Linda Goulet’s career in entrepreneurship began as a child: The daughter of two entrepreneurs, she found her life’s calling when she started working for the family business. In the course of her 47 years employed in a range of positions, she gradually worked her way up the ladder to become president of Panda Shoes. Today she’s planning for the day when she passes on the business to a third generation.
The story begins with Linda Goulet’s father, Philippe Goulet, who was a shoe salesman. One of his customers was one Mr. Gascon, who owned a shop called Panda (founded in 1947) on Saint-Hubert Street in Montreal. Philippe Goulet bought the business in June of 1972 and the very next day brought in young Linda, who was 15 at the time. The eldest of three children, Linda Goulet was the first child to join the family business (Lola Goulet, Linda’s mother, took care of the accounting), working on a part-time basis. Her younger brother Claude joined her not long after. The family rapidly grew the company and began selling franchises beginning in 1974.
After post-secondary studies in health sciences, Linda took a year off from school and started working as an assistant manager of the Panda store in Rosemère, which was incorporated at the time. During this period, the family purchased a Panda franchise located in Repentigny and sent Linda there to handle the business. Mere weeks after her arrival, Linda announced her intention to buy the store from her family. After receiving financing from her parents, Linda invested her own savings in the project, paid back her debt to her parents and doubled her sales, all within a single year. This marked the start of a great adventure for the young entrepreneur, who went on to buy and sell subsidiaries under the Panda banner until she finally joined the head office in the late 1970s.
The succeeding decades were focused on growing the business and increasing the number of franchises, which lasted until the late 1980s. At the same time, Linda and her two brothers founded another company, Panda 3G, to help franchisees and buy back certain franchises. The siblings took over the company at the turn of the millennium, then the youngest brother left the business a few years later, leaving Linda and Claude Goulet at the helm until Claude’s death in 2018.
After its glory days in the late 1980s, when the company had attained 75 points of sale across the province, Panda needed to restructure in the 1990s following the recession and an accompanying slowdown in business at some shopping malls. Wary of the franchise model, the siblings bought out their main franchisee and his 11 stores in 2013, which now meant the company owned 14 corporate stores and 10 franchises.
Today Panda Shoes nees to integrate a web presence to continue its growth. But the Goulets don’t do anything too hastily, preferring to make calculated business decisions. Panda Shoes faces unique challenges in online sales, since the work of fitting children’s shoes, which is its specialty, needs to be done in-store. Nevertheless, in the retail sector, shoes are a product that is particularly popular online, according to the entrepreneur.
“One of our challenges is being able to provide the kind of customer experience our clients are used to in an online store,”
- Linda Goulet
In order to achieve its goals, Goulet sought out guidance from CEFRIO in 2017 under the aegis of its SME 2.0 program. The process, which was “enormously helpful,” according to Goulet, enabled Panda to establish a strategy and become the first retail company to receive investment from Investissement Québec to facilitate its digital transformation. Since then the team has benefited from incremental investments to successfully develop a site that would enable in-house management and, above all, provide real-time access to store inventory.
As for opening new retail stores, Goulet feels the company currently has locations in the right places—a mature chain of retail stores that requires a minimal population base to ensure its survival. “It’s not the number of stores that matters, it’s the quality,” she emphasizes. “After 40 years, we know what works and what doesn’t. So I’m cautious about new openings.”
A female-dominated family business
One of the peculiarities of Panda is its workforce, the majority of which is female, both in retail locations and at the head office. Of the 13 employees at the head office, 10 are women, including Goulet’s own daughter, who just sort of “fell into the business, like I did when I was young,” Goulet says, and who represents the future of the company.
In addition to leading Panda in the right direction, Goulet is involved in Quebec’s community of women in business. “Women underestimate their abilities and overestimate what it takes to start a business. You have to dare to take on the challenge, and keep working at it all the time, and take pleasure in your accomplishments. After 47 years in business, I have fun, and that drives me even further.” As a member of a group of women executives, the CQCD and the board of Détail Québec; having been invited to join the Cheffes de file initiative; as a member of the Cercle Omer DeSerres; and as a finalist for the women in business award at Québec 2017, Linda Goulet is busier than ever and continues to develop her network in the retail sector, which she sees as an “important” aspect.
The Company in Numbers
14: Corporate stores
1: Store in Ontario
72: Year of operation under the name Panda
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