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.

Policy - - In This Issue - Re­view by L. Ian Mac­Don­ald

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.

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