Tanya Graber, a resident of Switzerland, researched fashion retailer Aldo on the Internet before her vacation to New York City.
“We saw these handbags and we wanted to buy these handbags,” Graber said, gesturing to the camel-colored leather model on the checkout counter at the company’s store on Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.
Aldo Group Inc. sells footwear and accessories in more than 1,750 corporate-owned and franchised stores in 82 countries. The company had $1.8 billion in revenue in 2013, according to Aldo’s spokeswoman Genevieve Sharp.
The retailer has a value of $1.7 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, making Aldo’s executive chairman, Aldo Bensadoun, a billionaire.
Bensadoun, who founded the company in 1972 selling wooden clogs in Canada, is the sole owner of Aldo Group’s two shareholding entities -- Gestion Le Groupe Aldo Inc. and 4126050 Canada Inc. -- according to filings with Registraire des entreprises Quebec.
Aldo’s spokeswoman Sharp said the company declined to comment on Bensadoun’s net worth calculation.
“Aldo is one of those very few shoe and accessory brands that lives across the country,” Connie Wang, style director at Refinery29, said by phone from the fashion publication’s New York office. “No matter where you live, you have an Aldo that’s close by, and that’s very special.”
Bensadoun was raised in France and came to the U.S. to attend Cornell University, where his brother was completing a doctorate.
“I felt completely out of place,” Bensadoun said in a 2012 commencement address at McGill University.
He dropped out of Cornell and his father stopped paying him his monthly allowance. Bensadoun sold Collier’s Encyclopedia door-to-door in Buffalo, New York, for a year. The period shaped his appreciation for salesmanship and visual presentation, he said in the speech.
“A few weeks without a sale, let me tell you, was very, very hard on the pocketbook and the morale,” he said. “With no safety net, you have no choice but to persevere, keep up morale and find the energy and enthusiasm to move on.”
Bensadoun attended McGill after a visit to Montreal, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He took a job working for a regional shoe company and then sold wooden clogs at concession stands inside stores of a small Canadian fashion chain.
“He literally started with nothing,” Peter Mendell, a senior partner at Montreal law firm Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, who has worked with Bensadoun for more than 40 years, said by phone. Bensadoun took out a second mortgage on his home to start the business, Mendell said. “He never took his eye off the light at the end of the tunnel.”
He opened the first Aldo store in Montreal in 1978, and expanded the business to almost 100 Canadian outlets in the 1980s. He entered the U.S. and Israel markets in the mid-1990s, and moved into Europe and Asia in the early 2000s.
“I never thought that one day I would do the same thing as my dad,” said Bensadoun, in a video uploaded to YouTube by Phanta Media on Feb. 3. “My grandfather was a shoe cobbler and my dad was in the shoe business. He had retail stores.”
His father sold the family shoe business because his son showed no interest in it, Bensadoun said. His own sons, David and Douglas, work at Aldo Group, as global president of retail and as creative director.
The company now operates 907 stores in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Ireland under the brands Aldo, Call It Spring, Little Burgundy and Globo. It also sells product to about 870 franchise stores in 78 other countries.
It created a wholesale distributor in 2010, through which it moves branded shoes to department stores and e-commerce websites, and designs shoes for private label partners such as Kohl’s, JCPenney, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Debenhams, Selfridges and Hudson’s Bay.
With $1.8 billion in sales, Aldo Group has annual revenue about the same as Skechers U.S.A. Inc. and 50 percent greater than Crocs Inc. (CROX:US), a Niwot, Colorado-based company that got its start in Quebec making foam-based sandals.
At the New York store, Aldo’s popular doctor bag and others printed with slogans such as “#selfie” and “that chic cray,” punctuate the back-lit floor-to-ceiling displays along the walls. Shoes -- flats, sneakers, sandals, pumps and moccasins -- dominate the store’s shelves.
“He’s not there as a savvy financial guy,” Mendell said. “He’s a product man and he really understands his business. It’s not only in his head, it’s in his heart.”
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