December 11, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson
Well I think, you know, the question of why did I choose McGill and what led me into architecture is an interesting one because as a young boy, I used to like to draw a lot and I’d been successful at winning a number of poster competitions when I was in public school and in high school and my initial desire was to be a commercial artist. And it was while I was in high school that a teacher of mine by the name of Ben Bramble got me excited about architecture. We went to visit two or three architectural offices. One of them, I remember, was Salter Flemming. And Salter was quite involved with the RAIC at the time. And I became intrigued about the whole question of building. And my father had built a couple houses, which I helped him do and I loved the smell of construction. So I decided I was going to become an architect. And initially, I wanted to go to University of British Columbia, which at that time was, you know, I had heard a lot about its School of Architecture out there. And what happened was my parents said that there was no way that they were going to allow me to go thirty-five hundred miles away from home and they wanted me to go to University of Toronto. And I didn’t want to go to University of Toronto. I thought it was too close to home. And that’s how I ended up at McGill University.
I have a lot of fond memories and my wife often is critical about the fact that I’m always talking about the great times, the great period of my life, which was really the five years that I spent at McGill University. And many of the people I’ve met there, I still remain close to and occasionally correspond with. But that has a lot of memories for me. Because I- I still remember the first time I met Jim Donaldson when I was going into the- I had arrived at the school. I had arrived because I had to take this drafting course, John Schreiber’s class, because I was coming into my second year, having a grade 13 curriculum from Ontario and I had done a lot of drafting during the summer so I was trying to get a credit. Well I did get a credit for the course and I ended up having a couple of weeks of spare time so I went and looked for a job and ran into Jim Donaldson. But- and that was- I really don’t have any bad memories of McGill. It was really tough, I remember we used to work a lot of long hours but there was a camaraderie there that existed amongst all of the students. It was very small, as you know, the school at that time. And we worked together, we ate together, we drank together. And some of the fond memories I have is I’m remembering Stuart Wilson having those late night crits, you know. And we would all go down to the bistro and have a few beers before we would show up at the old School of Architecture on Metcalfe [sic: Mactavish], I guess it was, and have our 11 o’ clock crit with Stuart doing his usual thing about putting the cigarette in his mouth with the filtre tip on the outside, everybody panicking that he was going to light it, not realizing that he probably knew exactly what he was doing.
But Peter Collins was another professor that I was very fond of. I loved his course, I thought it was interesting. Jim Donaldson, of course, was the star in the class. And to this day remember the time that we wrote our first slide-show test. I think I got a 72 or something and Donaldson got a 98.
I think it was more than a 72!
Or maybe it was a 60, you know! But I was just floored by the fact because I thought I had answered all the questions. And I went up to see Peter, and of course Jim was there. And, you know, I explained to Professor Collins, “What did I do wrong? I thought I did pretty good on the test and I can’t believe the mark I got”. And he said, “Well, let me give you Jim Donaldson’s paper”. And I read the paper and I said, “Geez!” He had described every little detail: the dimensions of the door column, how many flutes were in the column, I mean I was just- well, there are no flutes in a door column but! But it was unbelievable. The paper was as if he had taken the book and wrote it word for word. So I learned a lot from that and obviously learned how to write a test for Peter Collins and what his expectations were. But I always enjoyed his course and was very fond of the individual. I remember the parties we used to have at the school of architecture and Peter was always there with his wife and again, all the students pitching in and doing the drawings. And there was a real closeness in the school. The faculty, we knew all the faculty members at the School of Architecture and I can almost name them today.
Doug Shadbolt was there at the time.
Yeah, Doug was there. He was our, I think, our- what would be our fourth form design professor. And he wasn’t too happy with me a couple of times. He used to- I remember that he sat me down after our fourth year and said that he felt I could give a lot more to the course than I had given and that I was floating and that I better pick up my socks. And he really scolded me. I don’ t know if I learned, I don’t think I learned anything from that scolding. And I guess in my side, when I look back now, I think if I had to do it all over, I probably would have focused less on the activities, the outside activities of the school and more on my school work. I tended to get involved a lot in student government.
I’d like to talk about that in a minute. I’m just wondering, do you remember Gordon Webber?
Yes, very much. Well, I mean, if I had to name the professors that influenced me the most, I would have to say that they were really Gordon Webber, the ones that really impacted me, Stu Wilson and Peter Collins. The other professors, like Spence-Sales and John Schreiber, who, I liked John, and John Bland, okay, were all important mentors to me but those three in particular seemed to rise above- and even Doug, you know, Doug Shadbolt, but those three in particular seemed to rise above the fray.
It’s interesting, Rudy, there are two that you didn’t mention, and most people of our generation don’t mention, and one is Watson Balharrie. I believe he gave us a business course. Do you remember-?
Yeah, he came down from Ottawa.
He flew down from Ottawa or something and we didn’t pay very much attention to him at the time.
Yeah, and yet, I wouldn’t say that he really influenced me a lot. And I don’t know why, because I think one of the things that we definitely miss in architecture is a very strong course in management and business skills, you know.
The stress is always on design and that’s what-
It is and the attitude is well you’re going to really learn that outside of the school. But I don’t even think the profession does a good job on it, you know.
No, definitely not. There was another one and I want to go further on that but there was Gerry Tondino and I think he was around.
Oh, he was, yeah.
He was around with our Sketching School and also our live model classes.
Right. And, you know, it’s interesting because I enjoyed the Sketching Schools. I thought the Sketching Schools were fabulous, you know. But Tondino, he was great, you know, he was an excellent teacher.
He’s still around.
Thanks for reminding me. He was there when I was back for the reunion.
Yeah, that’s right. He’s still actually around the school. There’s one other person who has just retired, and that is Maureen Anderson, of course, who was a big aid to all of us, I guess, when we were going through. Anyway, you should be doing the talking. Tell me a little bit about the course- is there any particular course that you enjoyed the most? You mentioned history.
Well, History of Architecture I enjoyed a lot and I enjoyed design, I enjoyed drawing. I enjoyed the Sketching Schools, for sure. I though they were great.
And if I remember, you were a student of Frank Lloyd Wright [unclear].
Yes, that is correct. In fact, I’m going to be down at Taliesin West this week, you know, believe it or not.
Of course you would be, well, you’re traveling to Phoenix.
Tell us a little bit about your other activities. I remember you were very active in I guess the architectural and then the Scarlet Key [unclear] and so forth.
Right, right. I was obviously President of the school and during the term that I was President of the Architectural Undergraduate Society, we had the famous walk, which was that period of time when just when there was a number of student walks protests, student protest marches. We organized the protest march for better campus planning. And at that time we were, you know, we were- there was a lot of politicking going on for a new union, a new student’ s union, and for a better campus planning. I mean, you know, Morris Charney was involved and Moshe Safdie and that. And I still have photographs of the march. And I remember the great amount of detail that went into designing the signs and the structure of the signs, you know, supporting the signs were unbelievable, with all these tension structures. And John Bland calling me into the office asking me to- that I had to cancel the march and I refused to do it really on the basis of I said, “If I cancel the march, I might as well leave the school, you know”. And it went very well. It was very well organized. We made our point, we presented our petition to the school administrators and life went on after that, you know. But I also, you know, interesting I got involved and I was asked to join the Scarlet Key, which was a great honour. Obviously, I was represented at many of the functions and I remember specifically being a school representative at the Toynbee Lectures, the Beattie Memorial Lectures, when Dr. Toynbee gave his famous talk and he made a comparison of the Israeli treatment of the Arabs to that of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews and there was a huge riot over that.
I can well imagine.
Time Magazine wrote it up and there was a debate at the Hillel House and it was the first time that I’ve ever found myself in the situation where I was actually a little frightened, because there were so many students trying to get into Hillel House for the debate and many of them had lost all sense of reason and really wanted to get in. And I thought we were going to have a panic on our hands as we were trying to force people to stay out because there were just too many people in the house. But that was an interesting time and an interesting period. And of course that was the beginning of many student marches and protests and it was the beginning of the separatist movement in Quebec. Well, not the beginning but an extension of it. Obviously, shortly after the Vietnam protests, etc. So we were living in a really interesting period, you know as students and trying to find ourselves and our fit in society. Obviously, all of us were very ambitious. We all felt we were going to change the world. And my period on the student council was also a very interesting one with Gordon Echenberg and I think it was Susan Fish was the editor. I’m trying to stretch my memory now.
Well, Gordon Echenberg was still around. I don’t know about Susan Fish.
But it was, you know, the debates were interesting. There was another fellow by the name of Hutchison. I think he was head of the students’ union at that time. But I found that, all that activity, you know, the winter carnival was a great time. And for me, because I belonged to a fraternity, the building of the snow sculptures with our ex-classmate-
Brian McCloskey. And of course, I was a Phi Kap, and we did all these wonderful snow sculptures out in front. Half the fraternity was drunk all the time, but that didn’t really matter. But they were good times, you know. We had no liabilities, we really had no worry about money; money didn’t mean anything to us. And we existed and we had a lot of fun, we made our own fun. And in a funny sort of way, even though we were in Montreal, the campus was our city.
Yeah. Very definitely.
You know, we sort of lived there and ate there and hung around there. And, you know, McGill’s an interesting- I talk to a lot of people down here and it’ s a well-known school in the States and highly regarded. And I talk to people about- when they ask me, “Where did you go?” “McGill”. “Oh, great school”. Okay, and the interesting thing is, it was a campus in a downtown setting, yet it was its own city within a city.
Like even University of Cincinnati, it appears to me it’s a bit more widespread, but it’s not really in the core. Whereas McGill, you couldn’t get any closer to the core. That was the focal point of the whole city.
Right. That’s exactly right. And interesting, I mean, University of Toronto is almost in the core too. Here in the States, a lot of the universities are outside of the core.
You graduated, what, 1962?
Graduated in 1962. Did the usual thing that most architects do: went to work for Arcop as a young architect and many of my classmates were there, including you, Jim. And then subsequent, after working for Arcop for about three years, I joined, I guess, three of my classmates who had started up a practice including, and then Lloyd Sankey was also part of that partnership. I was really with the firm in Montreal and then moved to Toronto for almost fifteen years.
Yeah. I was sick- it was ’79 when I decided that I was really tired in doing small-scale projects and happened to run into a friend of mine who was a partner at Bregman and Hamann.
John King. And John phoned me that evening; I had had lunch with him that day. Told him I was thinking of leaving. He called me that evening and asked if I would be interested in joining Bregman and Hamann as a partner. And we talked and I made my decision to go there and had a very successful career there at Bregman and Hamann. And in 19-
Just before you leave that, when you were at Bregman and Hamann, what was your role there? Were you involved also with developers in high-rise office-?
Yes, very much so. I did a lot of work with Campeau, with Olympia York, okay. Bank of Montreal was a big client that I did a lot of work with. And I guess one of the things I did, even though I was leading the- I had a design team that I was leading, I also had good marketing skills, okay. And I worked very closely with George Hamann. He liked to have me with him all the time. Every presentation that we made, he wanted me to be there. And I developed quite a clientele, a large clientele. But I also really believed in the team. You know, I was not an individual that would want to go out on my own and start my own firm. I really believed in working as a part of a total team, we developed a total team concept or design concept, you know from beginning to end. And I had some success in that. And a unique thing happened to me in 1987. I was in Florida. I was on holidays, got a call and was asked to meet with Mr. Campeau, who had just taken over Allied Department Stores here in the States and he had made this acquisition. It was, I don’t know, two hundred stores, department stores, and he was down in Florida looking at some of the stores. And I met with him and gave him some ideas of what I would do to upgrade the stores. And from that initial meeting, he then started to call me and asked me to join him in trips around the States looking at various properties that he had bought that were part of this acquisition. And about three months later, he made me the proverbial offer that I couldn’t refuse, okay, which was really to come to the States, move to the States and really run the design and construction organization, set up a whole organization to do all the work for Campeau Corporation and Allied Stores, which we did. We moved down here. There was a small department-
You moved initially to Connecticut, New York.
New York. I worked out of New York for a year. Lived in Greenwich, Connecticut. Was involved in two or three- we had two or three really major projects. I hired Skidmore, Owens and Merrill and RTKL for one major project in Boston that we were developing, about six hundred million dollar project. And the Reitmans were involved in it too as a partner with Campeau. And what happened is, he then made the Federated acquisition. Federated at that time was the premier department store chain in the United States
What are the main stores under Federated?
Under Federated, well, why don’t we talk about where are they. At that time, under Federated was Burdines, Bloomingdales, Rich’s in Atlanta, the Bon Marché on the West Coast and Stern’s. What happened was after that- that after we- Federated was taken over, we moved here to Cincinnati. And it was about a year and a half later that Campeau went bankrupt. Obviously, the debt that he had incurred in the acquisition of Federated, he just didn’t have the cash flow to cover it. And at that time, we also owned Ralph’s Grocery Store and Main Street, a discount store, so we started to shed those. But he filed for Chapter 11, Federated filed for Chapter 11. Campeau disappeared. Within two years, Federated came out of Chapter 11, which was the fastest, I guess, coming out of bankruptcy in retail business at that time and still is today, okay. We really made history in coming out. I at that time was building up quite a team, okay, of planners, designers and construction personnel. And what happened was that we then did a merger, okay, with Macy’s. When Macy’s went into bankruptcy, we bought the bonds from Prudential, which gave us a seat at the bankruptcy table. We now controlled, basically controlled Macy’s. And they eventually agreed to be purchased by us. We acquired Macy’s. Subsequent to that, we did a purchase of Broadway Stores and Horne Stores, Broadway Stores in California, Horne Stores in the Pittsburgh area. And today, we have over four hundred department stores in the United States. We do about sixteen billion dollars worth of sales. I have a staff of about one hundred and sixty people and I have offices in New York, San Francisco and here. So I travel a lot. Obviously, as in any corporate organization, I have a lot of executives that report to me that are very talented. And we go to a lot of universities looking for people to see if they’d be interested in getting involved in retail design. We don’t only- you know, my staff not only does new department stores and remodels of department stores, we do all the office buildings for the company, all the credit card facilities, you know. All the- we’re building a new office building in Atlanta for our Federated Systems Group. We’re doing a study now- Federated Systems handles all our systems for our company. They’re a big, very sophisticated organization. We’ re now looking to build a three hundred thousand square foot office building in the New York area for our Federated Merchandising Group. So, you know. I’m in the wonderful position of hiring people like Kohn Pedersen Fox. You know, I work a lot- KPF does a lot of work for us, okay. They’re doing a major project in San Francisco for us, which we’re doing a new Bloomingdales part of a mixed use project with the Ratner Group, developers out of New York. There, we’re doing a hotel, about four hundred thousand square feet of specialty retail, about a hundred and fifty thousand square feet of entertainment, and a new Bloomingdales, the second largest Bloomingdales. And we own the property, okay. It’s right downtown San Francisco.
You’re still very much involved, I guess, in Architecture, because you control all of that. But certainly somewhere along the line, you must have picked up, acquired some skills that you didn’t-. I guess it was on-the-job training. Did you take anything to supplement your architectural knowledge? Because the way you are talking, ideally, I think you indicated, that if you had an MBA in business- you are in a business environment, very definitely. Every part of your life is a- even though you mentioned hiring architects, it’ s a total business enterprise that you’re into.
I consider myself, although I think I have a good taste level, okay, and I have a good design sense, and I do imprint my ideas on architects, you know. But I do it in a very nice way, you know, I suggest that they try certain ideas. I would say that the skill, the one thing that I have acquired, okay, and I really didn’t appreciate before, is management skills. I have the Chairman of Federated, Jim Zimmerman, who was formerly the President, has really taught me a lot in how to manage people, you know, how to manage the business side of the business, and how to empower people, okay. And I think I’ ve really learned that. And here, it’s very structured, okay. We do a lot of things on the business side. I sit on the capital committee so I’m very familiar with performance and the whole financial side of the business and how it operates. And the, I guess, the expertise that I bring to the table, because my group has to develop all the budgets for all of the buildings, is really trying to develop the best design for the least amount of dollars, the most impactful design for the least amount of dollars. And that’s what the expectations are for my group and for myself to lead that charge. I think the biggest difficulty that Jim has with me, Zimmerman, is I lean too much towards the architectural side, okay. In other words, he is often, although he loves the buildings, he said, “Do we really need to- you know, can’t we make it a little simpler?” he says. You know, because his interest is really inside the building shell, okay, because it’s really the retail component, the merchandise component that makes the money. That’s where the customers shop. It’s not the exterior of the building. And my interest is, I really believe that department stores really need to be windows and they’re our billboards, you know.
You couldn’t do the quality of business that you’re doing if you’re in a K-Mart building, that’s the extreme example. And I think all the shoppers, even in downtown areas or in the suburbs are aware of the facility that- with Bloomindales or Macy’s or any of the others. I mean it’s part of the whole package.
But that’s a common criticism I guess of architects that-
It is. And interestingly, we did a- we hired Kohn Pedersen Fox to do a new Bloomingdales in Florida, the Aventura, which was published recently in the architectural magazines. And it’s a very unique building. And I think when you hire very talented architects, you get unique buildings, okay. When you hire architects- and not all of our architects are billboard, okay, premier stars, you know, of the architectural world. A lot of them are your- a lot of projects just can’t afford to have that type of architecture.
But even, Rudy, your previous employer, regular partner, Bregman and Hamann, had a good standard of architecture, a very high quality, good design. There were architects who could create more interesting, perhaps, buildings, but I mean, that’s the quality that you’re always trying to- that’ s the base that you’ re keeping in the States for choosing architects I guess.
That’s exactly right. And you know it’s- we’re getting to a point now where we have sort of a stable of, you know, eight architectural firms that really do a lot of our work that I sort of lean to a lot. And I think that’s natural. People develop relationships.
One of the questions and then we won’t try and tire you. It’s too early in the day. In terms of the interior of the store, that’s a specialty, I suspect.
Whether Bloomingdales is different from Macy’s. And how do you go about doing the interior of the store? Is that interior designers or are there people on your own staff who do that?
Well, we have a lot of- on my staff, we have a lot of architects and interior designers. And the two people that sort of lead that charge, first of all, my sort of senior planner-designer is a fellow by the name of Scott Meyer, who is Canadian, actually, but really grew up in the States and went to school in California. He’s an architect by training, okay, and got all his training- what’ s the name of the firm? There was a famous California, LA firm that got into store planning and design. I’m trying to think of their name, I can’t remember it.
It began with a- was it B? One of the names of- anyhow, it’s not relevant. It wasn’t Frank Gehry, that’s for sure!
No, no, no. This goes back during the fifties and sixties, you know. But it’s not an area where a lot of firms specialized and most of our students come out of UC, which has a - or DAP, because it also has fashion as well as architecture and planning and graphics so it has a number of disciplines. And we get a lot of trainees who come here for three months and go back to school because they have that type of system there. And so we have a lot of very talented architects that come from UC that work here. We get a lot from Parsons School of Design, okay, in New York. And most of my staff either have an engineering degree or an architectural degree. Even a lot of the fellows that focus on the construction end, you know, manage the process from that side, are architects by training.
You know, the question if I had to do it all over again, would I do anything different? I think the only thing that I would do different would be that I would have supplemented my architectural degree with an MBA. In today’s world, I really think that getting that grounding in finance and in management is something that everybody should do. And I think in the- we really lacked that in the School of Architecture at that time. I don’t know if it’s improved since then but I really think that there needs to be more focus on the management- developing management skills and developing financial skills on how to run a business, okay, and what are the expectations of running a business. And I know Lloyd used to give a course on development, which is also important. Really understanding that side of the business, the marketing side, the management side and the financial side of not only architecture, but you know, doing case studies of other situations that happen, which is what-
Even, Rudy, a simple matter like project management.
There was none of that at all and I’ve had people extol on that subject saying that, you know, they’ve learned by their mistakes, which sometimes are quite costly in project management.
That is correct. I mean, we spent a lot of time on developing the tactile and the sensory aspects, okay, and the theory of architecture, which was great, but we really need to balance that with the business side of architecture. Because the truth of the matter is, out of everybody that graduates, out of all the graduates that come out, very few will become the premier design architects, you know, in the country. And most of us will generally go into practice, have a nice little architectural practice, you know. We really don’ t get the respect that architects should, okay. And for whatever reason, I don’t know. But my sense of it is that when you sit across the table from a businessman who is schooled in the art of finance, if you can’t communicate and speak his language, you’re at a disadvantage. And so for me, you know, I would have liked to have taken an MBA course. Now, the MBA today, every school has an MBA course, I mean, across the country, I mean it’s almost a standard on the university circuit today. But I think that’s what I would’ve- and you know, I had ample opportunity of doing it all through my career.
Is it a year, a year and a half maximum if you go in full-time?
But a lot of that in hindsight, it always sounds as if you did have the time but at that particular time in history, you might have been a little reluctant.
Well, I think what happens is, you have other responsibilities. You get married; you have children, a family. I mean, how do you all of a sudden break away and decide you’re going to go…
Not very easily.
…back to school. Not very easily, exactly!
Any final thoughts? I think you’ve sort of indicated what you were. I guess all I can say is thank you very much. I very much appreciate it and I [unclear] being with an old friend.
Well, thank you. Yeah.