It’s been 40 years since a couple of young entrepreneurs opened a shop on Toronto’s Yonge St. selling a product they’d designed themselves – the negative heel shoe.
From that one Toronto location and that single product, Roots has gone on to become a 220-store chain that’s seen as uniquely Canadian. No longer just a shoemaker, it also makes sweat pants, leather jackets and clothing displayed to the world by athletes and A-listers.
Amanda Lang recently sat down with co-founder Michael Budman at the company's leather factory in Toronto to talk about the company’s ups and downs over the last 40 years.
Budman, an American who began the chain with his friend Don Green, explained how their love of the Canadian wilderness and especially Algonquin Park, played into their decision to set up in Canada.
"Both of us I think from our youth, from going to camp, we fell in love with Canada and I still feel that same way, like 40 years ago what an incredible decision to come here and see the growth and in our own way," Budman said,
He told Lang the business took on a life of its own soon after he and Green opened the first store.
"When we opened the doors at 1052 Yonge Street and Don and I built that store ourselves and we had a carpenter come down from Algonquin Park and do the carpentry, and we always had the idea of make it ourselves and sell it ourselves," Budman said.
"Right from day one it was successful, right off the bat, we sold seven pairs of shoes that day, August 15th 1973."
From one store, it became 30 stores in the first year, then later became the official retailer of the Canadian Olympic team, a position that drew international recognition.
It eventually lost that role, and made abortive forays into vitamins and the U.S. market, but Budman says he still likes to take chances.
Roots remains a privately held Canadian company, with a leather factory in Toronto and 2000 employees across Canada.
There have been suggestions it should move manufacturing offshore, but Budman says some of Roots factories have to be here to ensure the kind of quality they want to provide.
"At one point there was pressure by previous management, who we had brought in, to move offshore and that idea and those people got sledge hammered," he said, speaking of his factory employees.
The company's prescence in Canada is, "the heart and soul of the company, the DNA," he said.
"We cannot … make it in the Bangladeshes of the world."