If there is one thing you learn from walking through the headquarters of The Brick Warehouse Corporation in northwest Edmonton (a massive 350,000-square-foot warehouse and head office space that is still only half the size of the Toronto warehouse), it is that every single person on site appears to be working like a husky in mid-Iditarod. People bearing packages and envelopes are beetling from office to office; loose-tied executives are huffing and puffing in breathless mid-aisle conversations about whatever it is executives get breathless about; secretaries and art department staff are hunched in concentration in front of computer screens; phones everywhere make it through half a ring before getting snatched from cradles. During two hours spent on site, I witnessed no fewer than three people with an actual sheen of sweat on their brows, giving them a queasy glow under the indoor fluorescence.
But among the ranks of the sweating – at either the literal or figurative level – you will not find Bill Comrie, the compact and befreckled king of the realm, who despite his inner hyperactivity somehow manages to remain the calm eye at the centre of a storm he has created. Though Comrie has the unusual ability to project anxiety and agitation while completely at rest, he still manages to appear so unruffled by the business frenzy around him that he’s practically a walking advertisement for self-containment.
Except that he doesn’t really walk.
He eats up the floor of the warehouse as we cross it, “walking” at my jogging pace. He takes the stairs up to the executive offices two at a time, in a stretchy rather than leapy way. He introduces you to people and moves on while you’re still into a handshake. When he does finally sit down to talk, however, it becomes clear that Comrie is not so much philosophically opposed to the concept of stillness or even that he’s impatient, as much as he is simply in the grip of an intense physical and mental energy that needs flaring off 24/7.
Bill Comrie is 53 years old . He was born in Winnipeg, but moved to Edmonton with his family when he was two. His father Herb, who was a huge influence in his life, was a furniture salesman. Bill Comrie grew up in a lower middle-class section of north Edmonton and he believes it was there he learned the lessons he still uses every day at The Brick.
Most of these lessons were learned through sports. The young Comrie wasn’t just athletic, he was physically gifted. He was also small of stature for a potential professional athlete (which he still is; a rough guess would put Comrie at about 5 foot 9 inches and a fighting weight of around 160 pounds). An intense competitiveness was instilled in Comrie at an early age because he was often so much smaller and younger than the guys he was playing against. “I was in Grade 3 playing football against guys who were in Grade 6,” he recalled during the course of a wide-ranging interview. “And that pattern never really changed much. I mean, I played junior hockey at the age of 16.”
Surprisingly, Comrie’s father was not a sportsman, nor was he competitive. But he was a loving father, a complicated man (who successfully overcame alcoholism) and, symbolically, “he was a great salesman,” says Comrie. “We always knew that about him. I remember he once told me, ‘If you can sell, you’ll never be hungry.'”
The family did well sometimes, but not all the time. It was up and down financially for the Comries. “We didn’t have a lot of money, though sometimes we were OK,” he says. “But now even today I’m not impressed by someone who has lots of money. I’ve got friends from all walks, and of course it’s more important to just see what someone’s like. That’s what counts.”
Comrie’s athletic existence continued throughout his childhood, and it appeared as if hockey was going to be his life’s work. He was drafted by the Chicago Black Hawks and played Junior for the Edmonton Oil Kings in 1968-9, where he played under Wild Bill Hunter. He made a lot of friends on that team, among them Rick LeLacheur, Bill Moores and Bob McAneeley, who played left wing on Comrie’s line that year. “I remember those bus trips,” said McAneeley in an interview published earlier this year. “Here we were, all going to high school … we had some university guys, but our main interest was hockey. But Bill would be talking about sales and the costs of sales and gross profits. You could see he had a real business interest, even in those days. He was always talking about marketing or advertising.”
In 1969, when Bill was 19, Herb Comrie died. Bill decided immediately to give up hockey and help his mother out. “I really didn’t have much choice,” Comrie has said in interview. “I was supposed to go to Chicago’s camp that fall. We had no money. And my mom had never worked. My dad had $10,000 worth of life insurance. So I had to stay home and help out.”
The details of his move as a young man into the furniture business are well-known, and are by now part of the mythology that Comrie’s success has engendered. Herb Comrie owned a small store called Alberta Factory Sales. His mother had no money, and so after his father’s passing Comrie decided to sell the store. There were no takers for an outright sale, but he found two potential investors to buy half as long as he bought the other half. He put his car up as collateral, and the sale went through, earning him $10,000, which he gave to his mother.
He then immersed himself in the world of selling furniture, still just a 19-year-old. They moved the business to a bigger store, and he put his name on the sign out front, calling it Bill Comrie’s Alberta Factory Sales. The store was hardly a whopping success, and though Comrie worked hard, he couldn’t afford to advertise, couldn’t afford to hire anyone. And then came “the moment.” That one idea that changed his life forever, and which has become the key piece in the Comrie legend.
He was out on a rare date, at a drive-in. It was a long weekend, and he and his date were at the midnight show. It was packed, and he recalled that he was astonished people were there. He had his brainstorm and told his date that he ought to open his store at midnight. They laughed about it but he went back to work the next day and told his business partners his idea. They laughed, too. “We don’t get more than two or three people here during the day,” they said. “How are we gonna get people at midnight?”
Comrie did it anyway. That first night, a few people showed up at 6 p.m. Comrie told them the store wasn’t open until midnight, and they said they were there to wait in line. By midnight there were thousands of people lined up outside. Comrie had to call in friends and family to help. Goods flew out of the store. “We did about $144,000 worth of business in two and a half hours,” Comrie told the Edmonton Journal earlier this year. “To put that in perspective, my father did about $120,000 the year before. The whole year.”
Kim Yost is the effervescent president of The Brick, and he still shakes his head over the tale. “That story, it’s all true,” enthuses Yost. “In fact it’s probably even more crazy, more wild than that! That’s the thing about Bill Comrie. No matter how outlandish, how wild the story you tell about him, the truth is probably even wilder.”
After that first massive midnight sales success, Comrie sensed a winning tag to differentiate him from every other furniture seller. He tried to get his partners to expand, but they wouldn’t. He didn’t have the money to buy them out, so he talked them into buying him out. With the $8,000 profit, he trooped down the street and opened his own store, Bill Comrie’s Furniture Warehouse. In 1971, during a period of tremendous growth and promotional inventiveness, Comrie also got married, to Theresa, an education student at the University of Alberta.
During this time Comrie began appearing in his own commercials. He couldn’t afford to have anyone else do them, and though he knows they were never the height of professionalism, they got the job done. Sales kept growing throughout the ’70s, and in 1978, the store relocated to a large brick building on the north end of downtown Edmonton. He renamed the store The Brick Warehouse. By 1980, the Comries had three children, Cathy, Paul and Mike. The 1980s were a period of rapid growth both in the business and in the family. Bill spent countless hours playing all manner of sports with his two boys. And in one astonishing six-week stretch in 1986, The Brick opened five brand new stores across the country, three of them in Ontario, one in Saskatchewan and one in Alberta.
Kim Yost has been with The Brick for seven years , but has known Bill Comrie much longer. He was actively recruited by Comrie after years as his competitor, working in retail with companies such as Woodward’s. “There is no such thing as an exaggeration about Bill Comrie,” says the almost overpoweringly enthusiastic Yost. He’s a tall man, with a friendly face and a voice that rises and falls like a half-distant air siren. “There is not one thing I could say about Bill Comrie that could be dreamed up. The man doesn’t sleep. He jokes about getting his eight hours sleep ? a week. He could be the Energizer Bunny. He has unlimited energy and enthusiasm.”
Comrie’s friends feel the same way. “I’ve picked up so many things from him,” says longtime friend Dennis Erker, founding partner at FE Advisory Group, an insurance and estate planning company. “What I think I’ve always respected most about him is his attention to detail. He’s a fanatic about it. His followup on situations is amazing. Whether it’s a customer calling about a fridge, or someone about a business opportunity, he follows up relentlessly. He is without question the best businessman I have ever known about returning calls. We exchange calls more than we talk but it could be a call anywhere from 2 a.m. to first thing in the morning. He doesn’t leave anything untended.”
Sitting in The Brick boardroom, Yost proceeds to launch into a litany of stories that serve to prove his point. “Two things!” he half-shouts, eyes bugging out. “Two things about him. First, the napkin story. Right. Everyone has a napkin story. Here’s a couple of Bill’s just to show you what I mean. Number one, we’re trying to decide what to do about our renovation at West Edmonton Mall. What they did was they actually dug us a floor down into the ground, underneath the main level, since we could not go upwards to expand. OK, it worked great, a whole new floor. But we have a problem. The problem is that everybody in furniture retail knows that you don’t want anything off the entrance-level floor.”
(This called for an aside, a separate conversation that alone might constitute another article in itself, published perhaps in Psychology Today , in which Yost explained that every bit of anecdotal and market research, every study, has shown that customers don’t like to go up or down when buying major retail items. They like to be on one main entrance-level floor because they don’t like to go somewhere they can’t see when they walk in the front door. “It’s psychology,” barks Yost, grinning all the while. “Customers are lazy, they don’t like stairs, they don’t like escalators. They like to see what’s in front of them. That’s why everybody, every store, always puts their best stuff, their sex and drugs and rock and roll, on the main floor.”)
“So,” continues Yost, pulling out a sheet of paper the size of a cocktail napkin and placing it on the boardroom table between us. “Bill and I are in Las Vegas, at a retail show. We’re in Mandalay Bay hotel, and the last thing I’m thinking about is how we’re going to solve our West Edmonton Mall expansion problem. We walk through the lobby of the hotel, and they have this catwalk, this walkway, across one part of the lobby, and underneath is a restaurant. Bill stops, stares at it for a second, and then turns to me. ‘I’ve got it,’ he says. ‘Got what?’ I say. ‘The mall problem,’ he says. He grabs a cocktail napkin off a table, pulls his pen out of his pocket and sketches out exactly what he wants to do with the mall store expansion.”
At this point, Yost does his impersonation of Bill Comrie drawing on a cocktail napkin in Las Vegas. “So, he’s doing this ? and this. Then he draws the walkway. Then he draws the area where it opens up to the lower floor, so that you can see all the way down and all the way up. And then he says, ‘And we’ll have a bank of TV monitors. That’ll be great.’ And sure enough, I took that napkin, gave it to the contractors, and you know what? It’s practically exactly right now what Bill drew on that napkin. Brilliant!”
I asked Yost if he kept the napkin.
“Are you kidding? Of course I kept the napkin. It’s in my life chest. I’m saving it for when we write a book about this guy.”
There are no fewer than 60 photographs and signed keepsakes on the walls of Bill Comrie’s office, and every one of them relates to Bill Comrie in some way or another, though it’s also fair to say that every photo relegates Bill Comrie to the background in some way, like a freckly Forrest Gump. There’s Comrie with Larry Hagman. There’s Comrie with Brian Mulroney, George Bush Sr., Ralph Klein, Gerald Ford (there are no photos of Comrie with prominent NDPers, Democrats, or Labour Party leaders, a fairly clear indication of his political philosophy). There’s Comrie with Gretzky, Messier, O.J. Simpson, Clint Eastwood. The list goes on. It’s a curious and almost touching gallery in that one wonders if Comrie, or anyone who puts up such a roster of self-reference, requires it to continually reaffirm one’s place, one’s stature, even one’s very existence. The roster of photos is the proof, a kind of cave-dweller’s record for the future to find. Here is what I did. Here is who I am.
Comrie, of course, views his life transactionally, through the prism of “the sale.” This is not just his working philosophy; it’s his guiding life metaphor. Whether he’s talking about his second wife, his children, his work, his father, his philanthropic work, the metaphor is the same. “It’s what we’re all about, though, isn’t it?” he asks rhetorically. “Your kids are always trying to sell you something. Your wife wants to sell you something. ‘Hey, what about this restaurant?’ Or you’re trying to sell her something, ‘Hey, I hear this movie is really good, so let’s go see that tonight.’ It’s a kind of selling. They say kids are the greatest salespeople on earth. They always negotiate.” He laughs, and anyone with children would have to admit that his interpretation is not far off the mark. “They always bargain, and haggle, and, hey, they usually end up getting what they want, or at least a better deal than the one that was first put on the table.”
Speaking of children and negotiations, it’s only natural to ask him about Mike Comrie. The current contractual stalemate between his son Mike and the Oilers is a source of some consternation for him, but, being the pragmatist he is, he is able to fully compartmentalize the issue. “It’s a business thing,” he says, “between Mike and the Oilers. I’m friends with people in the Oilers organization, Kevin Lowe being one of them. But I don’t need to get involved in any way. I’m just going to sell sofas and let them settle it. The last thing they need is for me to get involved.” He also doesn’t think it will affect The Brick in any way, in that Edmontonians might take a frustration with Mike Comrie out on Bill Comrie. “It hasn’t hurt sales. We have too many great people working for us in Edmonton to have that happen.”
He pauses, shifts in his chair, and switches from being businessman to parent. “But the one thing I will say, the one thing that does disappoint me, is when people say that, ‘Oh, well, he’s just a rich kid, anyway. He’s a spoiled brat. Why does he need the extra money?’ When they were growing up, every single kid on our block had bigger allowances than they did. I wanted them to understand a little bit about what my own childhood was like. Mike is out there to make his money on his own. I don’t have anything to do with that.”
Comrie recalls the story, often told now, about how his other son, Paul (who dabbled with the NHL before injuries cut him short, and who now is director of imports with The Brick), while playing with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League, had to deal with other players who thought he was rich. One of his teammates said to him, “Hey, your dad is the owner of The Brick. You’re rich.” To which Paul replied, “Well, he may be rich, but I’ve got $125 in the bank.” These stories serve to illustrate Comrie’s fierce desire for self-determination to be the inspiration for his children’s in the same way it was for him, but the reality is that it simply can’t be. They have a safety net, and that is both their blessing and curse.
Comrie does feel, though, that this impasse with the Oilers will be a growing experience for his son. “It will help him in the long run, because he’s learning that not everything comes easily. That’s a good lesson. I talk to him a couple of times a day, anyhow, and we almost never talk hockey. I’m sure this will resolve itself soon. But whatever happens, whatever he chooses, I’ll support him, just like any father would.”
The father/son motif operates, of course, in the present, the future and the past, and though Comrie, and his close associates, say that his father’s early death didn’t really shape him in any way, it’s hard to accept that at face value. A 19-year-old oldest child with hockey aspirations has his father pass away suddenly, a father he was close to, a father who taught him about selling. The boy has to take up the selling business to feed his mother and brothers. The boy grows up to become one of the country’s most successful businessmen, with a company nearing a billion dollars in revenue, with a personal worth estimated between $300 million and $500 million. And we are supposed to imagine that the father – in whatever manifestation (idol, role model, cautionary tale) – played no motivational role in the boy’s eventual success? Hard to believe, really. In fact, one is put in mind of the powerful scene from Death of a Salesman , where Biff and Willy finally get to the nub of Biff’s take on reality.
“Pop, I’m a dime a dozen and so are you,” says Biff to his dad, Willy, who replies, immortally and yet so sadly, “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman and you are Biff Loman!”
It’s guesswork to examine the character and motivations of Bill Comrie through the lens of Death of a Salesman , but it’s not without emotional logic to wonder if Comrie is in part driven in his business life to use his success, his wealth, to say to his father’s memory, “I’m not a dime a dozen and neither were you. What I am now is what you taught me to be.” His father was never particularly successful in business, and yet Bill Comrie never stops giving his father credit. This is to be honoured, even if we will never know the degree to which it’s accurate.
Comrie’s understanding of what it means to be a father, combined with his love of sports, led he and his sons to become a very visible presence around the Edmonton Oilers hockey team during the team’s ’80s heyday. During this period the boys, Paul and Mike, spent time at Oilers’ practices, hanging out with Gretz and Mess. It was a heady time for the family, but loss entered Comrie’s life yet again, and again with horrific timing. His wife, Theresa, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988. She lived for another three years and finally passed away in June of 1991, just 43 years old.
Comrie threw himself into business and into the BC Lions, an investment of time, money and energy that eventually resulted in the team winning the 1993 Grey Cup. In 1993, he met Roxanne Huisman, 28 at the time. She owned a hair salon in the west end of the city. “I really wasn’t looking to get married, that’s for sure,” he has said. “She had just broken up with her boyfriend. We had dinners together, but we never talked about, you know, about being a thing. But we never really saw anybody else after that, either.” They married in 1994 and now have two children together, Eric, 8, and Ty, 6. Both boys are already playing organized hockey, and their action photos have a place of pride on Comrie’s office Wall of Fame.
The napkin stories were one thing, but then there is “The Book.” This was the other major thing Kim Yost wanted to tell me about. “The Book” is where we enter another level altogether in the mythologizing of the Comrie success story. “The Book” is not really a book, but it could be, should be, according to Yost, and some day it probably will be. Around the office they’ve collected, catalogued and condensed Bill Comrie’s traits over the years, to the point that when I asked Yost to describe for me the fundamental reasons why Bill Comrie has made The Brick so successful, he said, “Oh, that’s easy. ‘The Seven Habits of the Highly Successful Red Leader.'”
“Red?” I asked.
“Well,” said the effervescent Yost. “He’s got red hair and freckles.”
After further discussion I was able to glean that this document is a distillation of the great leader’s abilities, a funny but also very serious commingling of Stephen R. Covey and Chairman Mao. In “The Seven Habits of the Highly Successful Red Leader” are the mantras that Comrie preaches and which his executives have internalized to a nearly messianic level.
One of those, Yost shared with me in a followup e-mail, was to “Use the Red File.” But it was during our interview in the boardroom of The Brick that Yost first mentioned the concept. I asked him what that meant.
“Oh, that,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “These are our Red Files. Our executive files. Every VP has a Red File, which is a file containing information on all the major projects we happen to be working on. We have to carry it everywhere. He brings one, too. It’s all our action issues, things that need to be getting done.”
Comrie has become famous internally for his habit of suddenly demanding that he and the executive in question pull out their respective Red Files, for an impromptu session. The VP cadre has a variety of bets and challenges about being “Redfiled” by Comrie. “I hold the record!” says Yost. “I’ve been Redfiled at 3 a.m. on a plane back from Asia after not having slept for about three days. Of course, you sort of get used to stuff like that. I’ve gotten e-mails from him at 3 a.m. Stuff like that. It’s actually scary, and quite upsetting at times,” laughs Yost, to indicate his fear for his boss’s mental health. “Seriously, what he is mostly is a coach. He’s been a coach all his life, teaching, helping, organizing, bringing people along. It’s just what he’s always been.”
The question of what motivates a man with nothing left to prove is significant. “I’m driven, I can say that,” says Comrie. But by what? This is the question Comrie can’t really get to the bottom of, at least to the satisfaction of his interviewer. What’s the motivation? “It was just there, the desire to succeed. It always has been.” Being driven to succeed, to sell, to push and strive, towards … what? Comrie shrugs. “To make this year better than last year. The company’s performance is my measuring stick.”
As far as character motivation goes, it’s not Euripides, but then no one’s asking him to be Euripides. People are only asking him to sell them a fridge at a better price than the guy down the street. Comrie’s friend Dennis Erker thinks it’s actually fairly straightforward. “Money’s always a motivation with an entrepreneur, it’s always a factor. And anxiety is measured between that which a man is and that which he knows he can become. Anxiety drives you. In business you’re measured by money, profit, revenues. Corporations exist for one main reason and that’s profit. It’s not just about the money, but in business you’re often measured by the money. And let’s face it, there’s a certain amount of enjoyment in trying to achieve a billion dollars a year in sales. But if you ask about what really motivates Bill, I think his motivation is just that he’s trying to realize the innate, distinct talents he has been given. If you think you can do something, why wouldn’t you do it? What else would he do that would bring him the same level of challenge and enjoyment?”
The answer to that question might be found in the charitable sector. With sales as his metaphor, Comrie has launched into a new phase of his life, namely, philanthropy, or to be more specific, raising money for causes he considers worthwhile. He’s doing it with the same core set of principles he has always applied to selling sofas. Comrie is typically minimalist and self-effacing about what he brings to such work, most notably the work he’s done in the last couple of years in support of the Stollery Children’s Health Centre at the University of Alberta Hospital. Currently, he’s chairing the fundraising committee for the Alberta Heart Institute, and though the stated goal is to raise $17 million by May, Comrie does not hesitate to say that he will get them to $20 million.
“To me, I use the exact same values in my charitable work that I bring to my sales work. I believe very strongly in doing things face to face. My policy in doing charity work, and our policy here at The Brick, has always been that communication is first. If it’s really crucial, we never use the phone or e-mail. We talk to someone face to face. Other things ? well, I bring organizational skills, having the ability to follow up to make sure everyone is doing what they said they were going to do, creating a sense of team, and first having the ability to draw together a good team.”
The coach, as Kim Yost said. More than once during our interview, Comrie made a point of wanting to make sure the public understood his success was the result of having surrounded himself with great people. Yet again, the sports analogy; the MVP telling the media that individual awards really reflect the team, the running back thanking his linemen. But even though he may be a coach, a fundraiser, a philanthropist, it seems that business, and particularly sales, is inextricable to Comrie’s character.
“I can’t ever imagine him not being in business,” says Dennis Erker. “It’s part of his character. He sees the talents he has, building this business, and he recognizes the responsibility. And now I think he sees that wealth is not something to enjoy but a responsibility to be administered, in terms of his community, his family. I think that what will go through Bill’s mind in the next five or 10 years will be, Do I continue to build The Brick, or do I redeploy the capital to do something else that’s a challenge and that I enjoy doing?”
I ask Erker if he thinks he knows the answer to his question.
Will you tell me? I ask.
He laughs. “No.”
Comrie is equally oblique. When asked if he had a good idea what his future held – business, philanthropy, fundraising – he answered, “Yes.”
“I’ll be doing other things, different things. And I’ll have another major charitable project in the spring,” says Comrie, referring to the fact that by then the Alberta Heart Institute campaign will have ended.
I asked him what the major project was going to be.
He smiled enigmatically, as if to say, Nice try .
One thing of which we can be certain, however, is that Bill Comrie has a program, a plan, a team waiting in the wings. It’s probably already been sketched out on a napkin now residing deep in Kim Yost’s life chest. We’ll know all about it when the time is right, when the conditions meet Bill Comrie’s approval. Until then, he’s happy – no, he’s not just happy, he’s delighted – to find new ways to sell us a sofa besides no money down, no payments until 2005, no interest and at employee prices.
If all that is not incentive enough, stick around. The Red Leader is just getting started.
“It’s all true,” enthuses Kim Yost, effervescent president of The Brick. “That’s the thing about Bill Comrie. No matter how outlandish, how wild the story you tell about him, the truth is probably even wilder.” Comrie didn’t have the money to buy his partners out, so he talked them into buying him out. With the $8,000 profit, he trooped down the street and opened Bill Comrie’s Furniture Warehouse.
Brick by Brick
Bill Comrie’s furniture empire by the numbers:
Company: The Brick Warehouse Corporation
Owner: Bill Comrie chairman of the board
Year Established: 1971
Number of Stores: 74
Number of Employees: 4,000+
Number of Trucks: 400
Warehouse Space: 1.2 million+ square feet
Retail Space: 2.6 million+ square feet
2003 Gross Revenue: $900 million (up from $550 million in fiscal 1999)
The Seven Habits of the Highly Successful Red Leader (Red-Haired, That is)
Here are Bill Comrie’s Leadership Mantras:
Habit #1 – Be a Miner
- Be, inquisitive, tenacious; get involved; solve problems.
- Don’t solve the symptom, solve the root problem.
Habit #2 – Continuous Followup
- Use the “Red File.”
- Assign accountability and due dates and follow up.
- “Inspect what you expect.”
Habit #3 – Lead by Example
- Take charge; drive for results; use great leadership skills; be strategically minded; be consistent.
- Be a team builder; focus on the teams results.
Habit #4 – Creativity/Vision
- Think “outside the box” – examine what others do; look outside your company.
- Look to other winning companies for ideas – in Canada, the U.S.and around the world.
Habit #5 – Be a Coach
- Be encouraging; give empowerment; be flexible; be a good listener.
- Set goals; provide constant feedback to your team; give individual coaching.
- Remember CANI: Constant and Never-Ending Improvement.
Habit #6 – Relationship Building and “Social Capital”
- Network with other businesses and departments.
- Build solid relationships with other business leaders around the world.
Habit #7 – Be Competitive: Go for the Win
- Nothing is accomplished without a little hard work.
- Win as a team; have fun; know your competition as well as you know yourself; be prepared; execute at your highest level.
- Retail is detail.
- Strive for excellence.