The Story of How Mark’s Work Wearhouse Became Mark’s

As it pushes a major rebranding, Mark’s leans back on its work-hard founding philosophy and hopes to avoid the pitfalls of its founder’s early expansion efforts.

When it comes to retail clothing companies with head offices in Calgary, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to describe the scene here as a “small pond.” It’s smaller than that; more like a puddle, really. 

In 1977, homegrown industrial outfitter Mark’s Work Wearhouse started splashing around in that puddle in solid, no-nonsense work boots. These days, with more than 380 stores nationwide, 14 in Calgary alone, the company is still splashing around in that puddle, though it’d prefer everyone just call it “Mark’s.

Mark’s Work Wearhouse becomes Mark’s

The name change is just the tip of an iceberg of reinvention for the company, as it seeks to move the brand beyond its established reputation as a leading retailer of industrial and blue-collar work wear and announce itself as a major player in men’s and women’s casual wear. The reinvention includes new-look stores equipped with high-tech gadgetry like cold-weather testing booths for winter wear and touch-screen information stations extolling the various product lines via video clips and match-up games. The footwear sections now feature sloped ramp units for customers to gauge the sole stability of their selections. The revamped women’s quadrant, once the domain of gym-teacher-chic-elastic-waist slacks and other functional-but-not-exactly-fashionable finds, now blooms with cheery yoga tank tops and sassy high-heeled booties. Clearly, this is not your oil-rigging uncle’s Work Wearhouse anymore. 

But that’s not to say your oil-rigging uncle has been pushed out entirely. The rugged, industrial work clothing — your Carhardt coveralls, steel-toed boots, fleece-lined flannels and all the other fundamentals of the Canadian blue-collar closet — hasn’t gone anywhere.

In the words of former president Paul Wilson: “For our industrial-wear customer, we didn’t want to let him down, make him feel like his store was gone, so we made his part of the store better. We made the men’s casual part better and we made the women’s part better as well and expressed it as this new store called Mark’s.

Rolling out the new brand

There’s a good chance that if you live in Calgary, you knew that already. After a period of testing the reinvented and rebranded Mark’s concept in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Ottawa, the new look was rolled out across the company’s home city last fall, trumpeted by a massive-scale awareness campaign facilitated by longtime advertising and creative agency Watermark (now known as Watermark + Suitcase after joining forces with digital agency Suitcase Interactive in October of last year). 

Watermark + Suitcase CEO Chris Kneeland characterized the campaign as “robust,” citing instructions from head office to achieve nothing short of “market dominance.” That meant having every Calgarian exposed to Mark’s media message (tagline: “Less Work Wearhouse, More You”) well over 100 times between September and December 2011, via a multi-disciplinary barrage of billboards and C-Train wraps, radio and television advertising.

“I can’t say for sure that it is the largest, but it is certainly one of the single largest [advertising] buys in Calgary’s history,” says Mark’s AVP marketing Dave Mazzone. “We really wanted to get people’s attention and get people talking about our brand. The tagline gave us some real opportunity, in our eyes, to be provocative, because we’re known as a work-wear store and we’re loved as a work-wear store … We were really hoping that in being provocative we’d be stimulating conversation.”

The foundation of success behind Mark’s

The Mark’s tune might be changing, but in many ways the song has remained the same. Since it started, the company has built its success upon a foundation of customer-focused merchandising, offering, as it is fond of saying, “clothes that work,” whether that means a rugged self-warming work boot or simply cut just a better undershirt that won’t discolour or irritate with a scratchy neck tag. 

Over Mark’s 35-year history, however, the company’s face as a retail superstar has often shielded troubles in its ranks. Late founder and namesake Mark Blumes (1943-2002) was considered by both fans and detractors to be something of a genius when it came to merchandising, and his principles and innovations in this realm are still considered to be the cornerstone of the company’s past, present and future success. But Blumes was also something of a loose cannon, cutting a larger-than-life figure among the local business community as a garrulous, crass, cigar-chomping guy’s guy, given to lavish spending both on himself and on his inner circle. While he certainly had his fans, he also had his fair share of enemies, among the latter twin brother Moe Blumes, the company’s first CFO.

“Mark was obsessed with trying to make the product and the customer experience better,” says self-professed fan of Mark, Steve Bottoms, former president and owner of Watermark, who served as head of Work Wearhouse’s in-house creative agency, Cooper Hayes, from 1985 to ’89. Bottoms’ association with Mark predates even the company itself, the two having met in the Hudson’s Bay Company management training program. “He actually revolutionized retail, how you got to understand the customer, how to stay close to the customer, how to buy merchandise on a store-by-store basis versus a national basis,” Bottoms says.

The history of Mark’s Work Wearhouse

Mark Blumes founded Mark’s Work Wearhouse in 1977 after being fired from the Hudson’s Bay on account of his anti-establishment tendencies and frustrations with what he saw as his employer’s mishandling of its work-wear department (“He was not a ‘corporate guy,’” says Moe, wryly). Inspired to try things his way, Mark headed back to his hometown, using his $27,000 severance to open the first Mark’s Work Wearhouse store just off Centre Street near Glenmore Trail in the City’s southwest. Moe, a chartered accountant living in Toronto at the time, was recruited to crunch the numbers. “We had hoped in the first year to do $600,000 in sales. Well, in the first six months we did $600,000,” he says. “The store quickly annualized sales of around $1.5 million.” 

Such blatant success attracted many of Mark’s former Bay colleagues and even superiors to the fledgling company and spurred expansion to Edmonton, Red Deer, Vancouver and eventually Ontario and Quebec.

“Every one of those stores in the early days was a huge success,” Moe recalls, though the rapid expansion would start to take its toll right around the time the company went public in 1981. 

“The bloom was still on the rose, but it was soon to be clear that we had expanded way too quickly at that point,” he says. “We had taken on a lot of bad baggage. We had all sorts of money in the bank, but we didn’t have any systems or procedures in place that would allow us to even pay the bills, even though we had the money to pay them.” 

The offer to go public was conditional on Mark’s Work Wearhouse taking on a full-time CFO. Despite his reservations about working alongside his “bombastic” brother, Moe says he was enticed with the lucrative offer, which he says he simply couldn’t refuse. So began a notoriously rocky period in the company’s history that would lead to the brothers’ complete and total estrangement during the 1990s and up to Mark’s death in 2002. 

Occupying opposite ends of the personality spectrum, the big dreamer and the sensible moneyman were never able to align their priorities.

The bad years at Mark’s Work Wearhouse

Good years were inevitably followed by bad years. The company diversified into car dealerships and sustained and aborted a disastrous attempt to expand into the U.S.

“It was a rollercoaster. We were never comfortable to just run the business … he just couldn’t leave things alone. [Mark] always needed to do the next great thing,” Moe says.

While this attitude was something that drove a wedge between the brothers, for others, it was part of Mark’s charm.

“I’ve never worked for somebody who was more exciting, engaging, thought-provoking, demanding and demoralizing at the same time,” says Bottoms. “In a perverse kind of way you wanted to prove him wrong and please him and do well for him at the same time. He made you feel like you could create anything. He really believed in the notion of how people make small things big. So, for me, there were moments when he was my champion, and there were moments when he was my biggest obstacle and my biggest critic.”

As the 1980s came to a close, Moe says, Mark declared, in far less delicate terms, that he wanted him out of Work Wearhouse. A months-long legal battle ensued, resulting in an incensed Moe stripped of his position with the company and forced to leave town. From there, he would log time with the Grafton-Fraser Group (which includes retailers such as Tip Top Tailors and Mr. Big and Tall) in Toronto and one of that company’s partner retailers in the U.S., before relocating to Kelowna where he still spends half the year, splitting his time with Tuscon, Ariz.

Time, personal success and the death of his twin brother in 2002 have all helped to cool the white-hot rage Moe says he harboured for many years over being forced out of Work Wearhouse, though that’s not to say he’s completely over it by any means. For a while he funnelled his anger into his memoirs, which he titled I am Not Mark, though he has since abandoned the project and says he has no desire to complete it.

Yet, even after years of bad blood, Moe won’t deny that the company’s successes are built on the merchandising principles created by Mark, both in the beginning and up through Canadian Tire’s landmark purchase of the company in 2001. “Its private-label programs, the depth and breadth of merchandise, the kinds of assortment,” says Moe. “The reason [the company] has had that kind of success is based on Mark’s brilliance. There’s no question in my mind.”

Despite his acknowledged acumen, in 1995 Mark Blumes would also be axed from his position as Chairman and CEO at the hands of the board of directors. “Together, the two of us had a lock on the company,” says Moe. “When Mark put the gun to my head, the board and the banks in turn put the gun to his head. He became just another large shareholder of Mark’s Work Wearhouse. Two and a half years later, [the board] was able to do to him what he had done to me.”

Bottoms says the decision to remove Mark Blumes came on the heels of Blumes’s overreaching — though undeniably prescient — enthusiasm for e-commerce.

“Mark saw the Internet long before anybody else did, but he just couldn’t articulate it,” says Bottoms. “This was before Canadian Tire had bought Mark’s, so it was a small-cap public company that didn’t have a lot of cash. It didn’t have the luxury to make big bets and be wrong. In hindsight, you can see that his hubris was probably too [far] reaching and that he was too arrogant in his vision,” he adds. “The board did the responsible thing on behalf of the shareholders.”

The remaining years of that decade would see the decline of Mark Blumes, who attempted and failed at a series of start-up businesses, including an Internet “virtual store” venture, as well as a resource centre and meeting hub for small business owners. Overweight (Moe estimates his brother ballooned to more than 300 pounds), diabetic and divorced, Mark would end up living in his girlfriend’s basement, eventually declaring bankruptcy in 2001. His financial rock bottom arrived a mere week prior to the sale of his namesake company to Canadian Tire Corporation for $116 million, a dark twist of irony recounted in an interview Mark gave to the National Post’s Brian Hutchinson for an article published on December 20 of that year. Moe’s remaining stock resulted in him receiving a payout of $300,000 from the deal.

Less than one year later, on November 17, 2002, Mark Blumes passed away from a heart attack at the Foothills Hospital, having gone through knee surgery two weeks prior. The story of his death made the front page of the Calgary Herald.

The sale price of the company is a bitter pill for the remaining Blumes brother to swallow. “To think that my brother and I owned, at one point, 36 per cent of Work Wearhouse,” says Moe. “Had we managed to stay together … the company wasn’t in great shape when Canadian Tire bought it either, but Mark and Moe would have had [more than] $36 million. And he died bankrupt.”

The revival of Mark’s

Mark may be gone and Moe has moved on, but Mark’s lives on, bolstered by the support of its parent corporation.

“Canadian Tire brought resources and expectations to the table,” says Bottoms. “They’re the most professional, most capable retail powerhouse in the country. Mark’s had this fantastic vision, this fantastic brand and a culture that said [every customer] has an impact on the success of the business, and it’s still being run as a flexible, nimble company, even though today it’s a billion-dollar enterprise. Canadian Tire brought clout and expertise. It brought a rigour to the business that has helped ensure its success. It has provided stability.”

That financial stability is what has allowed Mark’s to proceed with its current rebranding efforts to position itself as a retailer of casual clothing that “works” just as hard as the industrial clothing does. The focus is still on quality clothing and great presentation — the ideals Blumes set in the early days and that have been the bedrock of the company’s success — the company is just expanding its boundaries. No one would be surprised to hear that the company is heads and shoulders above its industrial work wear competition, but Mark’s is already making significant strides in becoming the leading national retailer of men’s casual wear as well, topping significant players like the Bay, Sears and Walmart.

But, more than that, the reinvented stores are an attempt to woo the female customer. “She spends a lot more than he does on clothing. That is just a fact,” says Mazzone. “It’s not to say that we want to be known as a women’s wear store or a men’s wear store, but our research shows that she’s spending more and our research also shows that she’s buying a lot of his stuff. If we’re getting her in our store we’re getting an opportunity to convert on both fronts … It’s a big opportunity for us.”

The next steps for Mark’s

With the reinvention of the Mark’s brand in the company’s hometown complete, the next step is continuing the conversation throughout the rest of Alberta as well as Ontario — albeit with some major changes in the administrative ranks. 

Former CEO Paul Wilson left his position with the company this past March. Former senior vice president, financial planning and analysis Harry Taylor has ascended to replace him as chief operating officer. The other major shakeup in the Mark’s ranks has been the decision to cut ties with longtime creative partner Watermark + Suitcase and sign with MacLaren McCann, a Toronto-based agency with a Calgary outpost. That move was made following a review that the company says was long in order, though the fact that the new agency comes with a national presence certainly places it in a position of advantage over the locally based Suitcase. While the timing of this change, coming so hot on the heels of the major Calgary advertising campaign, begs the question of how happy Mark’s was with that work, the company says this was not a factor.

And, through it all, Mark’s is still splashing around in the same puddle where it first put its work boot-clad foot down. Though it might seem prudent to dive into the big pond and join its fellow retail head offices down east, there’s always been a certain defiance to the company that somehow makes it as inherently Calgarian as its energy sector contemporaries. They can change the look, change the name even, but at the end of the day, just like the clothing that started the ball rolling, Mark’s still works here in Calgary.

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