In the summer of 1954, a 15-year-old boy named Albert Bensadoun boarded a boat in Morocco. Albert was chaperoning his sister Anne-Janie and her date as they crossed the Mediterranean to France. On this trip, Albert met a girl he fancied, who told him that his name was confusing. There were two other Alberts on board, she said. Why don't I call you Aldo?
For the Bensadoun family, the boat ride was significant for two reasons: his sister would end up marrying her date, and Albert's new name stuck. Six years after stepping off that boat, Aldo Bensadoun moved to Montreal and started what would become the largest fashion footwear company in the world.
Today the Aldo Group sells some $1.8 billion worth of shoes a year and has 1,600 stores in 80 countries around the world. As the company celebrates its 40th year in business, the brand commands a virtual lock on the vast (and vastly profitable) middlebrow global fashion footwear market from its Montreal head offices. It has also succeeded where other Canadian companies, from Le Chateau to Canadian Tire, have failed: converting success at home to success abroad.
"They've got to pump it out and get it on shelves as quickly as they can."
The secret, apart from the vaguely European-sounding name bestowed on Bensadoun, has been the company's ability to detect and synthesize fashion trends, then distill the results in footwear form faster and at less expense than anyone else. The company then sells its wares through the Aldo brand and Call It Spring, its lower-priced cousin, as well as through its wholesale division to JC Penney and Coles Shoes. "The high-volume fashion industry is all about chasing trends," says Montrealer Brandon Svarc, owner of the fashion line Naked and Famous Denim. "They've got to pump it out and get it on shelves as quickly as they can." Aldo does just this, and because of its huge number of stores around the globe, the Montreal shoemonger essentially has no rivals anywhere near as big or efficient in what is an otherwise highly competitive industry.
At the heart of the operation is Aldo Bensadoun himself. Today, "Mr. B," as everyone is meant to call him, is a kind-looking 72-year-old with perfect, almost luminescent white teeth and dark brown eyes that seem to smile whenever he does. He often strolls, almost invisibly, about Aldo's cavernous glass-and-stone headquarters in an industrial section of Montreal.
He got into the shoe business, he says, "by accident." He arrived in Montreal in 1960 on a weekend escape from Cornell University and was enamoured enough with the city to stay for good. In the mid-'60s, the self-described hippie who hung out at Café Santropol, then a hothouse of Communist ideas in Montreal's Plateau district, landed a job with the president of Yellow Shoes to design a system of shipping shoes between the warehouse and the store. Bensadoun wanted to strike out on his own, and on a visit to Italy he saw how women were wearing clogs under their bell-bottom jeans. With Italian designer Gianfranco Fornari, he grafted the leather upper typical of a Swedish clog onto the elevated sole of Japanese geta wooden sandals. He sold them out of a Le Château consignment space in downtown Montreal. "I had maybe 60 pairs of clogs—they sold in a couple of days," Bensadoun says. "And that's how it started."