Independent Spotlight: Browns

Canadian retailer Browns is confronting the global recession with sure-bet brands, top-notch service and a hopeful attitude.

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Browns President Michael Brownstein.

Photo By Courtesy Photo

NEW YORK — For Canadian retailer Michael Brownstein, nothing compares to family and selling footwear. But it’s even better when the two come together.

Brownstein joined Browns Shoe Shops Inc., the Montreal-based company founded 69 years ago by his father, in 1973, after working for three years in the ski business in Europe. Today, he’s president of the Browns retail chain and employs four generations of family members. Brownstein’s son acts as the director of business development, his daughter has joined full-time as a buyer and his wife participates from the sidelines.

“My wife is my fashion guru. She doesn’t work fulltime in the business, but anytime I have a fashion question and I have to make a decision, I need her opinion,” said Brownstein.

He’s been seeking her guidance a lot more in the past few years, as the company has embarked on an aggressive growth push.

In 2007, after ending a 15-year deal with Canadian luxury retailer Holt Renfrew — where Browns was the exclusive operator of its footwear departments — Brownstein charged ahead with expanding his fleet of flagship stores.

Browns counts 47 doors in areas such as Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal. That includes the eight fashion-forward B2 shoe stores, a spinoff of Browns that features a completely different store design and atmosphere and that attracts an edgier, trend-hopping crowd. Among all the retail locations, corporate offices and warehouses, employee count has jumped to more than 1,000, but Brownstein insists the family-run feel hasn’t changed.

“Most of our buyers have been with us for 20 years or more. We all voice our opinions, and no one is afraid to speak up around here,” he said. “We keep it very open.”

Browns’ vendors, most of which have been doing business with the retailer for decades, agreed.

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