Heather Reisman, CM, entrepreneur, business executive (born 28 August 1948 in Montreal, QC). Reisman is best known as the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Indigo Books & Music, Canada’s largest book and specialty toy retailer, and the co-founder of Kobo, a top global e-reader maker. She holds honorary doctorates from several universities and a bachelor’s degree in social work from McGill University.
Heather Reisman was born in Montreal, Quebec, to a middle-class Jewish family. Her father, Mark, was a real estate broker; while her mother, Rose, owned a high-end clothing store where Reisman had her first job folding clothes (see also Clothing Industries). She is the niece of Simon Reisman, who was Canada’s chief negotiator for the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (see also Free Trade). Reisman was passionate about reading from an early age and used her allowance money at age 11 to join a book-of-the-month club.
After completing a Bachelor of Social Work at McGill University, she worked as a caseworker with troubled teens. She married and had two children, but the marriage was unhappy. Following her divorce, she joined her brother Howard’s computer company as an executive before co-founding strategic change consultancy Paradigm Consulting in 1979. In 1982, Reisman married investor Gerry Schwartz, whom she had met during a business deal. She moved her consulting firm to Toronto, where Schwartz lived.
Reisman served as Paradigm Consulting’s managing director for 16 years. She then headed Cott Corporation, a bottler of soft drinks, from 1992 to 1994.
Founder and CEO of Indigo Books & Music
After leaving Cott, Heather Reisman was contacted by Borders, an American chain of bookstores, to act as a local partner for their expansion into Canada. When the venture failed to receive required federal regulatory approval in Canada, Reisman decided to start her own big-box bookstore chain. Indigo Books & Music was officially launched in 1996. As a voracious reader herself, Reisman believed it would fill a consumer need in Canada. To launch the chain, she had the financial backing of her husband, Gerry Schwartz, the founder and CEO of Onex Corporation, one of Canada’s largest private equity firms (see Gerry Schwartz: Profile).
Starting with the first Indigo store, in Burlington, Ontario, in 1997, the chain quickly enjoyed immense success and grew rapidly throughout Canada, selling books, music and DVDs. In 2001, Reisman acquired top competitor Chapters (and its subsidiaries Coles and SmithBooks) in a hostile takeover helmed by Schwartz, a merger and acquisition expert (see Chapters Bid). This transformed Indigo into Canada’s largest book retailer, a position it has retained ever since. While many stores continue to operate under the Chapters banner, Indigo is now active in all 10 provinces and one territory (Yukon). The first US Indigo store opened in Short Hills, New Jersey, in 2018.
Inside the Indigo store at the Eaton Centre in Toronto, Ontario. The words “The World Needs More Canada” run along a wall displaying the names of Canadian authors. Photo taken 9 August 2008. (courtesy Matt Gromes/flickr CC)
As the book industry became upended by digital technology and electronic books, Indigo’s early books-first approach struggled to find a footing and the company endured several years of million-dollar losses. Reisman decided to transition Indigo and Chapters into cultural department stores for book lovers. She added home decor, gifts and specialty items, and launched a product design and development studio in New York. Led by a creative director, the studio creates lifestyle products, including table linens, picture frames and glassware. Reisman has also partnered with specialty toy brands, like the American Girl line of dolls, to sell their products in Indigo stores. Her vision of store transformation and reinvestment has proven a huge success and generated high growth for Indigo.
Co-Founder of Kobo Inc.
In 2009, Heather Reisman co-founded electronic reader maker and platform Kobo Inc., as a spinoff of Indigo. Within two years, Kobo had become the most popular e-reading platform in Canada. But the high cost of running Kobo and fighting digital giants Apple and Amazon for domination of the e-reader market put a drain on Indigo’s resources. In 2011, Reisman decided to sell Indigo’s majority stake in Kobo to Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten for US$315 million. The advantageous deal, which included a 10-year partnership on electronic book sales in Canada, meant Indigo obtained a five-fold gain of $165 million on its initial Kobo investment of $31.6 million.
Board Memberships and Other Affiliations
Heather Reisman is a former member of the Steering Committee of the Bilderberg conference, an annual meeting of Europe and North America’s business, political and academic leaders. She serves on the boards of numerous organizations, including the Sinai Health System in Toronto and Onex Corporation. She is also a former governor of the Toronto Stock Exchange and McGill University. Reisman and Schwartz sit on Right to Play’s global leadership council.
Reisman was a prominent supporter of the Liberal Party until 2006, when she decided to support Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper due to his backing of Israel in the Middle East crisis. While she has since been less publicly involved in party politics, she has continued to donate to both parties, as well as to Conservative, Liberal and NDP candidates and ridings.
Heather Reisman supports a variety of charitable and arts organizations through the Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman Foundation, established in 1992. She has also raised funds for medical research and Jewish and Israeli organizations.
In 2004, Reisman founded the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, of which she is chair, with a mission to get more books in under-resourced public school libraries. The foundation has since donated $28 million to Canadian schools.
In 2005, Reisman and Schwartz established the HESEG Foundation to help former “lone soldiers” — non-Israeli volunteers in the Israel Defense Forces — settle and pursue education in Israel after their military service. In Canada, Reisman’s support of this cause has drawn protests from opponents of Israel’s military activities in the occupied Palestinian territories. Demonstrators have picketed outside Indigo stores and, in 2010, some Mount Allison University staff petitioned against Reisman’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from the institution. Reisman has rejected critics’ claim that HESEG supports war, stating that protestors have twisted the facts.
Reisman has endowed the Heather Reisman Chair in Perinatal Research at the University of Toronto and Mount Sinai Hospital, which is also home to the Schwartz/Reisman Emergency Centre. Along with her husband, she created the Gerald Schwartz/Heather Reisman Centre for Jewish Learning at Holy Blossom Temple, a Toronto synagogue of which they are members. Reisman has donated generously to the United Jewish Appeal. Vaughan, Ontario, is home to the Schwartz/Reisman Centre, a Jewish community centre.
The couple has also funded science education initiatives in Israel, including the Schwartz/Reisman Science Education Centers and the Schwartz/Reisman Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
In addition to her two children from her first marriage, Heather Reisman has two stepchildren with Gerry Schwartz, and nine grandchildren. A lifelong bookworm, Reisman still tries to read a book a week.
Honours and Awards
- John Molson School of Business Award of Distinction, Concordia University (2000)
- International Distinguished Entrepreneur Award, University of Manitoba (2003)
- Honorary Doctor of Commerce, Ryerson University (2006)
- Visionary Award, Waterloo Regional Entrepreneur Hall of Fame (2006)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, Wilfrid Laurier University (2009)
- World’s Top 50 Business Women, Financial Times (2009)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, Mount Allison University (2010)
- Henry Singer Award, Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta (2011)
- Retailer of the Year, Retail Council of Canada (2011)
- Member, Order of Canada (2012)
- Honorary Doctorate, Francis Xavier University (2013)
- Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award, Women’s Executive Network (2014)
- Companion, Canadian Business Hall of Fame (2015)
- Desautels Management Achievement Award, McGill University (2015)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Manitoba (2016)
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, McGill University (2017)
- Honorary Doctor of Philosophy, Weizmann Institute of Science (2017)