Down to Business: Putman Investments continues to acquire, rescue

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When we last left Doug Putman, it was early 2020 and the Canadian businessman had just purchased the FYE retail chain from homegrown Trans World Entertainment Corp. of Albany, giving him a U.S. mirror to the music and pop culture stores of his Sunrise Records north of the border.

Since then – wow!

Months after the FYE deal, Putman bought out a New Jersey-based toymaker, Alex Brands, that closed as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and followed that up in fall 2020 by buying portions of a popular tea shop chain in Canada that was shifting online due to the pandemic, rebranding them as T. Kettle to offer premium loose-leaf blends.

In 2021, his family-owned Putman Investments acquired Canada’s Toys R Us/Babies R Us chain, which had split from the U.S. operations that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017 and then fell on its own hard times before being bought by a Canadian financial holding company. Putman cold called the firm’s CEO to strike a deal that gave him the stores’ inventory and leases; the CEO held on to the real estate and became landlord.

Then, just last week, Putman announced creation of a new home-goods retailer, dubbed rooms + spaces, that will open this summer in nearly two dozen former storefronts of Bed, Bath & Beyond/Buybuy Baby Canada, sibling to the U.S. chain that just filed for Chapter 11 and will liquidate. The Canadian version went into receivership in February, closed stores and sold leases; Putman got 21 to launch rooms + spaces.

Sensing a pattern here?

Let’s not forget Putman got his start in 2014 rescuing Sunrise, once one of Canada’s major record store chains, which had dwindled to just a few locations. He did the same in 2017 with HMV Canada, another music and entertainment retailer that was forced into receivership by a lender, and again in 2019 with HMV in the United Kingdom, also financially hobbled.

Now Putman Investments, headquartered in Ancaster, Ontario, about an hour’s drive from Toronto, employs more than 20,000 in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.

Truth be told, the purchase of FYE was something of a rescue, too.

Over the years, Trans World Entertainment had rolled up the big players in music/movies/games retailing to become the “last man standing.” But as streaming grew, the company withered. And synergies from the 2016 acquisition of a business that helped brands sell online never materialized, leaving Trans World with negative cash flow, staring at possible loan default.

Today, FYE has 207 locations, up from 193 at the 2020 acquisition, including three in malls in Ontario to test the potential, a spokeswoman said this week, declining to discuss chainwide sales.

She said Albany is still identified as FYE’s headquarters, with many of the same top staff as before. That appears to be Putman’s M.O., judging from interviews he has done: acquire, fix what’s wrong, put the experienced pros in charge.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at  [email protected]


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