Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Remembering Albert D. Cohen, O.C. (1914 - 2011)

Albert Cohen, O.C. (source)

It was sad news that Albert Cohen passed away on Monday. Most will remember him for the now defunct SAAN chain of stores but there was much more to the man. I have come across his name dozens of times while researching stories for my blogs.

Cohen Brothers in 1978 (Source)

Albert Diamond Cohen was born in the North End on January 20, 1914. The family, father Alexander, mother Bereka "Rose" Diamond and five brothers Albert, Sam, Harry, Chauncey, Morley and Joseph lived at 86 1/2 Lorne Avenue. (For more family history.)

He quit school in grade 10 to sell shoes and to work with his father, a traveling salesman. In 1931 they formally joined forces as A. Cohen and Son,
selling confectioneries and other goods across Western Canada.

Most of the family settled in Calgary in the 1930s where two of Cohen's brothers opened a small store. At the urging of his mother Cohen contacted his brother Sam to suggest that they do the same thing in Winnipeg.

September 14, 1947, Winnipeg Free Press

Cohen did a stint in the navy (1942 - 45) and thought that the military surplus trade would be a good bet. In September 1947 the two opened Surplus Army and Navy (SAAN) at 697 Main near Higgins. A few months later they had a second store at 471 Portage.

As the retail empire was budding Cohen also showed that he had a good nose for new products.

In the mid 1950s he read an article about a new invention of the Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Corporation of Japan: the transistor radio. At the time radios were still a piece of living room furniture and Cohen was intrigued. He flew to Japan to meet chairman of the company and bought 50 units, their first overseas sale.

Over the decades he advised the company (which changed its name to Sony in 1958) about accessing markets and retailing outside of Japan.

In 1995 Sony paid $207 m for Cohen’s 51% share of Sony Canada and in 2000 the 87-year old was flown to Japan to receive the company’s first Sony Lifetime Achievement award as thanks for his assistance during those formative years. (He is still featured on their corporate website as "The first man to sell a Sony product overseas.")

March 19, 1960 , Financial Post

Another product that he introduced to Canada was the Paper Mate pen. He saw someone using one in Vancouver, tracked down the company in San Fransisco and flew down to meet them. In 1952 Cohen and Frawley signed a deal that brought Paper Mate pens to Canada. Within in a year it proved a top seller.

Cohen also introduced a patented stainless steel shaving blade introduced by Japan's
Shiseido to Canada.

General Distributors (in 1983 the name was changed to Gendis) was the product distribution end of the business and the parent company of the retail arm. The company was owned by five Cohen brothers, each of whom ran one of the regional branches in Winnipeg, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. The headquarters were in Winnipeg and Albert the President and CEO.

Portage Avenue Postcards 60's
Winnipeg's Met store, right

January 16, 1962, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1961 General Distributors purchased the Canadian Division of U.S. retailer Metropolitan Stores, based in London Ontario. The $18 m deal brought 87 stores, located mainly in Ontario and Quebec with one store in Winnipeg. They also acquired Greenberg stores and W.L. Green clothing retailers located in Quebec and Ontario.

By 1976 Gendis was riding high. Their portfolio included 51% of Sony Canada,
95 Met stores, 73 SAANs and 64 Greenberg and W.L. Green stores. Annual sales, at $18m at the time of the acquisitions, were now $137 m.

By 1985 Gendis had shares in natural resources companies and owned the Pomme Rouge (Red Apple) Clearance store chain in Quebec.

In 1988 Gendis invested $25m in a huge warehouse and distribution centre in Fort Garry. It ensured that Winnipeg would be the heart of the Gendis companies.

At the grand opening, MTC (Source)

Cohen also contributed to the community though a number of charities and non profit groups. One that most people know is the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

In 1964 he was the fundraising chair for the theatre group located in the Dominion Theatre near Portage and Main. He became president in 1966.

The MTC lost its home due to the construction of the Richardson Building and in 1967 Cohen announced that they found a new site for a 800 seat thatre on Market Avenue. At the opening ceremony for the new building in 1970 Premier Schreyer gave Cohen the key to open the door.

January 12, 1997, Winnipeg Free Press

The Canadian retail landscape changed with the 1994 entry of WalMart and in 1997 cracks began to appear in Gendis' retail empire. That year their Qu├ębec–based MMG Group, which held hundreds of Metropolitan, Greenberg, Pomme Rouge (Red Apple) stores, went bankrupt.

August 12 1997, Winnipeg Free Press

Seeing an opportunity, Gendis spent millions to buy back about 100 of the outlets and re-branded them SAAN, creating a single national chain of 350 stores.

In 2002 Gendis tried to expand the SAAN chain by 260 stores but the plan did not pan out. In 2004 it was sold off to a U.S. based group. In 2005 the Ontario based The Bargain! Shop bought the remaining 93 SAAN and Red Apple locations and in 2008 consolidated them under the TB!S banner. The SAAN name disappeared from Canada's retailing landscape.

Albert Cohen stepped aside as President and CEO of the Company in 1999, at age 87, taking the role of co-CEO.

In 1995 he was awarded the Order of Canada based largely on his community work, including his involvement with MTC and the University of Manitoba. In 2010 he was awarded Japan's equivalent, the Order of the Rising Sun.

Albert Cohen was still the co-CEO of Gendis when he died on November 21, 2011 at the age of 97. He leaves behind Irena, his wife of 58 years, and four children. (See his obituary in the Globe and Mail.)


A six minute interview with Cohen reflecting on his career can be found at the ITV Winnipeg channel on Youtube:
Part 1, Part 2.

Cohen wrote two books, images of the covers can be seen above. The Story of SAAN (2002) & Reminiscences of an Entrepreneur: How Sony Came to Canada & then to the World in 1955 (2010).

Albert D. Cohen's Fonds are at the University of Manitoba.

- Albert Cohen had an eye for Deals Globe and Mail, Dec. 6, 2011
Read about his friendship with Ian Fleming, author of James Bond !!
- If you have MTS TV there is a 45 minute interview with him from a couple of years back on Winnipeg on Demand


brent bellamy said...

thanks for this...fascinating.

Christian Cassidy said...

You're welcome ! Check out the Globe and Mail story about him for more interesting stuff - personal friends with Ian Fleming ?! A fascinating guy, indeed !