Bloom is in the race to win

Slightly more than three years ago, it appeared as though Toronto was withdrawing permanently from the community of cities around the world that host marathon runs.The Toronto Marathon's major sponsor, Wang, withdrew its support in 1988, resulting in cancellation of the...

Slightly more than three years ago, it appeared as though Toronto was withdrawing permanently from the community of cities around the world that host marathon runs.

The Toronto Marathon’s major sponsor, Wang, withdrew its support in 1988, resulting in cancellation of the 1989 marathon.

The future of the event, which requires extensive planning and logistical support along a 26.2-mile route, looked grim.

Title sponsor

Then Shoppers Drug Mart stepped in as title sponsor.

The event has grown and improved dramatically under the Shopper’s name.

Judging from the list of world-class runners who led about 6,200 participants in the Oct. 4 event, the Shoppers Drug Mart Toronto Marathon is on its way towards fulfilling the promise of David Bloom, Shoppers’ chairman and chief executive officer, of turning the run into one of the top five marathons in the world.

Award of Excellence

Bloom, who was recently awarded the CEO Award of Excellence by the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Public Relations Society, shared his thoughts on what it took to make the marathon a success, and on marketing in general.

‘You have to have a vision, and you need to be prepared to work hard to fulfill it,’ he says.

‘We took on the Toronto Marathon, certainly not to let it be a flop. We said we’d give it all the resources it needed to be a success, and I don’t just mean money, but people as well.’

Shoppers made some important decisions early on.

The company decided, for instance, that the race would be cosmopolitan, to reflect the nature of Toronto.

Runners were invited this year from such countries as Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Morocco, Ethiopia, Denmark and Poland.

Involved community

‘We also said that it was going to be an event that really involved the community,’ Bloom says. ‘It wasn’t going to be just a race for a few hundred elite runners.’

Bloom left the technical aspects of the race in the hands of the professionals, but he remained close to all planning. ‘I was involved in every meeting,’ he says.

And, Bloom says, Shoppers remained flexible to change.

‘When Reebok came in as a presenting sponsor, we said, `Join us and give us some of your vision,’ ‘ he says.

Bloom’s philosophy of what makes partnerships work is summed up in a saying that sits on his desk in plain, clear plastic – not a fancy gold-plated picture frame, he proudly points out.

It reads: ‘There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go provided he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.’

Bloom gives credit for the marathon’s success to the many organizers and sponsors who have tied into the event, which has become more than a 26.2-mile run.

There is the marathon itself, which continues to attract a certain kind of athlete, as well as a 10-kilometre race, sponsored by Novopharm, a wheelchair race, sponsored by Canada Trust, a corporate relay, sponsored by the Metroland Honda Dealers and, finally, a student relay for the United Way.

Proceeds from the event – a cheque for $57,000 – went to the Hospital for Sick Children’s Foundation.

Bloom says he knew instinctively that the Toronto marathon was a potentially good fit for Shoppers when he was approached by Nina Kaiden Wright of Arts and Communications Counsellors more than three years ago.

acc works for the Ontario Track and Field Association in helping to find sponsors and in all matketing suppprt activities.

Shoppers, which was already sponsoring about 1,500 sports teams through its 672 stores across Canada, seemed like the right company to approach.

The run was a natural tie-in to Shoppers’ corporate goal of promoting good health and fitness. Bloom did some quick research, and after attending the New York City marathon, felt even better about the idea.

‘We said, `Yes, so long as we could shape the event,’ ‘ he says.

‘Not the technical side, like planning the course. We said, `Let that be handled by the professionals. But the management of the event and the marketing, we said that if it’s going to be carrying the Shoppers Drug Mart trademark, it had to be first class.

Shoppers added the wheelchair element, a 10-km. run and the corporate relay to expand the interest and community appeal. Participation grew to about 3,500 people and it was carried on tv by The Sports Network.

This year, the event was aired on national tv by the cbc and, in addition to the 6,200 participants, the marathon has turned into a sponsorship vehicle for 40 brands and companies marketing everything from sports-related foods and equipment to local media outlets.

Reebok was a significant addition to the team, bringing with it all its broad experience in organizing mararthons, from the route itself to advice on signage at the finish for optimum exposure on tv.

And Shoppers has found its stride, adding such innovations as a promotion in which someone could win a Honda to help build the crowd at the finish area at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.

‘My role throughout was to provide the vision,’ Bloom says.

‘What could we add to the event to build excitement and quality?’ he asks.

‘My goal all along has been to make this event read quality and professionalism. It had to have a human touch and broad community appeal. That was the vision: to turn it into a community event that appeals to five different publics.

Bloom says his role with respect to Shoppers Drug Mart ‘is to protect and enhance my trademark. The marathon had to be the same level of quality.

‘And we’ve accomplished that,’ he says, pointing as evidence to a kudo from The Toronto Star the day after the marathon in its darts and laurels feature.

The Star gave Shoppers credit for having turned the marathon around.

‘The answer is simple, really, Bloom says. ‘If you add something, if you bring in quality sponsors, if you do something well and give back to the community, you can make it a winner.

‘We saw a need, and we saw a challenge,’ he says. ‘Sometimes it’s more of a challenge when you have to resuscitate something. We knew we had to suffer through the first few years, and now we’re reaping the benefits.

‘We also brought in great partners – I think the expression is: `If you’re in the spotlight alone, sometimes you only see your own shadow.’

‘And we never lost sight of the vision. I could see it all put together. And, of course, there was the commitment. Not just money, but a lot of time.’

Bloom’s approach to the marathon mirrors the way he runs his company, which he says is a direct reflection of the style and thinking of the drug store chain’s parent company, Imasco.

‘We have the latitude to develop our own stratgey, and within that strategic framework we operate in a democratic, participatory way,’ he says.

‘Ultimately, I am the ceo, and I make the call if it comes to that. But most of the decisions are made democratically.’

Shoppers stores are run by pharmacist owners, and the chain is organized into five regions.

Senior executives meet in committees and manage the process in a way that the regions have input in major national decisions.

A marketing operations steering committee, for example, vets and has a say on all marketing programs across the country.

‘The process allows us to collaborate on our thinking,’ Bloom says. ‘When you put groups like these together, not only will they do the right thing, but they’ll do it right.’

He explains his rationale this way: ‘None of us is as smart as all of us. That’s the essence of the participatory process.’

Other aphorisms come tumbling out of Bloom as he expands on his philosophy of management.

‘I believe in delegating, not abdicating.

‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.

‘Speed is the currency of the 1990s.’

He keeps on top of things with lots of strategy meetings with senior management. Several times a year he will take a few key people and spend a couple of days at his chalet north of Toronto for think-tank sessions on important issues.

‘Sometimes you have to get outside the nine dots and think things through without any distractions,’ Bloom says. ‘But you’ve got to plan these meetings selectively. You can’t do it all the time’

Bloom is also a great believer in his own intuition.

He says instinct is important, not just in being able to spot emerging trends, but in being able to interpret them.

He travels a lot to observe how other retailers operate. He is an avid reader and is involved in a variety of diverse organizations. He believes in the positive elements of group dymanics, in remaining flexible and being willing to change.

Bloom says some people might wonder about the necessity of change when you are successful at something.

‘I say, the time to change is when you are successful,’ he says.

‘I set very high goals for myself but I also believe that you have to have fun working. I think that if you work well together with others, you can have fun.

‘We have a saying: `Planning our work, and working our plan.’ We may not always succeed, but we never make the same mistake twice.’