Review by L. Ian MacDonald
Alvin Cramer Segal My Peerless Story: It Starts with the Collar. Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.
My Peerless Story: It Starts with the Collar By Alvin Cramer Segal
When Alvin Segal started as an 18-year-old worker in the family-owned Peerless Clothing, he knew nothing about the business. “My job at Peerless truly did start with the collars,” Segal writes in his memoir, which he’s been working on for several years.
“Collars became an obsession of mine,” he writes. “If the collar doesn’t hug the neck properly, the finished coat doesn’t fit the way it should.”
And that’s how Segal learned the clothing business, on the factory floor, from the ground up. Three years later, when he was just 21, his stepfather Moe Segal told him: “Alvin, you’re now in charge of the factory.”
At the time, in the mid-1950s, Peerless was a modest maker of low-priced suits and trousers located in the heart of Montreal’s schmatte district. Its sales were about $2 million a year with profit margins around five per cent. All its customers were in Canada, in places like Eaton’s basement.
Today, Peerless is the largest maker of men’s and boys’ tailored clothing in the world. Among its global highend labels are Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.
And Alvin Segal sits atop the clothing world as the King of Suits. Now 83, and for decades the company’s executive chairman and CEO, he still works at the Peerless plant on Pie-IX Boulevard in the North End of Montreal, a place glittering with all the modern tools of the trade.
The story of how Segal built a Canadian world champion is one that starts on the floor of that factory, with suits shipped every day across the border to a distribution centre that is the largest employer in St. Albans, Vt.
But the Peerless success story is also one of how Segal made the most of free trade, first the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) implemented in 1989, and then the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) beginning in 1994.
During the FTA negotiations from 1985-87, the Mulroney government struck Sectoral Advisory Groups on International Trade (SAGITs), with Canadian industries. “On the apparel SAGIT,” he writes, “I represented men’s fine clothing.”
He continues: “Regular SAGIT meetings were held for three years, and I gathered a tremendous amount of knowledge throughout the proceedings.” During the SAGIT talks, he writes, “it became very clear that the apparel industry needed access to raw materials not made in North America to compete with free trade.”
Shifting the rules of origin in fabric, with foreign materials qualifying as domestic content, was Segal’s signature breakthrough in the FTA round. Segal writes he was “introduced to the words ‘imports’ and ‘quotas’ and began to gain a full understanding of their meaning and importance to our industry.” Under the FTA, Peerless would make the most of both.
“We had a fabric advantage, the right product and no international union stopping us from making changes,” he writes. “It was the perfect combination of ideal conditions and unique opportunities.” Segal also built a strong sales team in New York, the home of the American clothing industry.
Sales was not a role Segal would ever have been cut out for himself, because of a serious stutter—one of the reasons he was first put in the cutting room, and learned the business bottom to top.
Segal’s personal narrative is one of twists of fate, leading to destiny, fate being something that happens and destiny being something that’s created.
Born as Alvin Cramer in upstate New York, his father George Cramer died when he was only seven. Relatives set his mother, Betsy Pearson Cramer, up with the recently widowed Moe Segal in Montreal, which is how Alvin came to Canada, adopting his stepfather’s name when he went to work for him.
From there, the stepson with the stutter whose gut instinct and onesentence business philosophy—have a long-range plan that changes every day—made him one of the most successful manufacturers in Canadian history, bought the company, lost the stutter and became a prominent philanthropist in Montreal’s Jewish
community, supporting cancer research at the Jewish General Hospital, and creating the Segal Centre for Performing Arts.
His Peerless story demonstrates how success in business can also lead to a culture of giving back, both to his employees and his community. It’s a worthy story, on both levels.