The retail industry lost one of its true advocates on Saturday, September 21, 2019 with the passing of John C. Williams, retail consultant and founder of the J.C. Williams Group.
John’s entire professional career involved him in retail, from humble beginnings as a bag boy earning 85 cents an hour to becoming one of the industry’s most passionate and respected thinkers.
Canadian Retailer magazine had the privilege to sit down with John when he was inducted into The Canadian Retail Hall of Fame in 2013. Below is the article in full in which he speaks about his career and his love for the retail industry.
John Williams remembers his first job in retail. He held a part-time position at Canada Safeway, starting out as a bagboy, packing parcels and stocking shelves for 85 cents per hour. He remembers enjoying the retail environment and appreciating the opportunity that it gave him to earn some income while maintaining his focus on his studies. He was, after all, 15.
“It was a fantastic place to start,” he says. “I was able to get to know and understand the industry and the customer from a completely honest and genuine viewpoint. Little did I know that I was going to have a career in retail.”
It’s even less likely, then, that he could have envisioned, more than a half century later, being recognized for his industry contributions by Retail Council of Canada with an induction into the Retail Hall-of-Fame, which he was honoured with at the 2013 Excellence in Retailing Awards.
“Frankly, I still haven’t got my head around it.,” says Williams of his induction. “It would be the last thing in the world I’d ever expect. I’m just really humbled and pleased by the recognition.”
Earning his retail stripes
Williams graduated from the University of British Columbia and shortly thereafter received a fellowship to attend the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University where he earned his MBA. All the while he worked part-time in retail.
It wasn’t long after graduating that he gained a full-time position at Eaton’s, before quickly moving up to department manager in Victoria, B.C. Just as quickly he found himself in a store manager’s role, overseeing operations at the Chilliwack location. He was 25, and at the time was the youngest store manager in the company.
He spent close to the next decade holding various senior management and corporate positions, mainly in women’s fashion, before moving on to Canadian advertising giant Vickers and Benson.
His true calling
“Toward the end of my time at Eaton’s, I could see the handwriting on the wall,” he explains. “The company had been unable to modernize the catalogue and was not profitable. I thought that it was an environment where there wasn’t a lot of growth, so I left to work for Vickers and Benson. They had me work on a consulting project for Gulf Oil. I realized immediately that I just loved the consulting.”
It was the combination of Williams’ adoration for the retail environment and his knowledge of the industry that convinced him of his calling.
“I thought—I can use my head in an industry that I really like,” he says. “I can help improve performance and assist with my expertise to help companies get off the ground.”
That’s exactly what J.C. Williams Group has been doing since Williams founded the company in 1974. They’ve worked with such clients as BC Liquor Distribution Company, Henry Birks & Sons, Le Chateau, Goodwill (industries),
Benjamin Moore, MasterCard, Wal-Mart, Levi Strauss, Bell Canada and others to help develop new strategic concepts. The company has also been involved in real estate projects that have included The Dubai Mall, Deerfoot Meadows, and many years of work for The Rouse Company, Cadillac Fairview, Oxford Properties, and Ivanhoe Cambridge.
Today, J.C. Williams Group continues to grow. John Williams continues to enjoy what he does and looks forward to continuing helping clients grow and succeed in the industry that he loves.
“It’s a very exciting job. Every day I get to address new challenges, meet new people and work on new solutions for our clients. What could be better?”
Q&A WITH JOHN WILLIAMS
What are some of the biggest challenges facing retailers today?
“The biggest challenge has been, and always will be, dealing with the rate of change, especially the rapid growth of e-commerce and smartphone use. Retailers need to understand how these devices and capabilities change consumer behaviour and, more importantly, how to adapt their operations to it.”
What is the next big game-changer in retail?
“In Canada, the acknowledgement that every retailer must be omnichannel. The possibilities are immense—instead of serving a neighbourhood, you can serve the world. This requires finding a niche specialty in which you’re totally unique and then getting the message out to the world.”
Which Canadian brands impress you the most today and why?
“Dollarama do a great job. Its private label offering is amazing. Harry Rosen also does a terrific job, with great looking stores, great brands and great use of e-commerce.”
By: Sean C. Tarry