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Iconic contemporary specialist DeBoer's to close down after 60 years PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael J. Knell   

TORONTO (05 April 2011) - After 60 years as one of this country's most influential contemporary furniture retailers, John De Boer has decided to retire and will shutter his five-unit operation over the coming 12 months or so.

De Boer, the family-owned concern's president and chief executive officer who recently celebrated his 71st birthday, has been quietly transferring day-to-day operational responsibility to his daughter, Suanne, the company's general manager, for the past few years with the goal of retiring into a consultant's role.

Suanne De Boer is seen here with her father, John De Boer, in a photo taken for advertising campaign run by their iconic furniture store - DeBoer's - a couple of years ago
But about 18 months ago, a developer approached him with a proposal to purchase two of retailer's most valuable locations - the flagship store on Yonge St. in the heart of uptown Toronto and the Mississauga store on Dundas St. W. near the Erin Mills Parkway. While this wasn't the first time he had been approached, De Boer said this was the first time he had received an all-cash on closing offer. So, of course, he accepted. "It was a really good offer," he said.

Under the terms of the arrangement, both stores would continue to operate until the acquisition closed at the end of August 2011.

The original plan wasn't to exit the business, but rather to consolidate all three Toronto stores (the third being in the College Park office and retail complex in the heart of the city) and build a new 40,000 to 50,000 square foot store somewhere in Toronto. While at first blush this would seem a simple to execute strategy, the father and daughter team discovered over the course of a year it wasn't.

"We did a feasibility study and looked at the furniture market in Toronto," John De Boer said, adding there were a number of things they didn't want. "We don't want to open on Sunday," was one of them.

Ever since Ontario legalized Sunday shopping over a decade ago, DeBoer's has been one of a very few furniture retailers who chose not to open that day. The company could compete in this environment because it had built a loyal following since first opening its doors under the leadership of John De Boer's father, Anne, in 1950.

But when reorganizing and consolidating down to one store, it would unwise to not be open on Sunday, which for many furniture retailers has become a key selling day. Of DeBoer's key competitors in the Toronto market, only The Art Shoppe is closed on Sunday.

De Boer said while the chain has been consistently profitable over the years, consolidating to a single store would also require drastic revisions to the company's business model. De Boer was one of the first independent Canadian retailers to import furniture directly - whether from Europe or the Pacific Rim. This was easy to justify with what was at its peak a six-store chain but could cost prohibitive for a single store.

In recent years, the cost of containers alone has become prohibitive. So without four or five sales floors over which to turn the goods quickly, it's practically unprofitable for a single store merchant to both travel to buy and then import directly.

However, father and daughter were confident they could devise a plan that would be true to DeBoer's historic product profile, market position legacy and be profitable until they discovered it was almost impossible to secure a new location.

While there aren't a forfeit of suitable buildings available in the Great Toronto Area, Suanne De Boer explained whenever she found a suitable building, she couldn't get the zoning permission required to convert the premises to suit her needs.

"Neither of us wanted things to come to this, we both wanted to carry on," she said, adding she's spent the better part of a year looking for suitable real estate. Not surprisingly, the price of the real estate itself wasn't all that critical. "But zoning turned out to be a major issue."

During her search she found a building of the right size at the right price in a good location with parking (always a critical consideration when selecting a retail site). But it was zoned for industrial use. "And the local authorities didn't want to erode their industrial space," she said.

Without that offer to buy the two key locations, the company would probably keep going under Suanne DeBoer's leadership.

"It's not like there was one thing (that lead to the decision to close)," she said. "It was a process."

The shutting of DeBoer's will take place gradually over the next few months. The College Park and Ottawa locations are slated to close when their individual leases expire at the end of June. The Yonge Street and Mississauga stores will close when property acquisition deal closes at the end of September.

After that, all remaining inventory will be sent to the company's corporate head office and warehouse facility in the Toronto suburb of Vaughn. It's from this location that all remaining inventory will be sold.

John DeBoer anticipates he will be in a position to sell the Vaughan facility in about a year's time.

An active member of Rotary International, John DeBoer said he plans on becoming involved in a number of projects the service club is undertaking overseas and enjoying retirement.

Suanne DeBoer will stay at the helm until the end. After that, she said - with a laugh - "I just might have to look for job."



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