Meghan Roach Helping Iconic Canadian Retailer Roots Build on the Foundations of Nearly 50 Years of Success [Interview]

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There aren’t too many brands in Canadian retailing history that have captured the hearts and minds of so many consumers, becoming part of the fabric of the country, in quite the same way Roots has. Establishing itself through the years by way of the comfort, quality and versatility of its product, the adored retailer has long since achieved iconic status and a leadership role within the industry. And although the company has always operated on the same principles and beliefs on which it was founded and built nearly 50 years ago, its perpetual innovation and evolution has allowed it to remain relevant and successful, consistently adapting to and anticipating market shifts and changes. Today, as the brand approaches ever closer to its golden anniversary, it continues to evolve, expanding the brand and the community around it, driven by the guidance and leadership of CEO Meghan Roach.

“The business really has gone through an evolution through the years,” says Roach. “A lot of the heritage and essence that helped lay the foundation of the business and the brand still very much remains, but we’ve evolved it. As opposed to being a brand that’s only about camp and Algonquin Park, it’s now more about being a brand that’s at home in nature. That can be represented by going for a walk outside, going for a hike, or something as simple as taking part in a Zoom call in our clothing with natural fibres. It’s about creating a brand and a product offering that helps customers feel comfortable in their own skin and clothing that can be worn in multiple different situations. As we move forward, where we’re going as a business is about developing a really strong community around the brand we have today, really focusing on our pillars of comfort, quality and versatility, and expanding the brand to be more about the communities and nature in which we live.”

Rise to leadership

As far as backgrounds go, particularly those of CEOs managing consumer retail companies, Roach’s is an interesting one. She spent much of her career within the private equity space, starting at KPMG before joining the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan and later Searchlight Capital Partners where she spent time in both Toronto and the UK. Despite the unorthodox nature of her course toward a leadership position at one of Canada’s biggest brands, however, the work that she was involved in on the investor side has served to be essential. Gaining experience working with consumer businesses, collaborating extensively with brands across the retail spectrum, Roach gained intimate insights into the inner workings of retail operations and the levers that drove success for the businesses she worked with. It’s experience that she recognizes as instrumental in preparing her for her current role at Roots.

“The biggest advantage that I’ve had within my career to this point is the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to work with management teams at many different brands,” she explains. “It afforded me the chance to really dive into working on things like strategy, execution and operational turnarounds. And, as a result, I got to see what worked and what didn’t. Because of the work that I’ve been responsible for, working with a number of different companies, I bring unique leadership skills to this amazing Roots team. I’ve seen a lot of different things in repetition and am able to draw on the diverse experiences that I’ve acquired throughout my career in order to help more accurately identify opportunities for further growth and success.”

Partnership and support

The rare perspective with which Roach approaches her job is paying dividends for Roots as the company continues to improve on the tremendous accomplishments it’s already realized. Her expertise and judgement are proving critical in helping to manage the brand toward the next chapter of its impressive story. However, when it comes to identifying the factors contributing most to the company’s sustained progression and growth, she directs much of the credit to the team around her. She considers the opportunity to lead Roots as its CEO as an “honour”, describing the Roots team as “talented and dedicated”. It’s a cooperative attitude and collaborative method that supports her manner of execution, and a care and value in the collective that fuels her philosophies as a leader.

“From my perspective, it’s really important to help people carve their own paths,” she says. “There’s no one way to do something. And, as a leader, your responsibility is to work with individuals to help them find their own way toward success and achievement. It’s also very difficult to be the sole decision-maker. And so, for companies to be successful today, they really have to partner with their staff, understanding their skillsets and helping them manifest those skills in order to realize the overall corporate objectives and goals. Helping people develop their own leadership capabilities is what it means to be a leader. And, particularly during times of adversity and challenge, a leader has got to set an example for the rest of the organization, understanding that there are going to be setbacks and failures and persevering through the challenges.”

Holistic understanding

Image: Roots

Roach also emphasizes the importance of making clear and concise decisions in supporting the organization’s direction and ensuring that all staff are aligned with the strategy, equipping them with the guidance and tools to execute. It’s an outlook on leadership that seems to be underpinned by a combination of compassion and a holistic appreciation of the role that she serves, her capabilities as well as her limitations. And it’s also one that she says was shaped by a number of different influences that she’s enjoyed throughout her life and career. However, she recalls being particularly moved by the ideologies of one of her female compatriots in business, former PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi.

“At the time in my career when Nooyi had risen to the highest level at PepsiCo, it was extremely rare to see a female in leadership as CEO,” she says. “That achievement in itself was really inspirational. But what I was really impressed and inspired by was the message that she always conveyed. She talked openly about the challenges of being a leader, particularly from a female’s point-of-view. She spoke about the difficulties in being a leader, a wife and a mother, and in accepting that no one can be perfect in all of these roles across the board. She stressed the importance of understanding your roles in life and the demands that come along with them while ensuring that you don’t set yourself up for failure by really appreciating what you can and can’t do. Her message has stuck with me through the years and really shown me the importance of recognizing your own limitations, strengths and weaknesses, and being transparent with your team about them.”

Adaptation and evolution

This lesson, combined with her unique experience, stands Roach well in her efforts to navigate one of the biggest challenges she’s faced thus far in her career. It’s allowed her to draw on the strongest qualities that the brand’s developed over the decades while helping it to continue adapting to consumer and market evolutions. And, given the trials and tribulations that much of the industry has faced over the course of the past 18 months or so, her razor-sharp focus and steadfast determination seem to be exactly what the company requires. It’s a time that will long be remembered by many as one of the most problematic and uncertain in recent human history. It’s also one, however, that Roach and her Roots team have leveraged in order to further adapt and maintain the momentum that the brand has amassed to this point.

“The Roots brand resonates with consumers,” she asserts. “And to be a brand as successful as Roots has been through the years, you really have to possess a deep understanding of who your customer is and what they want from you. We hear time and again that people love the comfort of our clothes and the quality and versatility. Continuing to understand how those qualities need to adapt to changing situations will enable continued success for the brand. Roots has always been extremely relevant to the society of the day. And we recognize that the Canadian consumer has changed, becoming much more diverse and differentiated. And we as a brand need to continue evolving in order to continue building strong relationships with them. In order to address this, we continue to diversify our product categories with extended sizes, more sustainable items and gender-free fit. And we’re also becoming more diverse when it comes to our marketing campaigns and thinking more intensely about the diversity of our teams. We’re doing a lot of things, and will continue to do things, that will allow us to be more reflective of society today and become even more meaningful and relevant in the lives of our customers.”

Accelerated pace

Roots at Yorkdale Shopping Centre
Roots at Yorkdale Shopping Centre – Photo by Dustin Fuhs (July 31st, 2021)

With respect to the adaptations and evolution of the brand that Roach refers to, much of the changes that would drive them needed to be develop and instituted at a much quicker pace than would usually be required. She took over the CEO post in January 2020, just months before eventual restrictions and lockdowns. The impacts of the pandemic accelerated everything, she says, not least of which consumer behaviour, prompting a speedy response on the part of retailers across the country. It was challenging to operate with such immediate need for execution, she says, but adds that it was essential in helping to continue moving the brand forward.

“The most significant impact of the pandemic was how quickly we needed to make decisions,” she explains. “A number of changes were required, like reducing promotions in order to make the brand a more desirable full-price brand, increasing perception among consumers. Changes were required to the overall cost-base of the business for greater efficiency. And more focus needed to be put on capital investments. Usually, when you make these types of changes to a business, they are all part of an overall strategy that often takes multiple years to implement and execute. But when you face the situation that COVID presented everyone, the need for these changes is accelerated. We needed to be focused and make quick decisions in order to remain successful through a difficult period.”

Digital investment

In addition, Roach and her team also doubled down on its understanding of the Roots customer and the product and experience that they’re looking for from the brand. To ensure the proper flow of product throughout the pandemic, the company focused on the management of its inventory, working closer than ever with its supply chain partners. And, in order to continue serving consumers during store closures, it leveraged its long-standing ecommerce presence, utilizing its brick-and-mortar locations as fulfilment hubs. It’s an area of the business that Roots began investing in and developing decades ago. And it’s one that Roach says will continue to be a priority to enhance going forward.

“Roots is a brand that has for a very long time offered very strong in-store and ecommerce capabilities,” she asserts. “And it really allowed us to continue developing the symbiotic relationship between in-store and online. We’re still making a lot of investments into honing our omnichannel expertise and creating a best-in-class experience for our customers. The shift that occurred in the consumer with respect to their increased comfort and willingness to shop and purchase online was obviously a trend that was accelerated by the pandemic. However, I don’t think that it’s a behavioural trend that will subside going forward, and we want to make sure that we continue to be at the forefront of this digital evolution for our customers.”

Building community

Image: Roots

Roach points to Roots’ ecommerce and digital maturity as a great example of the ways the company continuously adapts to the needs of its customers. However, the shift in consumer behaviour that was spurred on by the pandemic is not the only sentiment that she says has been amplified over the course of the past year-and-a-half. Attitudes and perceptions among consumers based on the values brands stand for are also heightening. As a result, Roach suggests that it’s more important than ever for retailers to listen to their customer in order to truly understand what they’re seeking from them, find synergies in the action they’re taking from an environmental, societal and governance perspective, and convey them to their customers.

“We’re extremely focused at the moment on building the right kind of community around the Roots brand,” she explains. “Today, people are not only buying with their wallets, but are increasingly making purchase decisions with their hearts as well. They want to know that the brands they’re partnering with have a purpose and values that align with their own. From a business perspective, Roots has always stood for community and integrity and continues to invest in expanding the brand out through our diversity, equality, equity and inclusion platforms. We strive to understand the Roots customer and believe that some of the things that they’re most interested in go beyond their love of our product, pushing us to consistently improve and do better as an organization.”

One Collection

Image: Roots

Though the consumer may be looking for things from brands that extend beyond their products, much of what Roots stands for as a company can be found within them. This is most evident in the recent launch of the Roots One Collection. A celebration of individuality and style, and a commitment to a better planet, the Collection features a gender-free fit, offers an extended size range and uses sustainable fibres to create what Roach says is the company’s “most comfortable and softest fleece to date”. She says that it’s a line of product that the entire team is extremely proud of, referring to it as a landmark in the progression of the Roots brand and an indication of the direction the brand is heading.

“The One Collection is really symbolic of the evolution of Roots as a company,” she says. “We had a lot of customers who were cross shopping – women buying from the men’s collection and men buying from the women’s collection – as well as those who identify as non-binary or transgender who are looking for gender-free fits. It was really important to us to reflect this in our product offering and to continue evolving it. The Collection is also made with sustainable fabric using 80 percent organic cotton and 20 percent recycled fabrics. And, it also includes extended sizes, creating greater inclusion within our offering. It provides customers the freedom to style the products in the way that best suits their needs. Because it’s not so much about the size of the product, and more about the feel and fit, it allows them to express themselves in unique and differentiated ways.”

Further growth

As interesting as Roach’s path to retail leadership has been, surely the 18 months since taking over as Roots CEO has been just as intriguing. Her focus on the team, developing forward-thinking strategy and equipping those around her to execute on the company’s vision have helped to position the brand for further positive trajectory. And her commitment to community building and values-based decisions are set to enhance the perception of the beloved Canadian brand that much more. With these things in mind, she believes that there’s still a lot of room for Roots to grow and boundless opportunities to continue building on its incredible history to date.

“For a brand to enjoy the life and longevity that Roots has clearly shows that it means more to consumers than the product we offer. People have a real love for the brand. And, as a steward of this business, my goal is to make investments and decisions that continue to affect the long-term success of the brand and continue to drive excitement and that love for Roots many years into the future. In the short-term, however, even though we’re nearly 50 years old as a business, there’s a real opportunity to become even more well-known globally. Roots is engrained in the mindset of the Canadian consumer. And although we’re proud of this fact, we’re really looking forward to expanding the brand’s digital and physical footprint, introducing our product and offering to even more people and connecting with them in meaningful ways.”

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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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