Rick Arora

Call him Victoria’s secret.

Chances are you know what Rick Arora does, but you may not be able to pick him out of a crowd.

A businessman with an “invested” interest in all things downtown — as landlord, entrepreneur, and storeowner — Arora commands a small retail empire from offices above Old Morris Tobacconist, his flagship store. It was an operation he was always interested in buying, trying several times over the years without success until 2000, when he finally took it over.

“I always loved this place,” he says of the 115-year-old Government Street icon. “I would take a break and buy a 50-cent cigar and smoke half. I always dreamt about that smell. I always thought it was an amazing shop.”

Arora owns several amazing shops, including Stone’s Jewellery, also on Government, as well as four boutiques in the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Dapper, busy, plugged-in, and connected, the 53-year-old from New Delhi (Arora emigrated from India when he was 19, joining family members who had already made a home and started businesses in Canada) has managed to do his thing just under the radar.

He’s kept a steady hand on the rudder of downtown affairs, preferring to make things work behind the scenes and shunning the spotlight illuminating many of this city’s movers, shakers, and backroom dealers.

Arora says he’s trying to cut back on the amount of work he does these days and take things a little easier, handing over the bulk of day-to-day dealings to his son. But it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down any.

How do you manage to keep such a low profile?

I like to do my own things without letting people know. For instance, we own five buildings on [Government] street. Do people know we own five buildings on this street? People tend to brag about stuff. We just keep a low profile.

There’s a little story about you arriving in Canada as an immigrant with $10 in your pocket and hawking jewellery at the Calgary Stampede and the PNE.

It was $8. My brother had a jewellery shop in the Palliser Hotel [in Calgary] and we started working together. I think the most expensive piece we had was $100. I used to work [at the Stampede and the PNE] because that’s where the quick cash would be.

Has business at Old Morris suffered since the public smoking ban came into effect?

No. My sales are up. How do I justify that? I don’t know. But when I bought this place, I built a Cuban room. I brought in the name brands and the men’s shaving stuff. I knew what was missing in the store. The worst thing I ever did was when I said I wouldn’t sell newspapers here. Man, did I hear it from customers. Within two weeks we had to bring back the papers.

Is it your stock of Cuban cigars that are unavailable to Americans at home that keeps Old Morris prospering?

When the American aircraft carrier was here last, there was a lineup [of sailors] waiting to buy cigars. They were peeling the labels off them before they went back onto the ship.

Do you smoke?

I had a quadruple bypass three-and-a-half years ago… well, the occasional cigar.

The antique Electolier cigar lighter in the middle of the store [one of only two in the world; the other is in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore], with its flame continually burning, is a favourite for visitors. But I remember being at Old Morris and the flame was out.

It’s lit. We had to fight with the CRD to keep it lit. But we don’t allow people to light cigars from it in the store.

Your many businesses are heavily reliant on strong tourism numbers. How involved do you get in directing how tourism in this city should be managed?

Indirectly. Not directly because nobody listens. I get frustrated.

Do you think tourism is being handled diligently then?

Something should be done about the first five blocks from the Inner Harbour. It should be all clean. You go to certain places in other cities and you can see that they want to impress their tourists.

What tourism changes would you like to see?

We’ve got to offer more for the tourists to make them want to come here. What are we offering them? The dollar is not there anymore. It used to be a year-round business at one time, not just the summer. Everybody is too scared to make changes in this town. It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody. Nobody wants to upset anyone.

You own a number of heritage buildings. Are developers acting responsibly in helping protect them?

Some [developers] are. I love old buildings. I want to preserve them as much as I can. That’s what makes Victoria what it is. If everyone starts putting contemporary buildings at the Inner Harbour… well, you know what I mean.

The downtown core has taken its share of criticism — from overzealous parking commissionaires to myriad social problems. Can it all be fixed?

Nobody knows what to do or how to solve the problems. Where do you put [the homeless]? It’s [senior] government that will have to come into the picture.

Well, how about our downtown parking problems then?

The town is growing so fast. Look at the condos being built. Where are the parking spots in town for all these people? Our parking rates are very cheap compared to other cities, but where do you park? This is why our [downtown] businesses are hurting.

Will you run for mayor?

No. Are you nuts?