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Family-Owned, Customer-Focused at Uniform Village

OUniform Villageperating a family business can be tricky. Some family businesses adhere to outdated practices for the sake of tradition. Others are slow to add new elements or change direction when that’s what is needed. And still others get bogged down in family dynamics and sibling rivalry.

None of that is found at Uniform Village, the umbrella corporation that includes a retail store of the same name and apparel customizer Image Experts Uniforms. Led by Tom Salamone as CEO and Donna Singer as president, the two siblings have taken their grandparents’ business through a series of incarnations. The result is a lean business that blends retail, warehousing, personalization and internet B2B aspects in clearly designated segments.

Salamone directs the headquarters and Image Experts’ warehouse in Schenectady, N.Y., where just six people guide products through embroidery, patches and decorating, plus cover inventory, shipping and receiving, and office tasks. The facility boasts 5,000 square feet, including a 1,000-square-foot retail store. Image Experts Uniforms will customize just about any product for almost any industry: medical, police and public safety, chef and culinary, hospitality, school/student uniforms, sports teams, construction, casino, promotional products, corporate identity apparel and lots more.

Meanwhile, Singer heads the Rochester, N.Y., retail store, Uniform Village. The focus here is clearly medical uniforms, with heavy emphasis on scrubs and shoes. With 2,800 square feet of warm, inviting retail space, employees from surrounding hospitals, medical practices and dental offices easily find the full line of apparel and equipment they need. Another 2,000 square feet is used for stockroom, order fulfillment and offices.

Uniform Village“Two good words to describe the Rochester store are ‘controlled chaos,'” Salamone says with a laugh. “It’s incredibly busy.”

Salamone and Singer are a lively pair. At times, they finish each other’s sentences. When she can’t pinpoint exact years and data, he steps in with the information without missing a beat. He likes to talk technology and equipment, and she interjects with praise for their customers and staff. They both have an easy-going demeanor and a clear passion for their business.

“Initially, our grandparents came over from Italy and my grandmother opened a dry goods store. When my dad graduated from business school, he went into that business,” Singer says. “They were selling Barco uniforms as a small section of the business. He noticed how much that part of the business was growing. They closed that store and opened a uniform shop in 1969.”

Singer says she worked for her father since she was 11 years old and later managed her own retail store in Rochester, NY. “That was in 1983,” Salamone says, offering up the exact year his sister began working for their dad. Salamone joined the business just a few years later in 1987 after graduating from college in IT and computer systems.

After their father’s stroke in 1987, the following ten years brought lots of changes. Salamone and Singer looked over the books with very critical eyes, finding lots of small adjustments that added up to major changes in the overall direction of Uniform Village.

Salamone says, “Back in the early 1990s, we joined a uniform catalog group called The Uniform Group, and we mailed out actual restaurant catalogs from multiple vendors. It grew that end of the business. In 1994, we started a division called Chef Direct. It was strictly chef and restaurant apparel.”They reduced their five retail locations to just the one Rochester store. The other stores were underperforming, and the reduction in monthly bills and inventory demands freed up the capital needed to upgrade technology.

Uniform Village“We’ve opened more channels with the web and direct marketing. It’s a little less of a retail presence and a more direct marketing model that we run by now,” says Salamone. The Chef Direct division was sold in 2005, and Image Experts Uniforms was opened in its place to attract corporate apparel and promotional products customers. The second retail presence in Schenectady helped grow the company’s reputation and provided twice the opportunity to meet the customers in person.

2005 was also the year Uniform Village abandoned its mall location in exchange for the current strip mall store.

Singer says, “We were in the mall for 22 years, and then we just outgrew the space. The cost of being in a mall is high. Being in the mall was good when we were new to Rochester because it got our name out there. Then we realized we didn’t need it because we are a destination store. We relocated to a strip mall close to where we were. The place was pretty well gutted, so we got to put the dressing rooms, the shoe department and the offices right where we wanted them. This location is just perfect.”

Just this past August, Image Experts Uniforms added a new bank of embroidery machines that doubled capacity. A seamstress was added to the staff to manage tailoring and patches.

“We actually had to expand the warehouse space just to accommodate the embroidery inventory. It’s very important to us to reinvest in capital equipment like that. We can meet tighter demands with shorter lead times and we can turn orders more quickly,” says Salamone. “Our customers demand their products next day in many cases. They can’t wait a week or they will go somewhere else. That investment is bringing us new business and serving our existing customers better.”

Uniform VillageIt’s also making the company more efficient. Salamone says the machines produce better quality embroidery faster and with less thread breakage. On a cost-per-unit basis, he says the upgraded equipment has more than paid off.

The same can be said for the investments in technology. Uniform Village and Image Experts Uniforms operate under a shared uniform solutions software program. It helps track pending orders, contract pricing, sales forecasting and inventory. Salamone says, “We just couldn’t do what we do without it. It was critical to bring in an ERP system like that.”

The other IT investment was the new website with e-commerce, facilitated by UniformMarket. The most attractive aspect of the system, according to Salamone, is the centralized product updates. He says managing multiple suppliers’ products could be a full-time job in itself. Instead, UniformMarket handles adding, updating and removing products and even logs manufacturer inventory in real-time.

“Our web business model helps to show our customers that we are a full-service uniform vendor and that they can put their trust in us. A lot of the bigger companies take us seriously now. We can get in and compete against the Cintases of the world,” he says. “Our web store is so vast wide and deep that the user can quickly drill down to a unique product that he or she is looking for and see it quickly. Sometimes, when speaking on the phone with large customer accounts such as hotels or restaurants, I can within the same phone conversation show a variety of uniform solutions and options quickly. Before, we would have to drive out to them or overnight them a catalog. Now we are booking orders in the same initial phone call.”

Both websites, www.imageexperts.com and www.uniformvillage.net, are also taking advantage of the mini-store model, small customer-specific web stores that display only approved apparel for a uniform program. The custom mini-sites are helping serve current customers better and land new customer contracts that are more likely to last for years to come. Salamone says, “I still love getting internet orders. It thrills me every time!”

Technology is helping empower the staff at both locations. Salamone says technology gives the staff the tools they need to be more productive and knowledgeable. Better information leads to better decisions, and the ultimate goal is a company that can run smoothly without either of the siblings watching over every aspect.

“I think we have great employees,” Singer says. “Our manager here in Rochester is unbelievable. She takes multi-tasking to the next level. We pride ourselves in our customer service. You don’t get that in big companies where you would get a different person on the phone every time. But here, we know many of our customers on a first-name basis.”Through all of the changes at Uniform Village, customer service has been a constant. It has kept customers returning for years some for decades. The service has been improved by the investments in both technology and machinery.

But it hasn’t all been easy. Singer and Salamone each have their own regrets when it comes to the corporation. She lists a second location on the other side of Rochester that the family had for a short time. He wishes he had had a better understanding of the role government has in the economy and just how much impact the large-scale financial situation could have on small businesses. And he also has current concerns over the impact Obamacare may have on the health care system and how it will affect the medical uniform business. But this too circles back to their upbeat attitudes.

“I call it ‘falling forward.’ You make mistakes, but you don’t let them destroy you. You are bound to make mistakes and dumb decisions that hurt, but if you fall forward then it is at least worth going through it,” says Salamone. “We cleaned up our balance sheet before this recession started, and it really helped us weather this downturn. We’ve grown through it and increased sales and bottom line because we’ve reduced debt and made investments in the right places.”

The key, Salamone says, is to continually respond to customer demand. Prior to 2000, Uniform Village didn’t sell school uniforms, but demand from customers drove them into the market. Also, IT has turned out to be an instrument leading to stable growth, and the payoff is a wider variety of clients.

The ability to change and adapt highlights one of the aspects of the business that has kept it so profitable. Salamone says, “Markets appear, and it’s easy for us to adapt and be flexible when an opportunity presents itself. We have great access to strong suppliers and a supply chain that works well. We can serve customers as markets change and are flexible enough to respond to changes in demand.”

Having a balance between the two siblings has also been helpful. They each manage different aspects of the sister businesses. That helps them share common goals while allowing their individual personalities to come through.”We work well together,” Salamone says, “as long as we’re separated by four hours,” he adds with a laugh. Singer is laughing too.

“We don’t have big egos,” she says. “We just want to do right by our customers and keep our strong reputation. We’re too busy to fight or argue with each other.”

Sounds like Singer and Salamone have created the secret family recipe for a uniform business that really works.

Uniform Village
376 Jefferson Rd.
Rochester, NY 14623
585-424-1550
www.uniformvillage.net

Image Experts Uniforms
1623 Eastern Parkway
Schenectady, NY 12309
518-377-4523
www.imageexperts.com

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2011 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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