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American Uniform’s New Store Cashes in on Huge Local Growth

On July 9, 2009, American Uniform Sales Inc. had the grand opening of its Wilmington, N.C., store. The new location is at 107 Cinema Rd. between two major thoroughfares, Market Street and S. Kerr Street, which is central to its customers.

According to Rajan Shamdasani, American Uniform CEO, police and sheriffs’ departments, EMS agencies and fire departments were consulted for the type of merchandise they’d like American to have available for their needs. “The first responder is a high quality, well-educated and sophisticated individual today,” says Shamdasani. “He wants a quality product and service and is willing to pay for it.”

The Wilmington store hopes to bring in the local consumer in addition to typical public safety business. “Consumers are now starting to purchase the new, tough, very well-made garments in the other areas of the economy aside from the public sector,” says Shamdasani. “Therefore, the store will have more of a consumer look than a public safety look, though the big focus will still remain on the public safety side of things.”

The company partnered with a huge list of national manufacturers to keep the store stocked with a variety of products. Clothing, footwear, accessories and other goods are on hand by brands such as 5.11, Elbeco, Danner Boots, Timberland, Black-Hawk Tactical Equipment, Sentry Cap Company, V.H. Blackington, Duty Man and many others.

Shamdasani feels privileged to have David Miller as general manager of the new store. Miller brings a keen sense of customer service skills unparalleled in the uniform business, according to Shamdasani. The store will open with four employees, though Shamdasani envisions this store employing about 20 people in five years. Shamdasani’s sister Kathy is the vice president in charge of operations, his brother Danny is secretary treasurer-comptroller, and Kathy’s son Michael is vice president in charge of military sales.

Though this store will be only 100 miles from the longtime main store in Fayetteville, they wanted to design a prototype store that could be replicated in other areas of North and South Carolina and Virginia. A lot of time was devoted to designing the layout, visual display, merchandising, office and conference rooms, as well as warehouse and alteration rooms.

American Uniform attributes its success to customer service, quality and good value. For about a year, the company’s been getting calls from public safety agencies in coastal areas of Wilmington requesting that American Uniform open a distribution center in that area. But American resisted largely because of the proximity to its Fayetteville location. While the family has visited the Wilmington area many times for vacations, they hadn’t paid attention to the tremendous growth going on in most of the coastal communities adjoining Wilmington.

Recently they decided to spend some time evaluating that market. They were shocked to see the growth in the number of new construction projects that had taken place over the last decade, the growth in the public safety agencies and the demand on the government services created by the influx of new residents. And more importantly, in a survey they conducted with the public service agencies, the lack of customer service was the number one complaint, followed closely by quality and pricing.

Due to the area’s tremendous growth and the fact that, even in economic downturns, public service agencies rarely cut such things as the police force, the decision was made to open a store in Wilmington.

The store is now one of five distribution centers. The others are located in Fayetteville, N.C., Alexandria, Va., Baltimore, Md. (as Howard Uniform Company), and Philadelphia, Pa.

Early Career in Custom-Made Clothing
Shamdasani has been in the United States since 1968. When he first came to this country, he arrived as a businessman skilled in custom-made men’s and women’s clothing. He picked up that training in Hong Kong until the age of 17.

At the age of 18, he came to the United States. During his first seven years in this country, his main occupation was in the custom-made clothing business. But Shamdasani also made the perceptive observation that, when one is in the custom-made clothing business, that person is the business. That fact limited the scope of the business to only what Shamdasani was able to do by himself.

“Someone suggested that I should perhaps look at the uniform business,” says Shamdasani. “This came from one of my clothing customers. I thought about how different the uniforms for police and other agencies were from the custom-made clothing business where I had all my training. My suits used to cost hundreds of dollars, and fabrics included fine cashmeres, woolens, Italian silks and all kinds of other things. The uniform business did not seem the right fit.”

But as Shamdasani started exploring the uniform business with future potential customers, specifically local public safety agencies in the Fayetteville area, the first sentiments he heard was, “Yes, please get into the business. We just don’t get any service in this marketplace.” This happened in 1976. In three short years, his company had captured the majority of the business in the central part of the state.

Series of Decisions and Acquisitions
Six months after the June 1981 opening of American Uniform’s Alexandria store, the owner of longtime supplier Howard Uniform Company contacted Shamdasani and told him he wanted Shamdasani to purchase the company. Shamdasani told Mr. Pumpian, Howard Uniform’s owner, that he wondered just how he would be able to purchase such a large national company as Howard Uniform. Unfortunately, Pumpian passed away within a week of the phone call, and later Shamdasani contacted Pumpian’s daughter and told her of their conversation.

“She called me a few days later, and that talk culminated in the purchase of Howard Uniform four months later, in May of 1982,” says Shamdasani. “The industry was shocked that a small uniform dealer had purchased an old-line, very well-established company, which was also one of the icons of the uniform business.”

With three locations, the family then decided it had to balance its business risks with something else, especially since every industry or business is cyclical, according to Shamdasani. For the next three or four years they nurtured Howard Uniform Co., doing what was needed to give it their touch and flavor though, all along in the back of their minds, they knew they also needed to do something else.

In October 1987, American Uniform purchased 22 acres in North Carolina. That land was near Fayetteville’s Cross Creek Mall, one of the largest and strongest in the state. Every building that the family built got leased fairly quickly, and in five years the family had developed approximately 200,000 square feet of office space, condominiums, shopping center and theater. This development was completed in 1993. Beginning in 1996 these assets were in turn sold off while they were still relatively new.

That same year, American Uniform Sales purchased Levanthal Brothers in New York, a national manufacturer of shirts and trousers. At around the same time, more tracts of land were purchased in North Carolina, and in 1999 the company purchased Skaggs, located in Philadelphia, renaming it American Uniform as well. Now the company had four retail distribution points as well as its own manufacturing division.

In 2001 the company started a community in Fayetteville that became one of the most successful single-family residential communities in the area due to the huge amount of attention paid to detail in the planning of the subdivision, according to Shamdasani. The entire tract of 209 homes was master-planned from the development of the first square foot of land to the last.

Sidewalks were constructed on both sides of the streets. Roads were 40 percent wider than typical subdivision roads, and every house has an identical mailbox. Street signs and stop signs were custom designed. Within four years, the entire Fox Meadow development was sold out.

Other family investments included a local amusement center, miniature golf course and high-quality mini-storage facilities. Last fall, planning for the luxury Bellagio Apartments in Fayetteville started; by this September, buildings will start to go up. This is the first luxury apartment community in Fayetteville.

This development is in such high demand because Fort McPherson in Georgia is moving to Fayetteville by 2011. This will be the Higher Headquarters for Fort Bragg and will be receiving some 18 to 20 generals, hundreds of colonels, lieutenant colonels, captains, majors and others. Overall 30,000 people will be moved to Fayetteville. The development will also be close to Cross Creek Mall.

Looking to the Future
American Uniform Sales’ next big step will be to build a mega uniform store, 25,000 square feet in size. “We’re not ready to go into details about that now,” says Shamdasani. “But stay tuned”

With the advent of the Internet, where the human touch has been replaced with computers and sometimes frustrating way of navigating it, the company’s goal is to excel in customer service to the point where area customers will want to walk into American Uniform and skip Internet shopping.

Shamdasani was on the board of the North-American Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors, where he also serves on the Governmental Affairs Committee.

As a family business, the growth and health of his company has implications for all the important people in his life.

“We look to find business opportunities, making sure these are things which come to us from beyond an emotional perspective,” adds Shamdasani. “We scrutinize business opportunities in a serious manner. We want to be sure we are making the correct business move, as one wrong can end up costing us the success of three right moves. So far we have been very lucky in this area and the good Lord has helped us in a tremendous manner. All my brothers and sisters and I get excited about getting up and going to work every morning. Some call it work; we call it pleasure.”

America Uniform Sales Inc.
107 Cinema Dr, Suite 101
Wilmington, NC 28403
(910) 343-0411

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Fall & Winter 2009 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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