Roots of Success

A footwear company launched by two Detroit natives included a novel cast — Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Martin Short, and Eugene Levy.
Michael Budman and Don Green
Roots Canada founders Michael Budman (left) and Don Green met as teens at a summer camp in Canada before launching their footwear company.

It’s a weekday afternoon at Camp Tamakwa and the first thing Michael Budman wants his conference call audience to know is that the weather is absolutely spectacular. “Beautiful blue sky and it’s a little hot,” he exults. “I’m getting ready to jump in Smoke Lake and take a 20-minute swim. What’s it like in Toronto, Don?”

Don Green is Budman’s longtime friend and co-founder of Roots Canada, the iconic global brand that sells everything from apparel and activewear for men, women, and babies to leather goods, accessories, and home furnishings. The two met at Camp Tamakwa when they were kids, in the summer of 1962. A decade later, they launched a footwear company in a modest store along Yonge Street in downtown Toronto.

“Clouded over, humid, it’s warm,” Green dutifully reports. “No rain at the moment. I’ll see you there soon.”

The two grew up just minutes apart in Detroit — Green in Palmer Woods, at Woodward Avenue and Seven Mile Road, and Budman at Livernois and Eight Mile Road — but they’d never crossed paths before that summer. Budman is a few years older, and at the time he met Green he’d just finished his sophomore year in high school. “The highlight of my academics was playing on the hockey team for Cranbrook High School,” he recalls with a laugh.

Green’s sports background was slightly more eclectic.

“I lived across the street from Palmer Park, and the golf course there had a big influence on my life,” he says. “I started playing when I was just 7 years old, and it was memorable place because it was mixed, but mostly black golfers, and it’s where a number of the Motown artists played golf. So Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye would be playing there, and I met them. I was a little white boy who could play golf well, so they all got a kick outta that. That was a fun part of growing up.”

When he became a teenager, Green was introduced to Camp Tamakwa. Co-founded in the mid-1930s by a Detroit nature-lover named Lou Handler, the camp is located in Algonquin Park, Ontario, about 175 miles north of Toronto, and was already a well-known summer destination for kids from across Ontario and the Midwest.

“I was 13 in 1962,” Green says, “so Michael would have been 16. Three years is a bit of a difference when you’re that age. But we became friends at camp. Michael was sort of a big brother to me. He’d been to the camp before. It was my first year, and he helped guide me.”

One measure of their shared passion was Detroit’s pro sports teams — in particular, the Red Wings. “Michael’s idol was ‘Terrible’ Ted Lindsay,” Green says, “and mine was Gordie Howe. I had pictures of Gordie plastered in my bedroom. I loved the guy, and I tried to play like him.”

That fall, Budman left Cranbrook to finish his final two years at Mumford High School. “But it turned out we were both in the same high school fraternity,” says Green, who attended Grosse Pointe University School. “It was called Marcus. It was coincidental, but because we had that Camp Tamakwa experience, and then we were fraternity brothers together, we really bonded.”

From Mumford, Budman headed to Michigan State University. Green followed a few years later. “At Michigan State we were in the same fraternity,” Green says, “Zeta Beta Tau, and we became really great friends in college and had a lot of great times together. We both had cars, and we’d go from East Lansing to Detroit and go out to dinner, and we’d go to the football games together.”

They also spent a lot of time throwing ideas around about creating a business that would allow them to work together, but not in their hometown.

“Detroit, at the time, in the early ’70s, wasn’t that opportunistic for us,” Budman says. “We felt there was a lot of opportunity in Canada and we wanted to be near Algonquin Park. We loved nature and said to each other, Maybe we can do some kind of business together in Canada, in Toronto, and make our lives there.”

Budman graduated from MSU in 1969 and immediately moved to Toronto, where he taught history at a local high school. Green followed in 1972, and the two were soon holed up in Budman’s tiny cabin in Algonquin Park — it lacked electricity and running water — and began brainstorming in earnest.

“I think the concept of bringing something new to the market was really healthy and sound,” Budman says. “We discarded lots of things (like) water beds, which fell by the wayside. And there were two yogurt companies in Toronto at the time. We looked deeply into potentially going into the dairy yogurt business.”

Hanging out with friends, they learned about an interesting experience at a store in Ann Arbor.

“They were selling the Earth Shoe,” Green says, “and there were only two stores selling it — one in New York and the one in Ann Arbor. So we went to the store, saw the shoes and how busy it was. It was very hippie-ish and it appealed to us. We found out who was importing the shoes and went to New York to meet him.”

Michael Budman, Don Green
Budman (rear) and his wife, Diane, own Camp Tamakwa, while Green and his wife, Denyse, are residents of nearby Algonquin Park.

The plan was to cut a deal with the importer to sell the shoes in Canada, but he wouldn’t go for it. The fledgling partners seemed to be at a dead end. Luckily, both had the good fortune to be sons of established business leaders. Don’s dad, Irwin, ran Century Products, an auto parts manufacturer in Detroit. Just up the road in Warren, Michael’s father, Albert, led Budman Co., a home improvement business.

“They were both entrepreneurial,” Green says, “and hence, by osmosis, we got some business common sense and acumen from them. And they both said, Forget that guy who won’t let you import his shoes. Why don’t you look into making the product yourselves in Canada? And that’s really where we got going on the project. We dug in and were able to meet great makers of footwear in Canada who guided us on the right path, and we came up with a shoe that actually did great things for your back. We put together a couple hundred pairs of shoes and opened one store in Toronto in August of 1973.”

Soon after, another Detroit connection proved to be advantageous. Gilda Radner and Budman were friends from Mumford High and Tamakwa, and she was starting her comedic career at Toronto’s Second City Theater, along with an array of now legendary stars.

“Marty Short, John Candy, Andrea Martin, and Eugene Levy were at Second City, too,” Green says, “and they all lived in the area where our store was. They’d come into the store during the day and actually help us sell Negative Heel Shoes. You’d walk into the store and see Danny Aykroyd talking about our shoes like he was doing his Bassomatic routine (on “Saturday Night Live”). And you’re not going to say no to that. It all spread like wildfire, and it was unbelievable. Fad-like proportions. All word-of-mouth. It all took off so quickly.”

So did the personal lives of the two partners: Their first outside hire was Denyse Tremblay, who was brought in to manage the Yonge Street store and became the company’s design director. She eventually married Green and hired Diane Bald, who married Budman.

By the end of 1973, Roots had opened stores in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, as well as in downtown Birmingham. Shoe production increased to 2,000 pairs a day from 30 pairs, and the business expanded to include clothing and sports apparel. Ultimately, almost 100 stores across North America and Europe were opened in less than five years.

Over the ensuing years, the franchise grew to 220 locations in Canada, and five more in the U.S. and Asia. It burst onto the international scene in 1998 when it outfitted the Canadian Olympic team for the winter games in Nagano, Japan. In 2002, it designed the village and casual wear for both the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams. Roots added Great Britain and Barbados to its Olympic client list in 2004.

Ask these two guys why their idea was so successful, and the answer is as surprising as it is stunningly simplistic.

“Everything always comes back to hockey,” Budman says. “Don and I have played over 4,000 games of shinny together, always on the same team, every one of those games. We learned life lessons in those games and the other team sports we played — what winning and losing is about, and what teamwork is about. And hockey is such a team sport.”

Green shares the same passion. “The whole sports thing was a great metaphor for how we ultimately did our business,” he says. “We really believed we were running a sports team. We believed in great teamwork. … We ran a very entrepreneurial, non-corporate business that was very unorthodox.”

“And we always went the distance to do our homework and our research,” Budman adds. “We only wanted quality ingredients and made products that had integrity and last forever and ever. I think the public really respected our story, because our story was true. You know, we weren’t in some boardroom bulls*#@ting ourselves; we were living it, and we were proud of it.”

In 2015, feeling the timing was right, Budman and Green sold a majority stake in Roots to a private investment firm, Searchlight Capital Partners. But the two friends didn’t plan to take it easy, never mind retire.

“We just created the official Raptors championship jacket that’s being made in a factory we own,” Budman says, “and both of us are involved in a lot of real estate, together and separately.”

They also listen regularly to pitches from young entrepreneurs who are looking for advice and investment. They agree those meetings are invariably frustrating.

“All the pitches we hear are, What’s the exit strategy? What’s the play?” Green says. “The young generation … they get into something and they want to be out of  it in three years, (or) five years. Our thing was stay in there, keep improving it, succeed, (and) everything will take care of itself. There was never the thought of a quick exit. Completely different thinking.”

In other words, the two partners aren’t going anywhere. “You never know how things work out,” Green says wistfully, just before hanging up. “You’re young kids — 21, 22 years old. You just don’t know how these things come together and start up. It was magic.”

“Yeah,” Budman says. “I’d just say, let Don and I keep spinning our magic, because it’s still there.”