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Sentry Uniform Stands Guard Over Growth and Profit

The right location can make or break a retail store. Even in this age of Internet websites and next-day catalog delivery, really nothing can replace walk-in sales for the bottom line.

So when Neil OLeary opened his business, it wasnt by chance that it was adjacent to the main gates of a bustling Air Force base. He was putting into action his own observations from his days in the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Geiger in North Carolina.

As you go out the [Camp Geiger] gate, there was a series of businesses: restaurants, gas stations and a couple of dry-cleaning operations. As we left the base, we would stop in that dry cleaners and take our trousers off in a booth, and [the clerk] would press them, and we would toss a dollar or two in the pot and be on our way, OLeary says. But there was a bunch of money pouring out of that pot. When I came back to that base a year or so later, that cleaners was all spruced up and doing very well. That image was imbedded in my mind.

After tours in World War II and Korea, OLeary returned home to Massachusetts and bought a parcel of land just off the Westover Air Force Base in 1955. The land he bought, originally with the intention of establishing an auto repair shop, became Sentry Cleaners, and business was booming almost instantly. He expanded the building and bought equipment as quickly as he could afford it.

At first, OLeary wanted to name the business SAC Cleaners, for Strategic Air Command. Out of respect, he approached the bases public information office for its opinion which was lukewarm. While still in that office, he peered out the window to the bases guardhouse and the sentry stationed inside, and took that name instead. He adopted as a logo the image of the British Foot Guards who stand sentry outside Buckingham Palace and elsewhere.

OLeary capitalized on the military population gushing out of the gates who needed not only dry cleaning and pressing but also buttons replaced, patches and chevrons sewn on and uniforms repaired. Eventually the box of spare items Sentry Cleaners kept under the counter turned into an entire area of its own.

He says, Before we knew it, we had a counter or two of military accessories in a small space, and we just couldnt handle it properly, so we decided to put an addition on to the building. My bookkeeper was my very first employee in the uniform portion; she became the clerk of the uniform store.

Sentry Uniform was officially born in 1962 as its own entity apart from the dry cleaners but still on the same property. Soon enough, police officers were asking Sentry to carry the uniform pants they had been getting from visiting salesmen. The police wanted a source where they could try on the pants and walk away with their purchases the same day instead of ordering and going for occasional measuring.

Sentry Uniform was quick to comply, bringing in a batch of pants that OLeary says sold almost instantly. Shirts followed soon after and then shoes, the first of which were U.S. Navy reject shoes. The quality was still good, and they sold quickly as well.

We started to expand, we hired more people, and the next thing we knew we had a full-blown uniform store that continues to grow even as we speak. Were finding business coming to us from places we never expected, he says, citing a phone call earlier that day from someone an hours drive away who was looking for a specific item Sentry had in stock.

Customers run the gamut from new police recruits to famous celebrities. OLeary has helped outfit the likes of Gen. George Patton, Stepin Fetchit and Jack Benny. Patton called from 35,000 feet mid-flight to order Mess Dress uniform pants that he needed delivered to Westover Air Force Base where he would land just a few minutes later. Bennys jacket was brought in with a hotels laundry, and it needed a button. OLeary remembers fixing the button and tucking a note in the pocket instead of a bill for the repair. He was rewarded with a signed photo from the famous entertainer.

OLeary even went to great lengths to equip B-52 crews, who had to remain close enough to their loaded bomber planes to takeoff at a moments notice when the klaxon horn sounded. He would bring samples for the men to try on and would deliver their items directly to their mole holes where they stayed when on duty.

With 18 employees, Sentry Uniform now provides uniform apparel, insignia and equipment for police, fire, security and EMT departments throughout Massachusetts and across the country via phone and mail orders. Sentry Cleaners still is operating in the adjacent building with a similar number of employees, but that business has seen a lower plateau of business since the Westover base was reduced in 1974 to an Air Force Reserve base. It is the largest Air Force Reserve base in the nation, but its land area and personnel have been cut, leaving Sentry Cleaners now a mile from the perimeter to focus more on civilian than military customers.

OLeary has brought his family into the business, passing the cleaners to his daughter Patty and her husband, Gary. The uniform store is managed by Neils son Mike and daughter Eileen. Neil is still very hands-on with the businesses, but he tends to focus mostly on the most recent additions Sentry Flag and Banner and the embroidery service of Sentry Uniform. At age 78, Neil enjoys spending the winter months in Florida during the slow time of year for the flag business. This part-time retirement even allows him to continue piloting airplanes as his beloved hobby.

OLeary says, The biggest obstacle I have faced is space. I was fanatical about not borrowing money. I wanted to owe very little and pay off fast. I bought a lot of used equipment for the cleaners from auctions, so I was very liquid when I started the uniform business. I expanded as I had the money to do so. As a result, were not in a big open hangar-type space; we have a lot of walls I wish I didnt have, but we own every bit of it and dont owe a nickel. Thats a nice feeling.

The approximately 20,000 square feet are divided evenly between the uniform store and the cleaners, with some storage and office space shared between the two. In what has proved to be a wise move, OLeary had the foresight to build apartments on the second floor of all his additions, so income is supplemented by 10 apartments rent. He and some of the employees have lived in those apartments at various times.

In addition to Neil, Mike and Eileen, the Sentry Uniform staff is rounded out by four sewing specialists, two office employees, a shipper/receiver, and about eight general clerks that help customers and fill other needs.
We maintain a large sales force so we can get our customers in and out fast. We help them out right away so they arent just standing around waiting for us to lend a hand, says OLeary. Sometimes we get a large crowd at once theres no predicting how that works and if you dont have the bodies there to help them, some people tend to get upset and leave without buying anything.

Sentry Uniform is slowly reducing its dependence on Yellow Pages advertising. While most of its customers have come from word of mouth, OLeary is starting to focus his advertising budget more on Internet presence as he believes many people arent turning to the phone book as much as they once did. Occasional newspaper ads that cover the Western Massachusetts area and some direct mail pieces complete the advertising Sentry Uniform exercises.

Quality staff, free coffee and almost 50 years of uniform experience bring customers back to the store. Many employees have been with Sentry for several years, and some have a direct relation either a family member or spouse to active duty officers. New products are added all the time; Mike is proud of one of the newest additions, needle-resistant gloves to protect police and security officers. And the recent availability of custom embroidery is bringing in a new base of customers who want department logos and lettering applied to shirts, jackets, hats and equipment. Multi-head embroidery machines are just the latest in the ever-expanding equipment acquisition plan.

OLeary says, We want to stay good at what we do, and we do this very well. We want to offer the best possible service and inventory that we can have. We never stop thinking about a new product line. Were constantly introducing new items, and we know very shortly whether its something the people want.

The three branches of Sentry play well off each other. Customers can walk out of the uniform portion with a custom uniform program for a whole department. Sentry Uniform will tailor anything it sells on-site, right away if possible. People looking to tailor outside garments are directed to Sentry Cleaners, who are also recommended as the cleaners of any uniform Sentry sells through the uniform portion. The veterans groups who often are looking for jackets, hats and pants for members of their American Legion, VFW or similar posts are also shown parade regalia and flag pole items from Sentry Flag and Banner. Customers love the one-stop location for everything from custom embroidery of uniform apparel to the installation and flags of the flag pole outside the department.

As OLeary says, Our program and our plan are working even with the competition from catalogs and new retail stores. If you can handle competition, then you are doing something right. We hit the jackpot from the start with the cleaners, and weve been adapting and growing ever since.

Sentry Uniform
803 James St.
Chicopee, MA 01020
Phone: (413) 536-1236
Fax: (413) 536-9280

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Spring & Summer 2007 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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