Women of the Year 2021: Roots CEO Meghan Roach is Leading a Heritage Brand Into the Future
From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.
What is your elevator pitch to the world?
Meghan Roach: I am a strategic and results-driven investor and CEO focused on values-driven transformations and leaving each situation in a better position than I found it.
What excites you most about the work that you are doing?
Meghan Roach: Each day brings with it a new opportunity and challenge and the ability to make lasting change. Whether it takes a day, a month, or a year, it remains exciting to see the moment the hard work pays off, and something changes for the better.
Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?
Meghan Roach: As a strong Canadian brand, Roots should represent and feel welcoming to all. Over the last two years, I have spearheaded many programs aimed at achieving these goals. These have included the creation of a Diversity, Equality, Equity and Inclusion (“DEEI”) Council, the launch of our first DEEI engagement survey, signing the BlackNorth pledge and the Dear Everybody Agreement, and the contribution of more than $2 million in cash and in-kind donations to organizations across Canada. In September, we also launched One, a collection of sustainable fleece products with a gender-free fit and extended sizing, which speaks to Roots and my long-term commitment to welcoming more people into our community.
What do you think is unique about your story and trajectory?
Meghan Roach: My professional trajectory has been somewhat unconventional, and becoming a public company CEO at 37 with two children under five has also created unique challenges. I did not rise through the ranks in retail to become CEO. Instead, I spent most of my career working with consumer brands as an investor and board member. The years of working with global brands gave me unique insights into the inner workings of these businesses and hundreds of examples of diverse leadership styles, which prepared me for my current role.
What do you think makes for a great brand experience in today’s retail landscape?
Meghan Roach: In addition to making great products, I believe brands need a clear purpose and values that align with those of the consumers they seek to engage. With the global nature of consumers and the ease of access provided through online channels, brands must also create a consistent in-store and online experience, which includes having great people that represent the brand’s values when engaging with customers. The purchasing process remains as much about the product as it does about the emotional connection you create with customers and brands that seek to resonate need to understand the shared values driving customers to choose them.
Roots has a manufacturing presence in Canada. Why does ‘Made in Canada’ matter today?
Meghan Roach: As a brand synonymous with quality and comfort, Roots has always sought to make products that meet the high-quality standards expected by our customers. Since 1973, we have maintained these standards by creating handcrafted leather products in our Toronto-based leather factory and pairing them with exceptional apparel products sourced locally and globally. Our leather factory remains the heart of the Roots brand, and its artisans hold specialized expertise and knowledge of our heritage that a factory outside of Canada could not replicate. Outside of our leather factory, we continue to find ways to support communities across Canada by employing more than 2,000 people in our stores, distribution center, and head office.
You are responsible for leading a heritage brand with very strong cultural roots. How do you lead a company into the future and embrace innovation without sacrificing the integrity of its history?
Meghan Roach: Leading a heritage brand requires a deep understanding of the underlying values and factors leading to its success and where the brand sits in the minds of its customers. Whether it was the iconic hat from the 1998 Olympics or the creation of two-colour twisted and textured yarn for its Salt & Pepper fleece in 1979, Roots has been a brand focused on innovation since its inception 48 years ago. These innovations combined with the brand’s ability to make us feel like we belonged to something bigger and the uncompromising comfort and quality of its products made us fall in love with Roots over the years.
In that way, the Roots of the future does not look that different from the Roots established in 1973. We are focused on reinvigorating the brand love amongst our customers by re-embracing our innovative roots, creating engaging moments and experiences, and embracing our communities to develop solid cultural roots that resonate with today’s youth.
How do you define responsible and ethical manufacturing?
Meghan Roach: Responsible and ethical manufacturing balances awareness and fair treatment of communities working across the value chain. This type of manufacturing also integrates materials and processes that reduce harmful impacts on natural resources. At Roots, we are continually improving our awareness of our shared supply chain’s impact on nature and communities. We own and operate a leather factory in Toronto, and through this lens, we define and set our standards for responsible and ethical manufacturing with our global partners. Roots is deeply engaged on these matters with suppliers, employees, customers, investors, and industry associations. Ultimately, responsible and ethical manufacturing requires coordination and cooperation across the value chain.
What are you doing that no one else is doing?
Meghan Roach: While it may seem unusual, I actively seek out situations where my team and I can fail. I ascribe to the theory that failing often creates a great environment in which to learn and mature. When I first joined Roots, I described the culture I wanted to build by reading a passage from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt referred to as ‘Man in the Arena’. It speaks to the importance of ignoring critics and celebrating those that attempt deeds, even if they fail.
Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better?
Meghan Roach: A few years into my career, I left an established firm in Toronto to pursue my MBA at Oxford. Remaining in London after finishing school, I joined a newly established private equity firm with global operations and worked on developing their consumer practice. My years spent working with that fund enabled me to evaluate and partner with companies across Europe and to gain exposure to the operations of premium and luxury brands. By taking the risk of leaving a known entity and exploring new opportunities, I honed the skills that have become essential in my current role and developed the tools needed to confront the challenges our industry faced over the last year.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve led the company?
Meghan Roach: Over the last two years, I have learned the importance of understanding and prioritizing my stakeholders’ needs ahead of personal goals. To create short-term success while making the investment needed for the long-term, this role and the pandemic have required regular pivots and a significant amount of emotional fortitude. By making decisions aligned with the brand’s values and in the best interest of those relying on me, I learned ways to persevere and developed tools to navigate through the uncertain times.
What has been the most challenging part of leading the business?
Meghan Roach: I became CEO of Roots in January 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of that year. My strategic plan for the company became irrelevant almost overnight, and we faced the prospect of an uncertain and volatile operating environment for an indeterminate amount of time. As a new CEO, I had to implement a strategic transformation while ensuring the business could withstand the obstacles it faced during the pandemic. While Roots now has more robust fundamentals than when I started, it has taken resilience and perseverance to work through the last two years.
What has been the most rewarding part of leading the business?
Meghan Roach: As an iconic Canadian brand, Roots has significant brand awareness and an incredible reach that we have been able to use over the last two years to amplify the stories and actions being taken by those in our community making meaningful change in society. It has been rewarding to see the positive impact on our charitable and community partnerships and to become personally involved in many initiatives.
What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building a company or assuming a CEO position?
Meghan Roach: Ask yourself why you want the position. Are you seeking the title, or do you genuinely believe you can add value to the business in the role you are pursuing? While becoming CEO offers a unique opportunity for personal learning and development, when challenging situations arise, a leader needs to be governed by a more profound sense of purpose to make the right, often difficult decision for the business. A person solely focused on their own accomplishments may not have the fortitude to work through challenging problems.
What is the biggest lesson you learned in the past two years as the world navigated a global pandemic, social justice movements, and more? How will it inform how you move forward?
Meghan Roach: Before the pandemic, work and life, for many, were more compartmentalized. The lockdowns and remote work as well as the numerous social justice movements that occurred over the past two years forced those lines to blur, and they now no longer exist in the way they previously did. This shift has caused me to spend more time listening and considering the factors impacting people outside the work environment. Those insights have driven me to become a more empathic leader and have informed my approach to post-pandemic work structure and culture.
How did you support your team and/or community during this time?
Meghan Roach: The pandemic broadened my understanding of the factors outside of the physical office environment that meaningfully impact an individual’s work. Accordingly, our primary focus was implementing strategies that recognized and embraced the whole person. I collaborated with leaders to establish new objectives and target results focused on outcomes rather than where or how individuals achieved goals. We normalized the blur between work and life that placed pressure on many employees, particularly caregivers, by encouraging employees to take the time they needed to deal with the realities of the pandemic. For example, we had many parents stepping away from calls to deal with homeschooling and young children making Zoom appearances. We also invested more heavily in mental health and wellness and safety equipment for our staff.
In the community, we also focused on helping those most in need by creating care packages for frontline workers and donating clothing to hospitals when scrubs became scarce early in the pandemic. In addition to our broader charitable partnerships, we also donated more than $1 million in apparel to Brands for Canada, which helps families in need across the country.
What is the mission of your brand? The bigger picture?
Meghan Roach: At Roots, guided by our founders’ love for the Canadian wilderness, we are inspired by the drive to escape outdoors. Whether it is a neighbourhood walk or a hike in the woods, we believe it is human nature to want to breathe in the fresh air, wander new trails, experience organic connections, and rejuvenate outside. We consider connecting with nature the key to a happy and healthy life and believe everyone can feel at home in nature when given the tools to move freely and feel great.
What is one lesson that you hope people will learn or walk away with when engaging with your brand or from your work?
Meghan Roach: Confidence comes from within, and while we cannot rely on others to build this for us, small things can make a big difference—whether that is seeing someone you relate to in an advertising campaign or as simple as being able to take comfort in the clothes you wear.
Who is a woman in the community that you admire?
Meghan Roach: While Michael Budman and Don Green are known as the founders of Roots, their wives, Diane Bald and Denyse Green played substantial roles in the development of the brand while raising five children amongst them and pursuing other significant professional endeavours. During my early career in finance, finding female role models or mentors proved challenging and made it difficult to chart my personal and professional growth path. Over the last two years, Diane and Denyse have provided invaluable support and insights, and their passion for life remains incredibly inspiring.