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MEC Looks to Future Growth Following Insolvency: Interview with CEO Eric Claus

There is a short list of retailers in Canada that hold a special sort of place in the hearts and consciousness of consumers across the country. It’s not a list that’s been physically recorded, yet it’s one that is understood by most. It’s comprised of companies and organizations that have made significant contributions to their communities, supported the needs and lifestyles of their patrons and woven themselves, in one way or another, into the overall fabric of Canadian society. It’s a list that denotes an iconic status as leaders of the industry in the country, and of brands that reflect the values and beliefs of its citizens. Among this list, surely, is Vancouver-based MEC. And, to help celebrate an incredible 50 years of operation, the leading Canadian outdoor retailer is doubling down, refocussing on its commitment toward creating positive social and environmental impact and to continue leading into another half-century of business.

Eric Claus

“The brand has always meant so much to Canadians,” says Eric Claus, CEO and Chairman of MEC. “It’s experienced such a beautiful trajectory of growth throughout its history with respect to the value and trust that it’s engendered in people across the country. To many, MEC is more than a business. It means something more to Canadians, reflecting and representing the needs and desires of the outdoor community. Today, we feel really lucky to be the stewards of this incredible brand and to build on the legacy of the first 50 years. We have a lot of exciting plans to take MEC to the next level and to continue enhancing the experience and rewards that we offer customers.”

The MEC Philosophy

Though plans for the future may be exciting, Claus reflects on the year 2020 as a very difficult one for the brand, referring to it as “the most challenging in the company’s history”. He says that financial problems which were compounded by impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic were too much to withstand, problems that culminated in the co-operative with an estimated 5 million members becoming a privately-owned company via its sale to Los Angeles-based investment group Kingswood Capital Management in October of last year. Claus, a former grocery executive, was appointed to his current position in the same month, representing one of the first orders of business of the company’s new owners. He says that, although the ownership structure of the company has changed, the philosophy by which the company operates has not.

“The ethos of the company and the way we conduct ourselves as a brand remains the same,” he asserts. “We’re committed to continuing the legacy that MEC has built through the years, giving back to the community and supporting and highlighting the benefits of the outdoors. We’re pleased to be able to do that, solidifying the foundations of the brand further and our dedication to everything we believe in.”

Significant Community Support

To that end, the outdoor retailer recently announced the development of its Outdoor Impact program through which, during the course of the next year, MEC will donate $1 million to benefit and support non-profit organizations across the country that are responsible for critical work in the outdoors. Partnering with national organizations, which include Avalanche Canada, Spirit North, Parks Canada, Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, Park Bus, Alpine Club of Canada, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Protect Our Winters, Leave No Trace Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Take Me Outside, the company will provide funding and gear to help build capacity in areas that support shared priorities. 

“This type of community support is not something new to MEC,” Claus says proudly. “We’ve now invested more than $45 million into non-profit organizations that share the same vision as us and passion to support outdoor recreation and conservation. The brand has always backed these kind of community initiatives. And, through our Outdoor Impact program, we’ve also made sure to partner with organizations that prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, responsible outdoor recreation and accessible skill building. These are things that are really important to the brand and very much a part of who we are.”

MEC store on Toronto’s Queen Street. Photo: MEC

Sustainably-Focused

In addition, as one of the industry’s leaders in sustainability, the company will also be concerting efforts to support the advancement of its goals and commitments toward improving its social and environmental impact. As such, MEC has dedicated to producing 30 percent of its clothing in a Fair-Trade Certified factory by 2023, and 50 percent by 2025; ensuring that 50 percent of the polyester in MEC Label products is made from recycled content by 2023, and 100 percent by 2030; and by partnering with producers that abide by ethical employment standards and responsible practices with respect to the end-of-life of their products. They are lofty goals set by the company. But, as Claus points out, it’s all about continuing to do the right thing.

“This is another area in which MEC has always been known for,” he says. “We’ve set some really aggressive sustainability goals which requires us to work really hard with our supplier-base and push the limits in order to ensure that our product is ethically-sourced. We’ve agreed as the leadership team at MEC that responsible and sustainable practices will continue to be a cornerstone of the brand and one of the critical components of our business that will continue to drive us forward. It’s about doing what’s right for our customers, the planet and the people who help produce our products.”

People Power

It’s an approach that the company has never strayed from in its previous 50 years. And through intensified goals and targets, it’s already setting the tone for the future of MEC. Much of the direction and execution of these ambitions through the years have been supported not only by the foundations that the company was built on, but by the people that it has employed. And, according to Claus, it’s another aspect of the outdoor retailer that has never changed. In fact, he credits the strong relationship between the brand and the employees it attracts as the most important contributor toward ensuring MEC’s continued success during challenging circumstances.

“The team of people at MEC are absolutely amazing and have really shown their qualities over the course of the past 14 months or so to help the company get through a very difficult time,” he says. “They’ve been instrumental in making sure that our valued MEC customers receive safe and efficient service throughout the COVID period. As a result of these unique circumstances, many of those working in the stores have been dealing with a great deal of stress. And, as a business, we’re very cognizant of that and are supporting those frontline workers in whatever ways we can to ensure their physical and mental health. They’ve been incredible though in supporting shifts that we’ve needed to make as a result of store closures. We’ve taken almost the entirety of our online business in the east of the country and are shipping from stores, temporarily leveraging them as mini fulfillment centres. The level of commitment and dedication from everyone involved has been tremendous and critical in allowing us to make these necessary shifts.”

Increased Outdoor Activity

Claus’ praise of the MEC team seems endless, emphasizing the importance of their response to the current situation. And, in conjunction, he’s also recognized a similar response from the Canadian consumer who, according to recent studies, is showing an increased interest in self-care practices and habits as well as outdoor activities. In fact, MEC is already experiencing record increases in camping and hiking sales for spring 2021. And, according to the company’s CEO, it’s helped affirm yet again the values and qualities that define the brand and the direction of its focus going forward with respect to the product it carries.

“There has been a massive shift in the categories that are selling during the pandemic,” he says. “Anything that is directly related to an outdoor activity like cycling, camping, and climbing is doing very well. People have decided to get outdoors over the course of the past year, to take advantage of the time they have to improve themselves. The increase in these categories has been incredible and have actually helped direct us and refocus on tailoring our assortment around the products and gear that have made MEC what it is today and providing our customers with the most relevant items possible. And, going forward, we’re going to continue to put a lot of emphasis on the MEC label to improve the fit of the garments and to strike the right balance between the functional, technical and stylistic aspects of the pieces.”

New Member Benefits Program

As part of the recent increase in outdoor activities undertaken by Canadians across the country, Claus says that the company has been very fortunate in helping to introduce many first-time MEC customers to their offering and the value of outdoor recreation. It’s allowed the company to continue extending its reach to and broaden its awareness among a whole new set of customers. And, to reward its growing base of customers further, the company recently introduced its new no-fee MEC Membership. Developed to provide more meaningful benefits, the program offers MEC members online expert appointments, exclusive bike and ski service promotions, access to outdoor skill building workshops and seasonal events, exclusive offers and promotions on new product, as well as a 30-day price match guarantee. They are, indeed, attractive benefits. However, Claus, who has been a MEC member himself since 1984, believes that the true value of shopping and engaging with MEC remains its commitment toward best-in-class customer service.

“I’ve always known that when I visit a MEC location that I’m going to receive the best advice from experts who actually know what they’re talking about,” he says proudly. “This continues to be a massive focus for us, to maintain that consistently high level of customer service and to continue to be the leader in outdoor gear and advice. The combination of the exceptional experience that we provide for customers and our new member benefits is really helping to position us well as we continue to build out our programs and services further.”

Opportunities for Further Growth

Beyond the moves that the company has made to strengthen its proposition to customers, its also downsized its head office and retail footprint and introduced a new hybrid work-from-home structure for office employees in efforts to streamline the operation and reduce overhead costs. Claus is confident that all of these tweaks to the business, while adhering to the aspects of the brand that have made MEC what it is today, have positioned the company well to not only deal with current challenges in a COVID-ravaged society, but to grow exponentially post-pandemic as well.

“We’re working diligently to continuously increase our brand relevance and to reconnect to our roots as the leader at the forefront of the outdoors in Canada and the place people go for the best product and advice. We’re also looking at certain markets where we can potentially include additional store locations in order to reach even more prospective MEC customers. There are still opportunities for the brand to improve and grow on its achievements to date. It’s a really exciting time to be involved at MEC and to have the opportunity to be a part of the continued success and evolution of this iconic Canadian brand.”

Article Author

Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry is an experienced writer who leverages his unique storytelling abilities to bring retail industry news and analysis to life. With 25 years of learning, including over a decade as Editor-In-Chief of Canadian Retailer magazine, he’s equipped with a deep understanding of the unique world of retail and the issues, trends, and innovators that continue to influence its evolution and shape its landscape.

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