Is this the final demise of White Rose
Raab immigrated to the Toronto area from France in 1954 and founded what
became White Rose Crafts and Nursery Sales Ltd. in 1957. It was touch and go
at first, as he worked from a single outlet on Hwy. 7 in Unionville,
Ontario. His invention of the MerryGro greenhouse (a small plastic growing
tray for starting seeds) helped a great deal in the early days. The business
soon developed to include a mail-order seed catalogue and new garden centres
sprung up all over Ontario, and eventually in Quebec with the acquisition of
W.H. Perron in that province.
Ellen Winger joined Mr. Raab in the early days and was general manager.
I remember Mr. Raab fondly, and dealt with him on many occasions, including
in 1979 when Pierre Bourque (later to become Mayor of Montréal) and I
convinced him to put in a large rose garden (which he planted himself in
late fall 1979, in a very muddy area of the St. Lawrence Islands) at the
1980 Montréal Floralies.
In 1968, Ron Maclean joined the company immediately upon his graduation from
The Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture and he soon became
assistant general manager. On Ellen’s retirement, Ron became general manager
and the greatest development of the White Rose chain occurred during the
early 80s under his leadership. By the late 80s, Ron was also president and
expansion was still on his mind. He wanted to open in Québec and decided the
best way to do it was to buy the W.H. Perron stores. There was expansion in
Québec, up to eight stores, but in retrospect, I believe that decision to
move into La belle province was one of the major bad moves that lead to
where the company is now.
In 1993 Ron Maclean and his board (still including Alex Raab, although Alex
was more and more withdrawing his activity) took the company public and
shares initially were listed at $11.
By 1996, due primarily to incredible competition from the big box stores
combined with heavy expenses in Québec, White Rose was no longer reporting
earnings, but rather steadily increasing losses.
Ron Maclean stepped down and the company’s board brought in high-flying
retail executive (formerly head of Canadian Tire Corp.) Dean Groussman as
Ron stayed on in an advisory capacity. Mr. Groussman was strongly criticized
for his air-commuting habits (between Toronto and the southern US) and for
continuing losses. By late 1998, Mr. Groussman and the entire board
resigned, and “turn-around expert” William Aziz was brought in. Fiscal 1998
was the company’s third successive year of losses, specifically $38 million
on sales of $210 million compared with a $4.9 million loss on $206 million
sales the previous year. The company’s stock was selling for 42 cents per
share, up eight cents on the day when Mr. Aziz’s arrival was announced!
The company entered bankruptcy protection on November 27, 1998 soon after
Mr. Aziz’s arrival. In February of 1999, he oversaw the closure of ten
stores, including all eight in Québec. Two of three distribution centres
were also to be closed. The slimming-down resulted in the departure of 119
full-time and 274 part-time employees, but left 128 staff at the head office
and a total of 1,960 employees.
June 1999 saw the delisting of the company’s shares on the Toronto Stock
In August that year the Board of Directors appointed a new Chairman of the
Board--Clare Copeland, and he in turn appointed a new President and Chief
Operating Officer in the person of Howard Board, a former executive of
Peoples Jewellers where, for four years, he helped the famous jewellery
retailer battle through bankruptcy protection.
Under Mr. Board’s guidance, the company carried out a series of cost
reduction programmes including streamlining its distribution operations,
reduction of inventories, renegotiations of lease agreements, outsourcing of
non-core businesses and reduction of payroll expenditures. In 2000-2001 the
chain changed its name to White Rose Home and Garden Centres (a move seen by
some--including me--as negative since it left out the word “nursery” which
conveys to the public the actual ‘buy from a grower’ concept). It was an
attempt to move up a notch or so in the marketplace replacing many of the
craft items with items for home decorating. It also launched nine spring
garden centres in mall parking lots.
The most significant change was the redesign of two test stores (Erin Mills
in Mississauga, and London West), with the idea of eventually converting all
of the “tired looking” stores to the new model. The company apparently
considered several new ideas including a management buyout and branching out
into wholesaling but the key remained searching for about $10 million in new
funds in order to speed up the snail-pace remodelling process.
In late July 2001, an additional store was closed.
Unfortunately, the lack of cooperation from spring weather and the inability
to bring in needed funds led to the second bankruptcy filing for the company
on June 20, 2002. PricewaterhouseCoopers was named the Receiver, and on
August 2nd, the Receiver announced that two sales had been made, one was to
a new company, White Rose Home and Garden Centres Limited, which would
purchase 24 of the company’s retail stores. Seven other stores were to be
closed. A second sale was of the nursery farms, still run by 28-year
employee, Dan Galea, to a different buyer.
The buyer of the retail stores (24 of them) was Iqbal Kassam, financier and
Vancouver resident with whom I have met and discussed the realities of
trying to run a money-making retail nursery/garden centre chain. Iqbal tried
everything he could devise to turn the sinking company around, much as he
had done previously for the ailing Stevenson’s Rent-all chain, now highly
profitable and known as Stephenson’s Rental Services.
Fern Reeves, a 30-year veteran of the garden centre industry, originally
headed up the operations side of the new White Rose, and then many months
later, Iqbal hired Tim Lagace, ex of Weall & Cullen Garden Centres Ltd. as
the Chief Operating Officer.
In February 2004 White Rose closed another nine stores, bringing the total
down from 42 to just 15, but Iqbal was not able to solve the dilemma of how
to cover the high cost of a head office staff for four months when there was
literally no money coming in. In our discussion, he said he was aware that
the industry generally relied on heavy sales in late April and May, and
possibly in early June to offset the cost build-up of the late winter
months. He added, though, that in 2003, the very wet and cold spring,
especially on weekends, cut severely into April and May sales and he never
did cover those costs.
And so that brings us up to the present: on January 19 the company decided
to go into receivership, and on March 19 it was announced that the firm of
Shiner Kideckel Sweig would be the trustees in bankruptcy for White Rose.
Tim Lagace is now gone from the company, but most other employees remain,
including some long-time ones such as Jim Webb, a major buyer who was in
China at the time of the March 19 announcement.
I have talked with both Alan Shiner and Murray Kideckel and they are both
looking for possible individuals/companies who may be interested in buying
the company out of bankruptcy; as well as at breaking the company up.
Meanwhile, at the 13 stores it will be business as usual with new
merchandise and plants as ordered in the past months coming in and offered
for sale to the public. Alan Shiner expects their work as Receivers will go
on at least until June.
No doubt other retailers may well be affected by this, in that White Rose
stores will likely be selling this spring’s plants and merchandise at less
than regular prices, thus undercutting the trade in it its short, peak
Ave Atque Vale; Hail and Farewell, White Rose!