Born in Montreal in 1948, Heather Reisman was raised in a family of businesspeople. After serving in various leadership positions, Reisman entered big box book retailing on her own with Indigo Books. Indigo grew rapidly after its founding. Through mergers and the hostile takeover in 2001 of Chapters, Inc., its much larger competitor, the firm achieved a near monopoly position in the retail book trade in Canada and employs some five thousand people across the country. Though she lives a lavish lifestyle, Reisman is dedicated and committed to community work and charitable giving. Additionally, she has shown sensitivity to Jewish concerns in the conduct of her business.
Background and Early Career
Possibly the most powerful person in Canada’s book publishing industry at the turn of the twenty-first century and certainly the country’s most prominent Jewish businesswoman, Heather Reisman was born in Montreal and educated as a social worker at McGill University. Her father, Mark, was a real estate broker; her mother, Rose, owned a clothing store; her brother, Howard, operated a computer company.
After Reisman’s first marriage ended, she switched careers, following her family into business. Reisman joined Howard’s company in an executive capacity. After moving to Toronto, she co-founded Paradigm Consulting, of which she was the managing director for seventeen years. For a short time she served as president of Cott Beverages, a pioneer private label bottler of soft drinks. Later she experimented with marketing fresh, ready-to-cook foods through a firm called Now! Foods.
In 1995, Reisman was invited to become a “frontline investor” for Borders, the American book retailer, which was planning to enter the Canadian market. When that venture failed to receive the required federal regulatory approval in Canada, Reisman entered big box book retailing on her own with Indigo Books. She was backed by the Onex Corporation, one of Canada’s largest and most successful conglomerates, which was controlled by Gerry Schwartz (b. 1941, Winnipeg, Manitoba), whom she had married in 1982.
Indigo grew rapidly after its founding. Through mergers and the hostile takeover in 2001 of Chapters, Inc., its much larger competitor, the firm achieved a near monopoly position in the retail book trade in Canada and by the early 2000s employed some five thousand people across the country. Reisman has described Indigo as “a haven for booklovers, a candy store for the mind and a spa for the soul, and a haven for the heart.” Although until 2002 Indigo was reported never to have shown a profit, Reisman and Schwartz were said in 2001 by Canadian Business to be the thirty-fifth richest family in Canada, with a net worth of approximately 800 million dollars.
Charity, Community Work, and Jewish Causes
Reisman closely guards her privacy and that of her family, which includes two children from her first marriage and two step-children. She is, however, known for an opulent style of life with homes in Toronto, Florida, and California. She is equally well known for generosity and commitment to the community. Together with her family, she endowed the Heather Reisman Chair in Perinatal Research at the University of Toronto. She and her husband established the Gerald Schwartz/Heather Reisman Centre for Jewish Learning at Holy Blossom Temple, of which they are members. The Centre sponsors an annual series of lectures. They have also given major gifts to Mt. Sinai Hospital and the Legacy Fund of the United Jewish Appeal/Federation in Toronto, to Harvard University, and to other charities. Reisman has served as a governor of the Toronto Stock Exchange and of McGill University.
In addition to charitable giving, Reisman has shown sensitivity to Jewish concerns in the conduct of her business. A rabbi serves as a buyers’ consultant to Indigo and some of the stores feature appearances by authors of books of Jewish interest. At her direction, Indigo in 2001 removed Mein Kampf from its shelves, sparking controversy around the issues of censorship and hate literature.
In 2005, in collaboration with her husband, Reisman founded the HESEG foundation, which gives scholarships to those without family in Israel who have served in the Israel Defense Forces. Her commitment to the State of Israel also includes funding education centers in Israel to advance scientific discovery and research in the country.
Reisman was the executive producer of the popular 2014 American documentary Fed Up, which addressed childhood obesity in the United States. In 2015, she was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame.