The Friday Five: Doug Putman
What attracted you to the Toys”R”Us and Babies”R”Us Canada brands?
I think we all remember those brands. As kids it was the iconic, “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys’R’Us kid”. They are phenomenal brands. There’s not a better toy retailer to be a part of. I didn’t even have a second thought — if you can make it work, you do it. For me as a toy lover, just being lucky enough to be part of it is great.
How did the closing of Toys”R”Us in the United States affect the Canadian retail landscape?
I think there’s a gap in the marketplace in the United States. Obviously, Walmart and Target are still there, but nowhere else carries the same breadth of options and opportunities for discovery. On the Canadian side, had Toys”R”Us gone away — if Fairfax hadn’t purchased them — it could have been even worse. The reality is that only a few toy retailers exist in Canada. It’s something I’ve heard over and over again from people since I bought the brands — people are glad it’s still here and here to stay.
Is play taken for granted — do we make enough time for play these days?
We really don’t make enough time for it.
At the Toys”R”Us head office, every day we’re having Nerf fights. The people in the office think I’m absolutely nuts because they’ve never seen an owner like that. I think the reality is, we grow up and start to take everything way too seriously. Play is important even for adults — just playing with your kids and having fun and letting go. We’re so tied to our phones, we’re tied to social media, we’re tied to work — we’re tied to all these things and don’t give ourselves even 20 minutes a day to act silly.
I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. I watch her and everything in life is so fun for her — waking up, going to bed, playing in her crib with her stuffed animals. That’s the lens I always want to look at the world through and I try and remind myself of that. The world is a special place and we’re very lucky in Canada. We really can’t take that for granted — we should enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with being silly. There’s nothing wrong with having a Nerf gun fight as an adult.
The other day, I rolled down a hill with my daughter. I thought I was going to die. I remember how, as a kid, I could do that for hours. I’ve lost my ability to log roll at 37, but that’s the kind of stuff we kind of forget about as we get older. We shouldn’t be so serious with our kids; let them play in the mud, let them do their thing. Let them be kids. I think it’s a really important piece, and I think it gets overlooked.
You dropped out of business school and now you’re a successful entrepreneur with several businesses under Putman Investments. What do entrepreneurs need to know that isn’t taught in business schools?
Education is great and it definitely opens doors. But, being personable, understanding other people’s positions, being able to get along with people, building good rapport — those equally important soft skills that we forget about. But in business, they are literally the most important thing. I’ve yet to have someone ask me about my education when I sit down in a meeting. So much of business is personal. I wouldn’t buy a company from someone I really didn’t like and I don’t think very many people would sell me a company if they didn’t like me. We don’t talk about that enough and we don’t teach it. Numbers are great — it’s important to understand your numbers and it’s important to understand how to make a business successful. But those soft skills just don’t get thought about enough.
What’s your vision for the evolution of the Toys”R”Us and Babies”R”Us Canada brands?
The biggest change we want to accomplish is to make the stores more fun. I want our store associates to play and look at the store from the perspective of a five-year-old child. Understanding what makes the stores fun for a child is important for Toys”R”Us. Kids don’t leave the store and think, “that colour palette was off”, or, “I didn’t like the merchandising”. It’s a toy store — it should be fun for them.
For Babies”R”Us, it’s really important that our associates be the most knowledgeable in the baby category and help people navigate becoming a parent and how scary that can be. It’s okay as a parent to not be positive about all the things. Whether you buy this stroller or that stroller, the kids will grow up and it will be okay.
Our stores have the best selection in Canada. You can’t get more toys in a physical retail store. By default, we accomplish a lot of what people want in the shopping experience. We want to work at having that fun reflected at the store level. Fun should be a key part of any job. Why do something for eight hours a day if you’re not having fun?
Read the official press release: Putman Investments to purchase Toys”R”Us and Babies”R”Us Canada.
Five questions, one fascinating person (or team!) – look into the minds of movers and shakers in the nostalgia, game, play, or toy industry.