Jacqui Cohen set to celebrate Army & Navy’s 100th

Vancouver businesswoman stays true to her grandfather's retail strategy

CEO Jacqui Cohen outside the Cordova Street Army & Navy. Key to the department store’s success, says Cohen, is never losing sight of founder Sam Cohen’s credo: “Buy cheap, sell cheap. Pass the deal on to the customer” | Chung Chow

At age 65, with her Army & Navy Department Store chain turning 100, seasoned businesswoman Jacqui Cohen is feeling inspired and vindicated.

She stands next to a hot dog stand that workers are constructing inside her flagship Cordova Street store and reveals what she thinks some people in Vancouver social circles are saying: “Who the hell would have thought that little Jacqui Cohen – trust-fund brat, jet-setter, whatever – would still be standing, and that Army & Navy would turn 100 years old?”

She has watched significant retail department-store chains come and go – among them, Woodward’s and Sears Canada, which dissolved completely, and the U.S. multinational Target Corp. (NYSE:TGT), which briefly entered Canada in 2013 before announcing a brisk retreat 22 months later.

Yet her five-store chain has persisted as a stable and profitable operation.

“I am woman, hear me roar,” Cohen said. “That’s how I feel.”

She said that she wishes ill will on no competitors, but that every time one of them goes out of business, she feels “prouder and prouder.”

Target’s mistake, Cohen said, was that its executives failed to listen to customers and instead stuck to ideas that were out of touch with the market.

“I’ve never deviated from Grandpa Sam [Cohen]’s philosophy, which was ‘Buy cheap, sell cheap. Pass the deal onto the customer,’” she said.

Age-old promotions, such as seniors’ day discounts on Tuesdays, help her bottom line. So do annual extravaganzas such as her shoe sale. She is gearing up, however, for what she calls the sale of the century – a five-day blowout at all of her stores – Vancouver, New Westminster, Langley, Calgary and Edmonton – starting May 1.

To get ready for that mega-sale, Cohen has renovated her Cordova Street store by taking out some non-structural beams and some walls to create a more open feel. Walls are now painted white, instead of beige, to help products stand out and to make the place look bigger.

That illusion of size is important because Cohen has closed half of what was her old 100,000-square-foot store. The store previously had an unusual layout, which covered two buildings. Now, one 50,000-square-foot building, which had an entrance to West Hastings Street, is closed.

It was previously accessible from what is now the 50,000-square-foot Cordova Street store via a sky bridge and ground-floor doors, which required shoppers to cross an alley that often houses homeless people and drug users.

“It’s the Downtown Eastside,” Cohen said. She said she will focus on what to do with the West Hastings Street building when she is ready, because “holding power gives me a lot of options.”

She is so busy with Army & Navy renovations and celebrations surrounding the chain’s 100th anniversary that she is also “pushing the pause button” on her 30-year-old charity, Face The World, which is known for attracting celebrities such as Tom Jones and Goldie Hawn to Cohen’s home and raising $18.5 million for causes such as helping abused women and underprivileged children.

Cohen vowed that the gala will return next year.

One of her proudest accomplishments is that she has not sold her family’s real estate holdings. Among the prized properties is the 13-storey Dominion Building, which was the tallest commercial building in the British Empire when it was completed in 1910. It is now assessed at more than $40.2 million, or slightly more than the assessed value of her Point Grey Road home.

She owns the real estate under all of her Army & Navy stores except for the one in Langley, as well as a patch of undeveloped land in Port Coquitlam and a home near the University of British Columbia, where her 87-year-old mother, Marlene Cohen, lives.

Holdings also include most of the block around the Cordova Street store – properties such as the Hildon Hotel, a parking lot and a head office building.

“I did inherit my real estate portfolio but it takes a lot of skill to not screw it up,” she said.

She once briefly considered building condominium towers above her Cordova Street store while keeping the facade, which dates back to 1889.

“There was a time, when Woodward’s was on the cusp of being developed, when I thought, ‘I want to do what [developer Ian] Gillespie did. I want towers. I want a phallic symbol that says I was here. You know, you get over that,” she said. “Who wants to deal with the city?”

Cohen reveres her grandfather, who founded Army & Navy in a small space at 44 West Hastings Street when he was 22 years old. His father, Jacob Cohen, had operated the Jacob Cohen and Sons store, which was also on West Hastings Street.

A large framed photo of Sam Cohen sits on a side table in her office and is positioned so she can look at it as she sits behind her large wooden desk.

Her father, Jack Cohen, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was in his late teens. As a result, his father wanted to protect him by not forcing the management of the business on him, Cohen said.

When Sam Cohen died in 1966, he left his fortune to his three grandchildren in trust accounts that were each valued in the eight figures.

“Grandpa Sam never thought it would be me [who would run Army & Navy],” Cohen said. “He thought it would be Jeffrey.”

Tragedy struck, however, when Jeffrey Cohen died of a drug overdose in 1978, and in 1982, when Cohen’s sister, the then 28-year-old Karen (Kayce) Cohen, died after losing control of her Ferrari on the Stanley Park Causeway.

Jacqui Cohen’s daughter, Kasondra Cohen-Herrendorf, manages the Dominion Building, operates her own charity, Face of Today, and, according to Cohen, “is not that interested in retail.”

While Cohen has no plan to retire, she said that her succession plan is to leave the business to her daughter, “and, hopefully, little Kasondras one day.”