The miracle worker

In hiring his daughter, Sam Steinberg chose well

Hartley Steward April 18 1977

The miracle worker

In hiring his daughter, Sam Steinberg chose well

Hartley Steward April 18 1977

The miracle worker


In hiring his daughter, Sam Steinberg chose well

Hartley Steward

Word had already spread throughout the store, rapidly and urgently: “It’s Mitzi! There’s Mitzi! There, that’s her—that tiny lady in the middle.” Sales girls nudged one another and giggled, bouncing on tiptoes behind their counters to get a glimpse of the entourage drifting along the aisles. Around a corner, by men’s wear, came Mitzi Dobrin and, indeed, she was that tiny lady in the middle—at four feet, 11% inches in height, and weighing just 105 pounds, the vice-president and general manager of the Montreal-based Miracle Mart Stores and—not coincidentally—the daughter of Sam Steinberg, chairman of the board of the giant Steinberg’s Limited supermarket chain, which owns Miracle Mart. By this time, everybody knows that

Dobrin has arrived, flanked by the store manager and one of his department heads, both six-footers who tower over her. Dobrin is waving her arms and talking business. She demands to be told about the stylish new picture frames she wanted stocked, whether the ski equipment is still on display and why Miracle Mart isn’t carrying a particular line of skis. She is putting them on the spot, there in the crowded aisle on a busy Saturday afternoon while the sales girls giggle.

Harvard business school graduates would shudder: in the textbooks this kind of behavior represents the ultimate insensitivity of the boss toward employees. It is just not done. Especially, one supposes, if you are the boss’s daughter. But appear-

ances and the Harvard business school not withstanding, the store manager and his department head seem to be enjoying it no end. No one, save an outside observer who could not possibly understand what’s going on, is in the least embarrassed. It was Mitzi Dobrin, after all, who took over this shambling wreck of a company four years ago, when it was floundering dangerously on the brink of bankruptcy, and gave it a sense of direction and pride and consequently saved the employees’jobs. And this typical scene in the crowded aisle, it turns out, shows how she did it. Here is where one begins to understand this Horatio Alger story turned upside down: of how the boss’s daughter started virtually at the top, saved the company and in the end even achieved a different kind of celebrity by being appointed to the board of directors of the Royal Bank when pressures rose recently for the major chartered banks to take females into their senior ranks.

Mitzi Dobrin is the eldest of the legendary Sam Steinberg’s four daughters—the son, some say, that “Mr. Sam,” one of five sons of Ida Steinberg, who founded today’s empire on the basis of a small groceteria opened in Montreal by his mother in 1917, never had. Whether that’s accurate or not, Mitzi Dobrin was 42 before she ever worked an official day in the family business. But in the middle of the 1973 golf season in Montreal, Mr. Sam met his daughter coming off the links and in desperation asked her to join the troubled Miracle Mart division of the Steinberg empire.

It was a new idea, but a surprise to no one, including Dobrin .TheSteinberg business has always been a family affair. For almost 60 years, the larger-than-life personality of Mr. Sam has moved the empire, from success to failure and back to success. It still does. And always, when times get rough, he has turned to the family. Brothers, brothers-in-law, sons-in-law and nephews appear with clockwork regularity in executive positions. In the late Sixties, when the whole Steinberg operation was suffering, its stock dropping alarmingly on the market, the company began agonizing over continuity and the question of how to choose a successor as president to M r. Sam. His management committee begged him to consider someone from outside the family. “Sam,” they pleaded, “you don’t understand. Everybody is saying that the important decisions of this company aren’t

made by the management committee. They’re made at the Steinberg family’s Friday night supper. That’s what’s hurting us.” Unmoved, Mr. Sam appointed Mel Dobrin, his son-in-law and Mitzi’s husband, to the presidency. (The Dobrins dwell in a large but not ostentatious house in Montreal’s posh Town of Mount Royal district. The pair share a deep passion for Canadian art and own a collection of paintings by the Group of Seven that Mitzi admits is “fantastic.” It is probably the largest privately owned collection of the Group held anywhere in Canada.)

By 1973, the food division of the company was healthy once again, reinforcing Mr. Sam’s faith in his kin. But the discount retail business of Miracle Mart appeared to be strangling; one problem seemed to be a surfeit of management.

The Miracle Mart Stores, not to be confused with the Miracle Food Mart chain, were launched in 1961 to take advantage of the popular Steinberg name in Quebec and other parts of eastern Canada. Unfortunately, Miracle Mart was created by people who had previously specialized only in supermarkets. As a result, the Marts featured row upon row of bins jammed with cheap sweaters and crumpled skirts. The quality was around the dime store level and the philosophy was sales at all costs. Mannequins to display clothing were unheard of and display meant gigantic signs announcing low, low prices. The company lost money for seven straight years. Between 1969 and 1973 it experienced a brief flurry of success, then, once again, fell back into the red. It fumbled rudderlessly until Mr. Sam once again turned to family.

In 1973, 42-year-old Mitzi Dobrin had no plans to enter the family business in any division at any level. Her children, one daughter and two sons, were nearly grown up and she had finally completed a law degree at McGill University. (An earlier course in commerce was abandoned when marriage and children came along.) That year, she was busily making plans to open up a law practice in partnership with several classmates. “It’s funny,” she recalls, “but even though I wasn’t planning to get into the business, I always knew I would. When my father asked, I knew—had always known deep down—that someday that’s what I would do.” Despite the fact she had never actually worked anywhere in the Steinberg empire, she was far from unfamiliar with the problems and workings of it. She always took an interest and there was never any shortage of opportunity around the Steinberg household to talk business. Mr. Sam even used to take her along to sit in on management meetings and she sometimes accompanied him on buying trips. There are those now who explain her present success in terms of some sort of commercial osmosis that must have taken place in the Steinberg home.

Evin so, when she came to Miracle Mart

it was in the tradition of second-generation employees everywhere. She started at the bottom, working in one of the 31 stores, an outlet in Montreal’s west end. But Mit^i Dobrin is not a humble person and that humble beginning lasted a mere three months. She decided she was quite qualified for the job of general manager. “I watched and listened,” she says. “I saw some of the decisions being made and I decided I could make better decisions. I thought what was needed was common sense, and I had that.”

And so once again a Steinberg took charge; but this was a Steinberg who had not been formally trained in the business—and to many a complete outsider. This Steinberg was a generalist lawyer who had done only a little legal aid work, a housewife and mother who admits having been attentive to her children to “the point of being ridiculous.” A Steinberg with a background so bereft of actual business experience that her appointment to the general managership seemed to smack of plain old nepotism. Yet the fact remained that this was nonetheless a Steinberg. Behind her was the magic and power of the name, and the wealth of the empire. But more important, she seemed to possess a calm confidence, the deep security and the familiarity with accomplishment that only comes from the kind of privileged upbringing that Mitzi Dobrin knew. That is the kind of base from which daring springs. It was from this perspective that Mitzi Dobrin could approach the job of solving Miracle Marts’ troubles.

The early decisions were tough and critical, the need for ruthlessness essential. The new general manager began with a fairly bloody purge. She called in her senior executives and laid it on the line. “I told them 1 had an investment in the company that deserved a return. I told them: ‘I’ve got to

set goals and you’ve got to help me reach them.’ They knew it would take hard work and responsibility. If they didn’t want to change old habits, I told them to look for another job.”

As a result, no fewer than a dozen toprank people began looking for other jobs—some at Dobrin’s insistence, some of their own volition. Then, Miracle Mart had been supporting 13 merchandise managers. Today, there are three. Of 60 buyers, only 40 now remain. Morale came crashing down. Says John Pritchard, who moved to merchandising manager from senior buyer after the purge: “There was this feeling after a while that maybe everyone was going to go. You sort of sat around and wondered who was going to be next. I know I wondered.”

Dobrin admits that the “bloodbath,” as The Financial Post termed it, brought Miracle Mart morale to rock bottom. But she insists now, and nothing about the place belies her, that today morale is soaring. “It had to be done,” she says. “At the time there were too many people who thought the higher up you went and the bigger your salary became, the less responsibility you had to take. Even I knew the opposite had to be true if things were going to work. The fact is, they [company executives] were behaving as if there was no end to the money they had to spend.” By 1975, the upheaval had ended and Miracle Mart had pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy and was breaking even.

Now, on this wintry Saturday afternoon, Dobrin has slogged her way through the snow and slush of suburban Montreal. She is making her customary Saturday tour of Miracle Mart stores. Her second stop is the Greenfield Park store and she is talking to store manager Pierre Corbeil, who despite his young looks has been with the company for 15 years. It is a monster of a store, with row on row of merchandise, jammed to the limit. The store is packed with customers, but Dobrin is not here to talk volume. She wants, among other things, to know about the bicycles and the skis. She is animated. Her bright, blue eyes are alight

and the movement of her arms threatens to lift her diminutive body right off the ground. How come, she wants to know, the bikes are arriving unassembled this year? Pierre allows he doesn’t know. They came that way and he doesn’t like it. “1 don’t understand it,” she says. “1 just don’t understand it.” She takes out her little leatherbound notebook and makes a note. “I’ll call and see about this.” Corbeil nods and smiles.

About the skis? Is it true he’s selling some brand-name skis for $20 less than a local sporting goods store? How can he do that? And why don’t we have the Fischer skis that the other store has? Aren’t they

pretty popular? Pierre Corbeil is not intimidated by the lady boss. He is a confident young man and seems to relish the exchange. “Before,” he says, in a soft French-Canadian accent, “I would see nobody in head office from year to year. I never knew what anyone was doing. Someone would send me some merchandise and I would do my best to sell it. Now I have someone to talk to about the merchandise, someone to complain to, someone who will do something about it. We get things done around here now.”

Dobrin talks. To everyone. About everything. And she asks questions in the man-

ner of a woman obsessed by the need for answers. Some of her executives may sound sycophantic in cold print, but they don’t in conversations. “Î don’t really know how to explain it,” says Sam Halpern, her general merchandise manager. “But it’s as though her questions delve one step deeper than most. She keeps delving deeper with more questions. You can’t say to her: ‘Well, that’s the way it’s done.’ She wants to know why it’s done that way and not some other way. You can’t fake your way through anything with her. I learned one thing about Mitzi very quickly. If you don’t know the answer, you better admit you don’t know. Because she’ll keep asking questions until it becomes pretty obvious that you don’t.”

Says regional manager Peter Manzi, who meets with Dobrin at least once a week: “She listens to people in the store at every level. She listens to everyone. Her door is always open. She gets you involved in everything. It’s hard to explain exactly, but if I have a problem, I simply tell her. Together we try to solve it. It is very easy with her.” John Pritchard calls her the “greatest motivater I’ve ever seen. She’s involved, interested and she’s learned the most amazing details of the business. I have yet to see an employee who is not moved by her enthusiasm to try new approaches.”

Dobrin’sskiils are appreciated outside of the company hierarchy as well. Rachel Malo, president of the Quebec Labor Federation-affiliated union that represents Miracle Mart employees in Montreal, says that “Mitzi Dobrin is a relentless worker and has made miracles at Miracle Mart. She comes into the store and talks to the sales women, who like her. They even get their pictures taken with her.” But Malo admits that in 1974 Miracle Mart employees did have to strike to win contract demands, and she feels that there are still

problems arising from the fact that “management doesn’t always interpret the collective agreement very well.” Despite that, Malo is inclined to view her boss as something close to “the ideal woman.” Investment analyst Martin Kaufman observes that “Miracle Mart in relation to Steinberg’s is not yet making a big profit. But Mitzi Dobrin has cut out a lot of dead wood and succeeded in getting a team together and creating an identity for the place.”

At the outset, when Dobrin had the an-

swers to some of her questions, she says, she went looking for solutions. The long aisles and the bins of clothes closed the customers off from the merchandise, she thought, so she hired the New York firm of store designers, Copeland, Novak & Israel. The bins began to disappear to be replaced by circular racks. Mannequins rose to form stylish displays. “We have begun to open up the store,” she says. “We have a long way to go, but some day we’ll do them all.” She decided that the end had come to the discount buying boom and that people wanted quality, not just quantity. She began, as they say in the retail business, to trade up, bringing in brand name clothes and sporting goods with recognizable names. Miracle Mart began to drop the discount image and take dead aim at the classier department stores. By 1976, Miracle Mart, finally, was in the black.

In her unpretentious office in the Alexis Nihon Plaza in downtown Montreal, even as the sun begins to melt the snow from the suburban golf course she loves to play, why is the daughter of the chairman of the board, the wife of the president of the corporation, spending her Saturday afternoons worrying about the delivery of new picture frames, unassembled bicycles and fancy skis? The answer: her consuming interest in Miracle Mart. She sits behind her desk, vital and engaging, like some animated doll dressed up in a pantsuit, and waves away the question with an awkward smile and a cliché or two: “I love it,” she says. “Every day there is something different, some new problem to solve. I enjoy the people and the problems.” The question is answered in another way by an employee. “There’s a lot of Mr. Sam in Mitzi. So much, in fact, that she’d like to prove she can do a better job than even him.” And in 1977, Miracle Mart is expected to have its best year yet. cÿ