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Madera Uniform Grows from Garage to Three Locations

Few uniform companies get started on a racquetball court, but that is exactly how Madera Uniform & Accessories began in 1995. Co-owner Susan Levake was then working as a district sales manager for Frito-Lay, a part of PepsiCo. She liked her job but not the long hours it required.

When her second child was born with heart problems, the pediatrician told her that her son would not be strong enough to attend daycare while she worked. Levake says, “I started looking into starting my own business with the illusion you could work less hours when self employed!”

Levake played racquetball as often as she could. One of her favorite competitors on the court was Monte Pistoresi, owner of the local ambulance service in their town of Madera, Calif. Pistoresi told Levake that their city needed its own uniform store.

Soon afterward, Levake started a uniform business working from her home. Pistoresi was her first customer. She soon found that starting a business while caring for two small children was much more difficult than she had anticipated. She called a friend from college, Devin Fudge, for help.

Fudge, who worked for a garage door manufacturing company, was ready for a different job, so he agreed to help. He soon found himself running the business virtually alone. Levake’s time was taken up by her son Max, who had grown so ill that he had to have open-heart surgery when he was 2 years old. Levake stayed with her son through a number of hospitalizations while Fudge took care of their fledgling business.

Both boy and business recovered from their rocky starts. By the time he was 3, Max was a healthy child. And working these first years out of Levake’s home and garage, Fudge had increased the business so much that it needed more space.

Levake says, “We have many proud customers who remind us to this day that the first thing they bought from us was while we were in the garage.”

In 1998, Fudge and Levake moved to their first commercial location in Madera. Levake recalls, “It was only 500 square feet, but it was the beginning of having regular office hours.”

Since Levake’s young son and daughter often came to work with her, she brought toys for them so they could play while she worked. She has continued this practice, making sure that each of Madera Uniform’s three locations has toys for customers’ children to play with while their parents shop.

As business grew, Levake and Fudge expanded their store. The Madera location now has 1,500 square feet and four employees. In 2000, the partners opened a second shop, known as Metro Uniform & Accessories, in Fresno, Calif., 18 miles away from the Madera location. The timing was perfect; a uniform store had just closed there, and the Madera business was on firm enough footing to grow. The new 3,000-square-foot store was above a live music venue.

Levake says, “The band would go downstairs to practice for the weekend gig, and our floor would shake and people couldn’t hear you on the phone.”

Unlike the first store, this second store’s business grew slowly. Levake believes that, with law enforcement uniforms, it is difficult to successfully advertise, and really only word of mouth will get customers in the door.

In 2003, when Levake found, 5,000 square feet in a quieter location, the Fresno business moved there, just a few streets away. She and Fudge added more employees, now totaling ten. They also installed another embroidery machine and a screen-printing department.

Shortly after purchasing the building in Fresno, Levake and Fudge decided to add a solar panel system. They had experienced brownouts, and California electricity rates were only going higher and higher. The 60 solar panels on the building’s roof “power our facility nearly completely,” Levake says. “It was a large investment, but we feel strongly that it was a great investment.”

The solar power system inspired her to consider what else she might do that would help the environment. Her hybrid Saturn Vue gets great mileage and has lots of room to carry items among the company’s three stores. The company is also heavily committed to recycling.

The third store, Merced Uniform & Accessories, opened in Merced, Calif., in 2004. It represents the only expansion by purchase of an existing uniform business. The previous owners had been in business for a number of years but were ready to sell because of the husband’s ill health.

“It was interesting to be in the shop after we bought it, just looking around wondering what to do. Customers were knocking on the door trying to get in and buy things! We knew [then] we had made a good decision,” Levake says.

Three years later the Merced store moved to a larger location, with 2,500 square feet. Four employees now work at that store.

The embroidery machines are a big part of Madera Uniform’s business. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we do everything right there on our premises,” Levake says. “We find it gives us a great turnaround time, which our customers appreciate.”

Same-day service for alterations is sometimes available, depending on the backlog of orders. It isn’t always promised, though, because Levake has found that offering it can cause scheduling problems.

There is no doubt that one reason for the success of their business is the longtime friendship between Fudge and Levake. They became friends while students at California State University – Fresno. Both graduated in 1991 with Bachelor’s degrees in business.

Levake grew up with a father in uniform; he had an Air Force career of 30 years. She says that as a child, “I always remember how good he looked in his uniform and how proud I was of him when he wore it. I think of that now when children come in with their fathers or mothers [whom] I am putting in uniform. How proud they must be when they walk out the door.”

Fudge, on the other hand, comes from a family of entrepreneurs. His parents owned Shaver Lake Liquor in a nearby mountain community. He learned from them how much commitment it takes to own your own business.

Levake says that Fudge “does all the bookwork and I do all the sales. We have a great working relationship.” She adds that the last time she and her husband went on vacation, “Devin came over and babysat the kids while we were away!”

Remembering their own part-time jobs during college, Levake and Fudge like to hire college students as employees. She says, “We find it fun to work with them and to help them understand how business works. They also bring a fresh perspective to office dynamics.”

Levake’s daughter, Jessica, sometimes helps out at one of the stores during her school vacations. When she starts college at University of California – Merced this fall, she plans to work in the Merced store. Levake says her daughter “has a talent for digitizing the artwork a customer brings in to have embellished on their garments with our embroidery machines.”

Uniforms, equipment and services are the same at each of the Madera, Merced and Metro Uniform & Accessories stores. Brands carried include 5.11, Hatch, Dickies, elbeco, Streamlight, Under Armour, Propper, Blackinton, Blauer, Horace Small, Red Kap, SFKM, Boston Leather and many others.

“California is much more of a walk-in market,” Levake says, estimating that sales are about 70 percent from walk-in customers. Most customers get uniform allowance checks twice a year and come in to shop for themselves. They can keep whatever funds they decide not to spend. Special units, such as SWAT teams, are outfitted by their departments.

Everyday items shirts, boots, pants, gun holsters, equipment bags, etc. are bestselling items at Madera Uniform. The company does a lot of custom embroidered polo shirts for casual Friday uniforms and for office workers, dispatchers and other departmental employees.

Levake has found that her law enforcement and public service customers belong to an exclusive group. “You can’t do too much advertising,” she explains, “because you don’t want strangers walking in trying to buy [official uniforms and equipment].”

She makes a special effort to get to know her customers. New employees are trained to take the time to talk to customers, not to rush a sale, because there is no worry over being reprimanded for chatting with a customer. It is encouraged.

Levake and Fudge have always taken the long-term view about their company. “What grows our business is growth in the communities around us,” Levake says. “When communities grow in population, they have to hire new police officers.”

California’s Central Valley was once known for its timber industry. It is still agricultural, but is developing rapidly. One example of this growth is the first University of California campus to be built in more than 50 years, located in Merced. The all high-tech university, offering majors such as bio-engineering, has fewer than 2,000 students but is drawing attention from college-bound students. That number will grow, maybe to as much as 40,000 students, in the years ahead. Levake says, “We will get a ton of growth when that happens, with more campus police officers and security forces needed.”

The company’s customer base is drawn from smaller cities surrounding the three location cities, plus an expanding population there too. Fresno is now about 500,000 people. Madera is about 60,000, and Merced is 100,000. But with its location in the geographic center of California, Madera Uniform gets orders from the Bay Area, southern California and elsewhere around the state.

Levake says, “One of our frustrations is that people think, because we are from the Central Valley, we aren’t as big as places in the larger cities, but we are one of the largest distributors in the state for some of our suppliers. Sometimes it is hard to get over the perception that, if the business is in your own backyard, it must be small.”

Madera Uniform depends on computers, with each employee having his own computer station. Levake says that making sure that all of the technology is up to date and working is almost a full-time job. It’s also expensive, as “changing out a point-of-sale program for all of the computers can be over $50,000,” she adds.

Levake recalls a particularly difficult experience she and Fudge had while driving a large delivery to the Bay Area, a 150-mile trip, on a hot summer day. Their rented truck began overheating 30 miles into the trip. They had to wait at a gas station for mechanics to arrive. Finally, more than two hours behind schedule, they continued the drive. A few miles down the road, the truck’s air conditioning stopped working.

“We barely made the receiving window for our delivery,” Levake says. “Then that put us back on the San Francisco freeways at 3:30 in the afternoon on a blistering hot Friday. We sat in traffic for hours with no AC with a truck that we could barely keep from overheating.”

The two partners “wondered where we had gone wrong college degrees, corporation experience and people on the freeway kept looking over at us like we were a couple of losers. It was a humbling experience! But a great sale!” Levake says.

A highlight of her business career was seeing the World Police Games in Australia in 2006. She watched some of her customers from the Fresno Sheriff’s Department, the California Department of Corrections and other departments compete.

Levake designed the company’s first website, but the new one was professionally created. Built under the UniformMarket Store System, has a clean look and e-commerce capability. Also new for 2009 is the company’s first catalog. Levake and Fudge believe that the enhanced website and catalog will bring in additional sales and strengthen walk-in business.

Levake doesn’t have much time to play racquetball anymore because she’s too busy calling on new customers. But she will never forget the idea that started during a casual game and grew into a booming three-location retail business. Monte Pistoresi doesn’t play anymore either, but he still owns the local ambulance service, and he’s still a customer of Madera Uniform.

17035 Road 26, Suite G
Madera, CA 93638
Phone: (559) 661-0777
Toll Free: (877) 811-9437
Fax: (559) 661-5779

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2009 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
Halper Publishing Company
633 Skokie Blvd, #490
Northbrook, IL 60062
(877) 415-3300
Fax (224) 406-8850