Nicolas Hien on the Art of Keeping It Simple

After asking about vacancies at Dollarama, Nicolas Hien cemented his dual position to help grow the company in Canada and throughout Latin America

Sometimes you have to keep it simple. Nicolas Hien was one man in what he calls a “two-man show” consulting firm that was acquired by KPMG Canada, an audit, tax, and advisory services company, in 2011. When he began working in the corporate offices of Canadian dollar-store retail chain Dollarama a year later to manage the project management office, Hien filled in for the company’s vice president of IT, who had recently vacated his position. The following year, the company’s chief operating officer left, and Hien also became involved in more operational duties.

Nicolas Hien Dollarama
Nicolas Hien, SVP of Dollarama and EVP of DollarcityPhoto Courtesy of Dollarama

The cross-functional duties not only cemented Hien’s current dual position as the company’s senior vice president and executive vice president of Dollarcity (a Latin American subsidiary of Dollarama), but it also instigated a “technological revolution” at the company and a push toward international growth.

“We started implementing technology in stores—POS and time and attendance systems, mobile-scanning technology, reporting capabilities, and so forth,” he says. “We are really focused on execution and simplicity to not only improve processes and training but also to solidify our culture. I think too often companies are using technology to create complexity instead of simplicity.”

That culture is solid in Canada, as well as Latin America. In 2013, Dollarama signed an agreement with Dollarcity to share its business expertise and provide sourcing services. The deal included the option for Dollarama to acquire a 50.1 percent interest in Dollarcity. Six years later, Dollarama now owns a majority stake in the company and has expanded to two more countries.

“At the time, they only had few stores,” Hien notes. “Now we have more than two hundred stores in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia. That’s what created my role as EVP of Dollarcity.”

Although now an international player (Hien notes that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was spending three weeks each month in Montreal and the other week in Panama at Dollarcity’s head office), the company’s rapid growth in Canada and abroad has been more natural than he would have suspected.

“I think too often companies are using technology to create complexity instead of simplicity.”

“When you look at the Dollarama culture, it’s really focused on execution, simplicity, and discipline,” he says. “We were lucky to find a partner that shares the same values and understands that the culture is one of the key elements of our current success.

“It’s not to say that maintaining that culture is without challenges when you’re growing so quickly, but that growth has not changed what we’re about,” he continues. “When you bring new talent on board, management has a responsibility to make sure they understand and embrace those principles of execution, discipline, and simplicity.”

However, Hien is quick to point out that there is no mandated method of adhering to those cultural touchpoints. He’s taken advice and leadership traits from many of the men and women that he’s worked with, and he says he encourages his employees to thrive in an element of “controlled chaos.”

“I believe your own leadership style naturally evolves by being in contact with great leaders,” he says. “I’ve always been focused on facts, so when I manage people, I try to always give the what and not the how. You leave the autonomy to people. In that type of environment, people tend to be more creative. If you fall into a situation where people are too comfortable or set, it prevents them from taking risks which is instrumental to performance.

“I want an environment where people feel safe making a mistake,” he adds. “If you mix our culture with that idea of ‘controlled chaos,’ you get a nice mixture where people know what they’re supposed to do but still have freedom to achieve things in their own way.”

It’s a lesson Hien learned early in his life, playing and coaching soccer from young age.

“It’s a matter of helping the team to find a simple answer to a complex topic,” he says. Leadership, skills, growth, culture, and so many more of the finer points of a successful business model can be overanalyzed to a point of being unnecessarily confusing. Most success, he argues, is really quite simple.

And if you don’t understand, it is because you don’t keep it simple.

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