|By Susan Derby
After talking to David Selvin and Neal Susten, its difficult to imagine them as business competitors.
But six years ago, thats essentially what they were. Each had been working in his own familys business, learning the trade and working his way up the management ladder. The two companies were making uniform caps for military, police, fire, security and related fields. They had similar beginnings, products and customers. And the businesses were just a few blocks from each other.
In 1997 the pair put their differences aside and merged the two companiesKeystone Uniform Cap and M.H. GrossmanInc.into a single operation.They continued using both names in favor of celebrating each ones history and customer loyalty. Using both names gives customers the secure feeling of dealing with the same company and product that they have known for some 80 years or more. Continued family ownership only increases that security.
The original groundwork for both companies began in 1918 when M.H. Grossman, Sustens grandfather, opened a uniform cap shop. The business was in a four-story brick building in Philadelphias Chinatown at 1033 Race St.
The original business covered military, security, and police headwear. It was right after World War I, and a lot of veteran groups needed uniform caps, Susten says. We started with the raw materials and made caps, doing everything from designing them to selling the finished products to the retailers.
A few years later, two employees of M.H. Grossman Inc. decided to take what they had learned and started their own uniform cap company, Keystone Uniform Cap, also based in Philadelphia.
In 1929, my grandfather, Hyman Selvin, and Robert Brody began the company, David Selvin says. They were partners and eventually brought in my father, Harold Selvin. And then my father bought out those partners many years later.
Sustens father became owner of M.H. Grossman Inc. in a different way. Sam Susten married the bosss daughter, Dorothy, around 1945. She served as the companys secretary and bookkeeper. Soon thereafter M.H. Grossman retired, leaving Sam as president of the family business.
Now, with each company in the hands of the second generation, the third generation was soon to begin learning the family business.
The process for both started during summers while in high school and continued while attending higher education. Coincidentally, David Selvin and Neal Susten went to the same college, though at different times. Susten attended the Philadelphia College of Textile and Sciences (since renamed Philadelphia University) before Selvin.After graduation from college it was back to the family business. But they werent given any special treatment for being grandsons of the original owners.
I came into the business around 1984 as a part-time employee, Selvin says. From 1985 on, I was full-time. At first I was putting on buttons and straps on caps. We both grew up in the business and worked our way from the ground up. Ever since we were kids, as our ages progressed, so did we in the company.
As it became more and more apparent that these two men were in the business to stay, their fathers and grandfathers opened up more opportunities to them.
As Susten says, The old timers were always afraid to show people any of the trade secrets. But, being that I was family, they showed me as much as they possibly could. They wouldnt have shown an outsider all of that because of their nature of being immigrants from Russia, like my grandfather was. I think a lot of the immigrants were afraid that somebody would know more, so they were very protective.
In another coincidence, both Susten and Selvin were given control of their respective companies in 1997. Neals father semi-retired, leaving Neal as president of M.H. Grossman. About the same time, David became owner of Keystone. The two seriously considered merging the two companies, something they had been discussing on and off for a few years. Selvin says having so many family members involved in the business made it difficult to affect the merger. Once the second generation retired, it became easier to join the two companies.
As Susten says, Basically we realized that we wanted to build strength and stability. And we were two people doing the same jobs in both locations. Two knowledgeable presidents meant they would be covered should something happen to either one.The left hand always knows what the right hand is doing. If someone is out for the day or the week, being that we each know what the others doing, its not a problem.
It seemed wise, instead of hurting each other, to start helping each other, says Selvin. It also would be beneficial to bring all the costs and everything under one roof. He admits that uniform headwear is a tough, competitive business. Having a rival just a few blocks away making the exact same products didnt make good business sense when so many advantages could come from joining forces.
While the merged companies closely resemble what was started in 1918 and 1929, there are some key differences. Some new products have been added, and some of the old standards have evolved. Keystone and Grossman produce uniform caps for military, police, fire, security, chauffeur, band, veteran, transit and airline groups. Susten says they are much more international than their fathers were, serving groups and organizations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. They have added custom embroidery machines to expand and improve service.
But both agree that the core business is the same as it was almost 85 years ago. M.H. Grossman had made its home in five different locations throughout the city, always moving to a larger facility. After the merge, it moved again into the Keystone facility at 428 N. 13th St.
It was surprisingly a very easy transition, Selvin says. We closed up the Grossman facility on a Friday, moved it to Keystone, and began working as the new entity on that following Monday. Everything went very smoothly. It was like a perfect fit. Being that the employees did similar jobs made it easier for them also.
Grossman and Keystone operated there for three years before needing a larger facility. It came at the right time, considering the city was making condos out of the building. As Susten points out, the new residents werent thrilled with having sewing machines running overhead while they were making dinner. The pair took six months to find the new home of M.H. Grossman and Keystone at 801 N. Front St.
The new home is 20,000 square feet in an eight-story concrete building right by the Delaware River. Because there is no retail storeKeystone and Grossman generally supply retail stores or ship directly to single customersthere is no need for a showroom or signage. What was important was that the 45 employees could easily reach work with access to public transportation and ample parking. The building also is home to storage and another retailer.
Our part of the building is cut into two departments, Selvin explains. One is the uniform cap department, and they do the fire, police, transit and military caps. The other side handles embroidery. And in the middle are the offices that separate the two.
With 20 embroidery machines and all of the tools and machines housed on-site, the company can fill most orders to any specifications.
Selvin says, We can make various quantities, from single caps to very large orders. We try to be as diversified as possible, and we try to offer customers whatever they are used to using. That also includes creating designs and templates from a customers sample. They rarely deal with end users, but instead go through retail stores. Susten and Selvin foster and grow those relationships so the retail stores will pass along orders and custom jobs to them rather than to competing headwear producers.
Being the nice guys we are, we specialize in customer service, Susten says. The customers know that when they call us, they are going to talk to one of the owners. If they need a job in a rush, they know theyre going to get it.
Price competition and speed also help in boosting customer loyalty. Grossman and Keystone stock industry standards, like primary police and fire caps, but others are only made by special order, like security and chauffeur headwear.
Face time with their customers is also a key element to their lasting success. To gain contract bids the owners attend about a half-dozen trade shows each year, both for local and national uniform groups, focusing their attention on police and fire shows. Selvin says they will travel to their customers as another way to grow their relationships. Its important to have some face-to-face time withthe store operators, even those in Italy and Asia. Other contacts are generated through some advertising in industry periodicals, and they are counting on their revamped Web site to expand their list of clients even further.
The current strength of the company assures it will continue well into the future. The histories of both companies and their recent merger have created a solid foundation from which to face the future. Though both owners have years and years before they start thinking about retirement, they are aware of the family tradition inherent in Keystone and Grossman.
I have two children: a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old boy, Susten says. The 15-year-old definitely wants to try performing, and I dont think that hes interested in working here. The 11-year-old is undetermined, but I think there probably would be a position here if he wanted it. Selvin has a nephew who is a possible future owner, but that would be much further into the future.
The two half-joke about selling the business to the right person. More seriously, they both welcome some new blood to the operation. As Susten says, youth brings a new approach and new ideas to help keep M.H. Grossman Inc. and Keystone Uniform Cap at the top of its industry. These two owners had the vision to merge when they gained control of their individual companies. And, considering the competition they once gave each other, now that they are working together, anything seems possible.