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Flexible ICS Uniforms Positioned for Success

A big part of owning a business is being flexible. Changes in trends, economy, staff and business processes can happen at any time. And only the best businesses can survive the harshest of swings.

ICS Uniforms is the perfect example of a business that has responded to changes with changes of its own in order to endure. What began as a mens clothing store 25 years ago has evolved, expanded, shifted and refocused to target the uniform industry, and all with some very encouraging results.

Located in St. Louis, ICS Uniforms officially opened its doors on June 1, 2004, but re-opened might be a better way to describe it. The store was in the same location as the previous store, it had the same owners, and it was still specializing in wearables.

After leaving the military to rejoin the work force, I had an opportunity as a Veteran to use benefits and go to school. I created enough financing to start my own business. And it started extremely small, ICS co-owner Tommy Tucker explains of the original store. The real reason behind us actually getting into the clothing business is because I had this great idea why would I pay retail when I could pay wholesale and dress all of my seven children out of my place of business.

So he and his wife, Denise, opened a clothing store as a means to outfit the entire family for less money. The motivation was simple, but it was strong enough to stimulate Tommys efforts in learning the trade and establishing himself as a steady competitor in the area. Tommy and Denise are still co-owners together.

But Tucker recently noticed a downturn in the retail clothing business, a downturn he attributes to over-saturation of the market, no-overhead street vendors and the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York. Those attacks, he says, led to an acceleration of market downturns, like increasing layoffs and reduction in investments in private enterprise. The changes were slow and gradual, but he recognized the warning signs of rough times.

We were about to become extinct, so for us it was imperative that we made some type of transition in order to survive. What we really thought that we were going to be doing was sell sporting goods, and so we renamed the company Inner City Sports. We really thought that was the niche for us, Tucker says. And ICS Uniforms still carries sports uniforms and cheerleader outfits, but its focus has become something unexpected.

The uniform aspect of the company was discovered when a customer asked the Tuckers if they could outfit his towing company. Tucker didnt know where he would get the shirts from, but the $3,000 order wasnt one he would pass up.

He found a company to create the custom patches, and his in-house embroiderer attached the patches and embroidered each employees name on the shirts. Tucker continued with that first order in mind, and the number of uniform jobs began to snowball.

The store name goes by the abbreviated ICS Uniforms instead of Inner City Sports to avoid pigeonholing itself to sports only.

From those sales, it was clear to me that I needed to rethink the direction of the company. About a year ago, I had an opportunity to bid on a contract for the St. Louis City Police Department. They needed custom pants. I got wind of the NAUMD show, and my wife and I attended that show and made some valuable networking relationships, says Tucker. That gave us an opening to another segment of the uniform industry. And from that time to this time, weve been constantly bidding on contracts.

Though ICS lost the first contract it bid on for the St. Louis Police Department, it has since won the contract for the departments career apparel. After that, it won another one for the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Tucker says the hardest part in his transition from general clothing to the uniform industry has been breaking into the established network. Some distributors and manufacturers limit their retail relationships, and many companies offer their new uniform needs only to those stores with which they already do business. Tucker had to use all the tools available to him to get other businesses to give ICS Uniforms a try.

For that, he capitalized on three strong points: longevity, personal contacts, and variety.

First, he knew that potential clients were looking for longevity and security with any company they would utilize. He played up his 25 years of experience and the fact that he owns the entire building that houses ICS. The portion of the 3-story building that ICS uses includes a 2,500-square-foot retail store, 500-square-feet of offices, and an 8,000-square-foot warehouse. The first floor of the building houses other businesses like a restaurant, beauty salon and shoe shine stand. He says, Owning the building free and clear, no mortgage or rent, means we can go through the growing pains that every new business encounters.

Second, he used all his contacts and he has a lot of them. Tucker is an active member in the St. Louis Minority Business Council (SLMBC) and Regional Commerce Growth Association, plus he and his wife serve in the ministry as marriage counselors, Christian education teachers, prison outreach directors and youth counselors.

Tucker has parlayed his business organization memberships into some impressive opportunities to meet minority business entrepreneurs from across the nation. In 2004, the SLMBC offered Tucker a position in a Supply-Chain Management Consortium Course at St. Louis University. Later, he was sponsored by the SLMBC to attend a week-long Executive Management Program at Dartmouth Colleges Tuck School of Business, and hes applied for another continuing education program in 2006. At each of these courses and think tanks, Tucker has met with ivy-league professors, Fortune 500 managers and other business owners all potential customers and business partners.

Third, he expanded his offerings, selling multiple items beyond what the customer was initially seeking. In one store, everything from promotional products and awards to polo shirts and choir robes can be customized to order. In-house embroidery is delivered quickly, and a relationship with a screen printer is being solidified in February to bring that in-house as well. Tucker also plans to add an individual to the graphic and art department to offer custom designs, and a possible partnership with a manufacturer is also showing promise.

We blow smoke in everybodys eyes because we are creative and innovative. We are very futuristic in our thought process, Tucker says. And were a very diverse company. While there are companies and corporations who do some of what we do, none of them do all of what we do. We do screen printing, embroidery, uniforms, promotional products. So none of those guys will ever be a threat to me because I already do it all.

All of these moves have eased the need for advertising, to the point that ICS Uniforms relies mostly on word of mouth to attract new customers. Tucker watches for requests for proposals for the big contracts, and ICS performs community outreach via its scholarship fund for inner-city students who are college-bound. A robust Internet site (www.innercitysports-stl.com) helps lure customers surfing for someone to fill their needs, and Tucker hopes to add an e-commerce portion in the coming year.

People have taken note of ICS Uniforms accomplishments. ICS Uniforms was nominated in 2005 for the Minority Business Entrepreneur of the Year Excellence Award in the category of distribution. Tucker says this award ranks alongside an Academy Award in terms of clout and significance.

Tucker is proud of his accomplishments thus far and acknowledges there is still more to do. It will probably take me another two to three years to really carve out a niche for us, he says. Our trend of what we have earned so far has been more towards the industrial side of uniforms custodians, support staff of the police, food service, logistics and warehouse uniforms, security and maintenance. It seems like that market is a little more accessible to us than the law enforcement, fire, public safety and emergency medical fields. But we do see ourselves tapping into that side of uniforms eventually.

He credits the university courses at both Dartmouth and St. Louis University for helping him position the company for when the business really begins to flow.

The next goal is to gain Small Business Association 8(a) certification so ICS Uniforms can bid on government contracts. It was one of those contracts that really made him take note of the possibilities available in the uniform industry. In his course at St. Louis University, the instructor from a Fortune 50 company showed the students a reverse auction site where companies post their needs and providers bid on the chance to win the contract. Tucker saw a contract worth more than $4 million, and that adrenaline rush increased his motivation to succeed in the uniform industry.

While none of his seven children are involved with ICS Uniforms, it is still a family business. Tommy and Denise are co-owners. His niece is the administrative assistant, his cousin is the accountant and bookkeeper, and his nephew is the production embroiderer. Only one employee is unrelated, making this a small six-person staff in total.

It is Tuckers sheer drive that comes across to those who interact with him. Hes appreciative of the opportunities hes given, and he enthusiastically takes as much out of each one as is available.

We know were equally as good as anybody thats doing the business, and now its just a matter of taking the right opportunities, he says. He quotes John C. Maxwells 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.

He says that people dont care about how much you know until they know about how much you care. We take that same attitude toward every customer. We care about their bottom line, their image and their employees.

Though ICS Uniforms has taken some time to find its target market, its now positioned for success well into the future. Its flexibility along the way provides some valuable lessons that will likely result in returns many times over.

ICS Uniforms
2800 N. Grand Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63107
314-533-7103
www.innercitysports-stl.com

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2006 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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