Love affair with Toronto helps hat retailer stand out from the pack

Love affair with Toronto helps hat retailer stand out from the pack

Snapback caps and fedoras line the shelves in neat, colour-co-ordinated rows at Brimz, a downtown Toronto store in the city’s hip Queen Street West neighbourhood.

It’s a small space with a big following that includes Serge Ibaka of the Toronto Raptors and Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs, as well as the musicians Karl Wolf, Jazz Cartier and Belly.

“It’s been a process understanding our business and what our customers want,” says Dameion Royes, who is chief executive officer and co-owner of Brimz Group Inc. with business partner Jack Vilayvong. “But we know we’re doing something right when guys like [U.S. rapper] Swae Lee come here – the way he reacted to the product and the amount of product he bought, it affirms that we’re going in the right direction.”

The right direction wasn’t so clear to Mr. Royes five years ago, when he started to rethink his path in life and business. He had achieved a degree of success as partner and co-founder of Big It Up, a Toronto retailer that had initially sold men’s skincare products when it launched in 1996 before switching to hats.

Open this photo in gallery Dameion Royes in his Queen Street West hat shop, Brimz.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail
But Mr. Royes was ready for a change. So he left the house he had been sharing with his business partners and, as part of his separation agreement with the company, took ownership of the Queen West store, one of six sites Big It Up was operating at the time.

“I had a great relationship with my partners – we had the nice house, the cars and all that stuff,” recalls Mr. Royes, who is in his 40s. “But by that time, I wanted to live together with my girlfriend and was making other life changes that were going against the grain of the business.”

Breaking up a business partnership to make way for changes in one’s personal life may seem like a drastic course of action. But it’s not that unusual for entrepreneurs to take a new direction once they’ve reached a certain level of success, says John Stix, a public speaker on leadership, corporate culture and transformation and co-founder of the telecom firm Fibernetics Corp. in Cambridge, Ont.

Not everyone can step away from the business they built. That’s why Mr. Royes’s decision to separate from his partners was a brave step, says Mr. Stix.

Open this photo in gallery At Brimz, Mr. Royes and his co-founder started producing merchandise that reflected their love of the city and its musicians, artists and athletes. JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail
“Sometimes we lose ourselves within the business we created and we have to find ourselves again,” he says. “That’s an inner journey you have to take to make sure everything is in alignment with what matters to you as an individual, and sometimes that means breaking up with your business partners.”

Despite efforts by all parties to work toward an agreement that would satisfy everyone, in the end the split was painful, says Mr. Royes. For one, the store his partners gave him had been a poor performer for Big It Up, he says.

“I had actually asked for another store, but my colleagues gave me this store,” he says. “I had to muster all my creativity to turn it around.”

Revenue at Brimz started at $200,000 in its first year and has since grown by about 30 per cent in each subsequent year, says Mr. Royes. The business, which he says generates a profit, has also expanded from its bricks-and-mortar beginning into online sales as well as vending machines at two sites, including Toronto Pearson International Airport.

“I have a friend in finance who tells me that this doesn’t happen commonly in retail,” says Mr. Royes. “He says it’s based on something magical we’re doing.”

The magic may be in the Toronto-loving culture at Brimz. At one point in the company’s infancy, Mr. Royes and Mr. Vilayvong started producing merchandise that reflected their love of the city and its musicians, artists and athletes.

Open this photo in gallery
This FlyYz snapback cap from Brimz is a tribute to the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Brimz FlyYz snapback caps ($50), for instance, are a tribute to Toronto’s Blue Jays baseball club, while the company’s 416 Code hats ($50) sport the city’s original telephone area code.

“Brimz started to become a trendy cultural hub and beacon for Toronto,” recalls Mr. Royes, who creates the concepts for the hats together with Mr. Vilayvong and a team of in-house designers. “When people came here from places like New York, L.A. and Japan, we didn’t just sell them product, we became tourist guides who pointed out hot spots, good food and all the great things about Toronto that we love showing off.”

Mr. Royes has learned lessons along his entrepreneurship journey. After high school, he studied business and marketing at Humber College, where he learned the importance of having a champion on his side when a professor pushed to have Big It Up products sold in the college bookstore. But it was his classes in philosophy at York University that “really opened my mind to the possibilities of what I can do,” he says. “I learned that if you believe in something, then you have to walk toward it to make it happen,” he says. “And you need to use everything you have in your tool bag.” That tool bag should include a mind that’s always open to ideas, even when they’re coming from people outside the business. The idea to sell in vending machines, for instance, came from an entrepreneur who dropped in to the store after seeing a Brimz hat on the head of one his customers.

“This guy owns a business that sells vending machines, and one day he comes into our store and says, ‘I have an idea that I think would be great for your business,’” says Mr. Royes. “We ended up working with him.”

Brimz is built on personal relationships, says Mr. Royes, who notes that many loyal customers are friends and family of the people who work in the store. To extend that personal touch to online customers, Mr. Royes and Brimz staff slip handwritten thank-you notes into shipping packages.

He and his partner have made a few mistakes along the way, including a significant investment one summer in handcrafted Panama hats, which they brought in from Ecuador. The products didn’t sell – an outcome Mr. Royes attributes in large part to the abundance of “cheap and cheery” Panamas at other retailers.

As Brimz grows, Mr. Royes is determined to stay away from the mass-market trap of simply cranking out merchandise. 'You need to have soul – it sucks to just sell product,' he adds.                 JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail
The lesson for Mr. Royes and Mr. Vilayvong? While it’s good to try new things, they should also focus on the product line that’s bringing in the most revenue.

“Our caps sell the most, and the beauty is they extend us into different markets,” says Mr. Royes. “We design and manufacture caps for companies and restaurants, and when we’re creating tour merchandise for celebrities they consistently ask for caps.”

As Brimz continues to grow, Mr. Royes is determined to stay away from the mass-market trap of simply cranking out merchandise. Creativity is a currency, and “if you’re born to create you have to fight to do it by all means,” he says.

“You need to have soul – it sucks to just sell product,” he adds.

While that may sound like a commitment to keeping the business limited and small, there are many examples of successful companies that have built global empires on products that convey soul and creativity, says Michel Falcon, a Toronto-based expert on corporate culture.

“You could build a corporate culture on a vision of soul, and scale your company based on how you want your products to act and feel like,” he says. “Brimz is actually in a good position to be building its culture now because it’s much easier to define your organization’s DNA in the early days.

"And it sounds like they’ve got a good leader who’s already living and breathing his vision of soul every day.”

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