values that our family, and I think what’s, you know, you talk about family businesses in general is one of the positives of a family business is it tends to have a little bit more heart and values associated with it. And so, you know, treating our employees well and having really strong relationships and all those things, that was what made us successful, and we were, you know, really integrated into the community, always made me believe that there was a, you know, a way to connect that. So I was very, and still am very, focused on corporate social responsibility, and how do you again make the most out of business? So that was my sort of my path was international development, but through that sort of business lens, and…

– When did you, when did you get, come into the business and when did you become CEO? What were, when were those milestones?

– So I joined the business 10 years ago and that was what sort of spurred that was, I got to a point in my career where I had had so many different experiences and realized that I can get behind anything as long as I’m passionate about it. And it was time for me to make a move from where I was, and I sort of had a, am I gonna continue down this path? Or at that point, I’d also learned I’d had a lot of other, a lot of experiences outside and sort of thought of seeing things happening in the business as a shareholder and thought, I think I can actually bring that experience, and even though it sounds so distant, like international development and, and retail, there was actually a lot that I felt would add value and then the connection. And so I said, well, I’ll try it. So I came in and again, didn’t have, you know, these big, these big lofty, you know, ideas of taking over. I came in as a project manager. And, and then it was, I guess now I’m almost, I’m at six years, where things had, you know, a number of things had changed in the business again, seeing what I could see and my experience again, outside. And I have, I think the fact that I’m not, I don’t consider myself a retailer at heart. Like that’s not my background, allows me to look at things in a different way and ask different questions and challenge the status quo. And so that’s when I thought, I think that I can bring a lot of value and, and there you go, that was six years ago

– That’s amazing.

– And I’m still having fun.

– Well, and isn’t that the most important part? But, and it’s, and even to say that, that you’re still having fun, it is put in the context that it is July of 2021 when we’re recording this and you’ve just come out of the last year and a half of what I could only imagine has been retail hell.

– Yep.

– How did the pandemic impact Henry’s?

– Well, I mean, first is, you know, like I just think about March, 2020 and the sort of that, you know, what are we gonna do? And having to make the decision that we were gonna close all of our stores. And that was, I think probably the biggest decision and definitely the fastest sort of significant decision that we’ve ever had to make as a company. And just that feeling of like, walked into the office on the morning of March 17th and looked at my COO, and we both just looked at each other and said, we got to shut this down. And we had within 24 hours across the country, we were closed, which sounds simple to close your door, but it’s complicated and it’s scary and it’s overwhelming, right? You’ve got inventory, you’ve got customers, you’ve got staff, you’ve got like, how do you do this? Like there’s implications for all of it. So, you know, and, and obviously being in retail, it’s been exceptionally hard for the, you know, first few months while all of our stores were closed, you know, we lost 90% of our business. That’s a big, you know, that’s a big hole. That’s a really big hole.

– It was jaw-dropping to put that into context to be forced to close your brick and mortar stores to be put into something without any expectation or warning, and to have that kind of just the plummet in sales is, is like, what were you telling yourself? What were you telling your team? Like, what was that narrative that you were running through at that point as you’re navigating by fire, basically?

– So, a few things. What was I telling myself was, I think a big part is remembering our history. So with 110 years of history, and you think about all the changes that we’ve gone through, all the challenges, all the storms, and you think, we just kept saying, but we’ve made it through all of that. So, and you know, part of that is, you know, I, a lot of it is the strength of the brand that we have. And when you have such a strong brand, that’s credible, and I think that’s something that makes us very unique. Like we’re very, very, our customers and not just our customers, even people who aren’t our customers still think of us as a trustworthy brand. And so that, and our loyal customer base sort of you’re like, we can, we can weather anything. When you have those two things, you know, you’ll figure the rest out.

– Right.

– So there’s that, there’s the history, and then it was the, what was important was for us to, you know, when the message was, we can’t, we can’t get stuck on a plan. We have to be able to just navigate from point to point. And when you stop trying to solve for the end and you say, I just need to make it to the next point, and then we’re gonna evaluate when we get there and we’re gonna see what that looks like. And that changes how you manage day to day, and it helps when you’re in that kind of situation. ‘Cause you can’t, you can’t plan. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. You know, we didn’t know what was gonna happen after we closed our doors. We needed to do it, and then see. And that’s what we’ve been doing for the last year and a half.

– What did your team accomplish out of that?

– A lot, a lot, surprisingly. You know, they always say, right, you know, there’s always a silver lining? So I think the first is just, I think just the mind shift change. So the ability to be nimble and the ability to be comfortable and sort of increase our capacity with testing things and then iterating them. So knowing that it’s not gonna be perfect, but we’re gonna put it out there and we’re gonna try. So for example, expert chat was something that we’ve always talked about putting chat on our website, but all of a sudden it was like, you know, in the years past, we didn’t do it because we couldn’t quite figure out how to make it perfect, right? Whereas now we said, well, there’s nothing that differentiates us online from our competitors. Like our uniqueness is really something you experience in the store. So we have to find a way to differentiate ourselves. Otherwise we’re no different than Best Buy and Amazon. And we can’t compete against, you know, delivery times and things like that. So putting expert chat out there was something we did within weeks, whereas we’d been planning it for years. And so we got that out and it was different than any, than the standard chat. ‘Cause it’s not bots. It’s not sort of your call center, typical associate. It’s actually staff that ran our stores who can have that full conversation. They could do a video, like they could switch to video if they needed to, all of those things. So the chat is great and we’re still using it. But the exciting part is the mentality around getting there.

– Right. Well COVID, one of the things that I’ve seen through all the work that we’ve done in the last year and a half, is that just like the chat example, COVID was an accelerant, not a change agent. You were thinking about this, you were planning this and it, when put, when your back’s up against the wall, you stop thinking and start executing. And that pressure is so brilliant. And I can actually tell you as a customer too, I have relied on Henry’s. You talk about the service side of your brand? I’ve got a ring light and a key light and a mirrorless camera, and I’ve got a stack full of like different colored drop sheets. I didn’t have any of this stuff before COVID. I was dealing live events. I would speak. I would facilitate workshops in person. The Zoom time I spent was very low. And now we’re doing this podcast, it’s virtual and I have all this gear and most of it came from Henry’s and a lot of it came just in talking to your employees through the chat function or picking up the phone and calling the local in my market. I didn’t know anything about mirrorless cameras, still don’t, but one of your associates taught me.

– Great. That’s wonderful to hear.

– But you gave me access, I think is what I’m trying to say, which I think is part of, you, it couldn’t have been perfect, but it did the job that I needed.

– Yeah, yeah.

– What, when you look at this moment in time and we’re coming out of it, it’s starting to reopen, what are you most excited for? Like, what do you see as the next horizons that you can take from that experience and hold on to and build from?

– So there’s, I mean, there’s a lot that I’m excited about. Two, sort of, the two big things that we’re really focused on, one would be the acceleration of content creation. So this podcast is a great example, right? As you’re talking about. So podcasting is something that we are now, that’s now something that we are into. And so serving content creators, which is a whole different, it’s interesting, it seems very similar, right? Somebody is using a camera and maybe a bit of audio. How different is that from what we did before? But the customer base is so different, right? So you, like you said, you don’t know anything about your mirrorless camera. You know you have one. You know to turn it on, you know to look at it, but you don’t care about the specs and the, like, it’s not about the gear, which is what a traditional customer would have cared about. You care about the outcome.

– Right.

– And so how do we start to, you know, serve you guys, right? Serve this new, this new customer base, who, to be honest, I don’t think are being served anywhere, particularly well. There’s a real gap in the market, right? Because you can buy the product, but you have to know how to use it. You need to know how to put it together. You need to know what cables, this and, right? There’s all these different components to it. So that’s an area that we’re really, really pushing hard in, and I’m very excited about that, ’cause that’s a really great growing area and has also been from the pandemic perspective, like more people have really gotten into content creation because it was the only way for them to share and to connect, right? But we also have an arm that’s called Henry’s Ventures. And so this is a separate, dedicated innovation business, that we’ve actually hived off from the core, for the reason of, you know, you can’t do innovation on the side of your desk, it’ll get lost. So we have, and it’s really about building new business models that are outside the traditional digital imaging categories of just selling product, but also outside of the traditional retail space. So our first product launched about six months ago and it’s called Prism Care. And what that is a, it’s a membership, it’s a membership plan starting off as a service plan. So how can we help you make sure we can protect all of your gear? Doesn’t matter where you bought it. Doesn’t matter how old it is. Anything in the space of photography, videography, content creation, we protect your gear and we hope to expand to more categories. But the point is, you know, how do we capture a bigger audience? But with that, it’s actually about building a community, right? So this membership becomes, the goal really is to become the largest camera club. And maybe camera club is the, the wrong term. It’s more of a traditional, but it’s this, this big community where you can come together and how do we help you with all the, you know, challenges and opportunities as content creators that you may have? And so there’s lots of things that are happening there. And this is a digital platform. So there’s, it’s not dependent on having a physical store and it’s not dependent on selling product, but it’s still really touches our core customer base and what our brand is about.

– And it Gillian, what you’ve described there, I think is just, just so brilliant on a few factors, and I wish I had time to like, just poke it on that all day. But the two things that strike me on that, is, number one, community led brands are very much where we’re going. The cost of advertising is getting ever more expensive. And so having that bond, that relationship is truly what I think is a Sticky Brand. How do you get someone to know you, like you, and trust you, so they choose you first? And a relationship like a community is a brilliant connection on that. And having that baked into your brand gives you competitive immunity to Best Buy and Amazon and everyone else who are not doing that. But the thing that I’m curious on is you’ve spun this off into a separate group and a separate entity to build this out. How do you get the best people working on these innovative ideas when you’ve also got the best people working on your core brand? Like how do you separate your leadership team and your focus to be able to do both at the same time?

– Well, that’s why it’s a separate entity. For that reason. Cause, so I have a, we’ve got a chief innovation officer and he is 100% dedicated to innovation. However, he sits on our executive team. So I want to make sure that we’ve got the leaders of the core business are also understanding, you know, so there’s, there’s this constant collaboration, understanding what’s happening in the core, understanding what’s happening on the venture side and when there’s opportunities to, you know, to cross the lines. So there was with this new subscription, with this, with the service plan product, Prism Care, there’s a big repairs component to it, and so we had to develop technology in terms of how do you track the repairs if somebody’s sending it in and how do you do all of that? Well, now that’s great because it actually helps us fill one of the gaps that we had in our current business, is that we’ve got some pretty old technology to managing repairs, which still exists in the core business. So now we’re putting that technology that was developed on one side into the core, now that it’s done and it’s the right time to bring it in. And so, you know, it’s still about finding that balance between which side, which side of the line you want to be on, but you can’t have it, you can’t have them too separate, but you can’t have them too together.

– Yeah, and strategically it’s so interesting and smart because as you are using your innovation, you are developing not only a tighter integration with your brand and your customer base, but you are developing new revenue streams and new service models, which again, when you go back to losing 90 plus percent of your business in a month, you have that muscle memory going, we’re not doing that twice.

– Right. Well, that’s actually been a, for a lot of businesses, sort of this during the pandemic it’s been, when you think about it, it was probably a very easy place to cut, would be your R and D and your innovation, but that was one of the sort of driving forces was we can’t, we’re, we need to diversify. And so we need to keep investing, despite what’s going on, we need to keep investing in this because this is just such a good example of, you know, retail just happened to be the, not the right business at this time, right? So you need to have other things when the world changes on you.

– That’s really remarkable. Two more questions. The, as we get to the close here. You’ve had a very diverse career. Everything before you joined the family business, working within your family business, what, and you’re going through again, this remarkable, not remarkable, this unfortunate experience. I don’t know how we describe this thing that we’ve gone through. What is your best advice to other business leaders and CEOs? Is there, is there something you come back to when you are, that pearl of wisdom that you’d like to share or would share?

– Well, I mean, everybody has their own, everybody has their own story and their own path. So I think that’s actually, there’s something in that and owning it, right? I don’t have a retail background, but I’m running a retail business and that’s a source of strength. So I think that’s, you know, important, no matter what your background is, is to own it and see how that, you can bring that to the table. But I mean, I’d also say for me, the, one of the biggest things is, just surround yourself by smart people and then listen to them and let them do what they do best. I’m a, I’m a very hands-off CEO. I like to listen to my team and, and just the key is making sure that we’re all, we all know what the, the north star is, right? As long as we know that, then we trust each other and we’re gonna get there.

– That’s remarkable. Where can people find you, and Henry’s?

– Where can you find, you can find Henrys, Henry’s, that’s easier. You can find me in my house, in my basement.

– Where can we find Henry’s then?

– Henry’s at Henrys.com. So that’s our website in Canada. We’ve got 22 locations across the country, but also on Instagram @Henryscamera, Facebook, you know, every social media channel would be @Henryscamera.

– Beautiful. We will put links into the show notes so that everyone can get them. Gillian, thank you so much for today. Your wisdom is just truly remarkable. And I’m so glad that you could share that with us today. And everybody thank you for tuning into the Sticky Branding podcast. Be sure to subscribe to us wherever you get your favorite podcasts. This video is up on YouTube as well, and visit us at StickyBranding.com for more ideas, best practices and services on how to grow your business into a Sticky Brand.

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