Mal Coven – a major figure in Canadian retail

Mal Coven

TORONTO — Long before Wal-Mart established a beachhead and then a mighty presence in Canada, the BiWay chain sated the desires of Canadian shoppers hungering for quality merchandise at bargain basement prices.

With 249 discount stores in eight of Canada’s 10 provinces, BiWay carried name-brand apparel and general goods ranging from household goods to health and beauty products.

“It was a working man’s store,” said Mal Coven, one of its proprietors, in an interview.

A major figure in Canada’s retail scene for about three decades, Coven looks back at his career in his forthcoming autobiography, How to Succeed in Retirement by Really Trying and the BiWay Story.

Scheduled to be officially released on April 14 at Indigo’s Manulife branch, six days after his 83rd birthday, it will be sold on from April 17 onward.

Published by BPS Books, Coven’s book is a breezily written memoir of a marketing specialist who earned a degree in business administration at a Jesuit college and cut his teeth at an iconic department store where bargains were supposedly born.

Coven’s volume is also an account of a surprisingly shy man who found true love in Quebec’s Laurentian mountains, proved his acumen as a retailer in Toronto and dabbled in a series of entrepreneurial projects after his retirement.

Above all, it is about the highly competitive world of retailing in which he excelled.

Born in Boston, the son of a pedlar originally from Lithuania, Coven studied at Boston Latin School, the oldest public high school in the United States whose graduates include Benjamin Franklin and Leonard Bernstein.

Coven considered dentistry and teaching before deciding to study science and business administration at Boston College. Fresh out of college, he dreamed of becoming a buyer at Filene’s, whose low prices revolutionized American retailing in the 20th century.  

Having failed to get into Filene’s executive training program, Coven was crushed. He turned to his cousin, an accountant and one of the founders of Staples, for advice.

His cousin said, “If you want to work for a company, go there and take any job. You are better off on the inside looking in than on the outside looking in.”

Acting on this sage recommendation, Coven accepted a position as a temporary stock boy at Filene’s, which closed late last year. Promoted to buyer after a phenomenally successful campaign to sell snowsuits in July, he remained with Filene’s for the next decade.

He ascribes his success to two factors: determination and luck. “You need both to succeed,” he said.

During a vacation in the summer of 1956, Coven drove to Montreal to see an old friend. Much to Coven’s disappointment, he had gone to Winnipeg.

On a whim, Coven headed to the Laurentians. Stopping in Ste. Agathe, a resort favoured by Montreal Jews, he checked into a family hotel. At a dance, his life changed when he met his first wife-to-be, Miriam Fish, whom he described as “a tall, beautiful blond.”

Miriam’s brother, Abe, a retailer, eventually invited Coven to be a partner in his discount store in Toronto, one of the first of its kind in Canada. (Abe’s brother, Morris, a lawyer, is now a judge on Canada’s Supreme Court).

Having dreamed of opening his own store, Coven jumped at the opportunity. ”We were partners from beginning to end.”

Arriving in Toronto in 1962 as a landed immigrant, Coven took charge of BiWay’s 1,600-square-foot store at the corner of Islington and Albion, in the west end of the city.

Thanks to its formula of carrying brand-name jeans such as Levi’s and Lee and selling them at reasonable prices, the store was a great success in terms of sales. “We were making about $800 to $900 per square foot,” he recalled.

He avoided low-quality goods. “I never bought anything that I’d be ashamed to bring home to my family,” said Coven, who has two children, Robin and David.

Coven, who became a Canadian citizen in the mid-1970s, prospered as he and his brother-in-law opened more BiWays.

After opening the fifth BiWay store, Coven’s friend from Boston, Russ Jacobson, was offered a partnership in the expanding company.

“Abe, Russ and I continued to do our thing. Abe was the chief executive officer. He bought and supervised the health and beauty aids, negotiated new leases and, I would say, was the father figure. Russ and I were responsible for the buying and merchandising of the soft goods and in the preparation of the advertising.”

 He added, “At our peak, we were among the top 50 discounters in North America. In Canada, we were the fifth-largest seller of clothes.”

By his reckoning, half of all sales were in apparel, followed by linen and bedding, health and beauty aids, and household and seasonal goods.

Dylex, a Canadian retailing conglomerate whose holdings included Tip Top Tailors, Harry Rosen, Thrifty’s and Big Steel, was so impressed by BiWay’s track record that it purchased a 50 per cent equity in the late 1970s, when the chain had grown to 15 stores.

“We were by far the largest of the 10 chains in Dylex’s portfolio,” said Coven. “We were generating as much as 40 per cent of the profits.”

Coven left BiWay in 1990. “I had had enough.”

Biway did not survive his departure. Acquired by a U.S. dollar-store chain owned by an Israeli corporate raider, it was ultimately shuttered.

“No one could run BiWay the way we did,” he said. “It was never the same without us. It was a hands-on business.”

During his post-BiWay phase, he invested in an electronics store that ultimately failed and brokered the sale of Winners – a women and men’s wear chain – to an American company.

In retirement, Coven has gravitated to promoting cute novelties. He refers to these endeavours as “fun projects.”

Some of the novelties, such as Italian Baseball Cards, have failed. But others, namely Pinky Puppets, have gained traction.

Lately, Coven has been working on his newest project, My First Car, a driving aid.

As always, he is busy. Never a dull moment for this bold entrepreneur.