Monday, January 7, 2008


Father, son are the clothing company
Sonny and Joseph Levy: Dressing hunters for 50 years
By Tim Rausch| Staff Writer
Monday, January 07, 2008

Hanging in the hunting section of Academy Sports and Outdoors are some camouflage youth T-shirts that didn't have to travel far to get onto the rack. The tag says "Ranger, Augusta, Georgia." The warehouse they came from is at the end of a small street called Crescent Drive about two miles away.

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Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Sonny and Joseph Levy pose inside Sonny's office at the company. Bell Fatigue once relied on American goods and services but has had to farm out its clothing to markets in other countries to keep up with the competition.

"Most people don't even know who we are," said Joseph Levy, the president of Bell Fatigue Co., the maker of Ranger brand hunting clothes. "They'll come to us off the street and say 'didn't even know you're here.' "

Mr. Levy is 50 -- as old as his company.

His father, Irvin "Sonny" Levy, started Bell in 1957 as a spinoff from an uncle's textile company, Wilson Shirt. Sonny Levy took extras from Army fatigue production and sold them to mom-and-pop Army-Navy stores across the nation.

Though he is semiretired, Sonny, 79, still owns the company and retains the title of chief executive. He goes to the office every week.

Haskell Toporek considers himself lucky to have spent his business career with Sonny Levy. Mr. Toporek is the former president of Ranger Manufacturing, which was once a sister company to Bell.

Ranger, which was folded into Bell in 1991, was treated as a wholly separate company, though owned by the same people. The companies were competitors -- their staffs wouldn't even associate at trade shows.

The wall that separated the two companies in the Crescent Drive building is still there.

"Sonny and I complemented each other," said Mr. Toporek, who is now a financial consultant at Augusta's Smith Barney office. "He loved the technical side of the business. I'm a salesman and enjoy being out."

The mantle of salesman now belongs to Joseph, who acknowledges that he is driven by the challenge of selling the company's wares. "I've been in front of the million-dollar company. It just gives me a rush."

Father and son were cut from different molds.

"Sonny is a soft sell, and Joseph is more direct," says Jeff Foreman, an Augusta accountant and childhood friend of Joseph. "He's always been a people person. Quick thinker on his feet while under pressure."

It is a pressure-filled industry. The number of textile and apparel companies in the United States has been declining for decades. The few that remain have their clothes manufactured in foreign countries with low production costs.

Unlike other companies in the industry, Bell Fatigue never had to cut hundreds of jobs or close a factory -- it's never had either one.

Bell has contracted with other companies to make its wares since it opened in 1957. As domestic producers closed, Bell Fatigue followed its brethren to have most of its clothing made overseas.

A big percentage of the people wearing Bell Fatigue's clothing aren't old enough to hunt. Outside of its bread-and-butter Ranger line of hunting clothes, the company has carved a niche of children's and women's clothing. Camouflage is no longer just a style for hunters, paintball players and military enthusiasts. It is in fashion now, spotted on cargo pants and purses. It even comes in pink and blue.

It is the off-season right now. Even so, there are boxes stacked shoulder high to Joseph Levy in the warehouse. From June to August, 100,000 pieces of clothing will arrive every week. Dozens of employees will repackage them for delivery to hunting stores, Army-Navy stores and some major retailers, including Academy Sports and Cracker Barrel.

"Whatever savings we get, we like to pass on to our customers. Joe knows that. He makes it easier to be where we're at," says Michael Blinka, a buyer for Dallas-based Academy Sports.

Mr. Blinka knew the Levys while working for a hunting catalog before joining Academy.

He said the company has a family feel and is easy to work with. He said he can line up an entire year's orders and schedules in just one meeting.

"The thing about Joe is ... whatever I need, he'll go get what I'm after. He really goes to work on it," Mr. Blinka said.

Made in ... ?

Joseph says Bell Fatigue was about five years behind its competitors in moving its production overseas.

"We couldn't stay in business unless we made overseas," Sonny said.

Until 10 years ago, Bell had everything made in the United States -- in Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri.

Bell Fatigue fought off the market forces that were driving competitors out of the country.

"The relationship we'd built was so strong that they stuck with us. We had good quality and good pricing," Sonny said.

The company's first venture into foreign production came after a North Carolina factory that made T-shirts closed.

"We had to move it to Mexico. From Mexico to the Dominican (Republic). It ended up in Pakistan," Sonny said.

Though the cut-and-sew production was done overseas, the cloth could still be bought domestically. That changed when the cloth houses started to close down as textile production began moving to the same countries where the apparel was being produced.

Today, Bell can lose an account over a penny's difference in price. Sonny laments that the business has moved away from friendlier days.

"When I was in business, it was a hand shake, it was a friend. Now today, it is different. It is dog eat dog," he said. "It isn't what you did for me yesterday, it is what are you going to do for me today."

Most of Bell's clothing is made in Pakistan. Planning for next fall's clothing starts now. It takes 16 weeks to receive a shipment -- four weeks of that involves transportation by cargo ship.

"We have agents in the countries. We don't go to the factory," Joseph said. "Our production people stay on the phone with the factories every day."

One of the agents lives in Canada and travels to Pakistan every 10 weeks and stays there for three weeks at a time. He is the son of the manufacturer's owner, which is why Joseph Levy doesn't feel nervous that the happenings in Pakistan will affect business.

Textiles are Pakistan's top export, but the Levys say Vietnam is now turning into a large source for textiles.

Nimble adjustment in the business is what keeps Bell Fatigue going.

The company sold tens of thousands of its baby booties with college logos on them at Cracker Barrel stores last year.

One of the hottest lines in the company's lineup was under the Little Joey name, a marketing twist on Joseph Levy's college nickname. The camouflage toddler clothing was introduced five years ago.

"That went crazy. Product was leaving the door quicker than we could produce it," Joseph said. "Everything we made, we sold. If we had made more, we could have sold it."

It sold so well that competitors have noticed the niche. Bell keeps it fresh by embroidering catchy phrases, such as "daddy's little doe."

With the long lead time to get ready for the year, there's no way to factor in a surge capacity for hot-selling items, he says.

The first gulf war put a high demand on desert-style camouflage clothing. It was another occasion that Bell sold everything it had produced.

"We boosted as much as we could. We sold every piece that we made. It was that powerful during the gulf war, people wanted to be backing the U.S. It was unforeseen. You can't really build a surge capacity. That's inventory to sit here," Joseph said. "It is impossible to build for that one time you think might happen."

Bell Fatigue received an exporter award in 1992 because it had done so well.

The company doesn't make battle dress uniforms for the military, though inquiries have been made over the years. Its clothing lineup, however, has always been tied to what the military wears.

For most of its life, Bell Fatigue made Army-style, olive-drab and khakis until demand dipped. Ranger Manufacturing began in 1969 as a way to sell camouflage, a change in military dress brought on by the Vietnam War.

Uncle Max

Even though Sonny Levy has an accounting degree from the University of Georgia, he ended up in the "rag business." After all, he'd been working for his Uncle Max since he was a child, traveling down to his uncle's plant in Louisville, Ga., in the summertime.

Uncle Max was Max Estroff, who ran Wilson Shirt Co. and its subsidiaries called Trooper Manufacturing and Commando Manufacturing with partner Jack Fink. Mr. Estroff spent time in local politics, serving as an Augusta city councilman.

Mr. Estroff's factory had been making fatigues for the Army since the Korean War.

"They ended up with seconds that they couldn't use, they couldn't ship to the Army," Sonny recalls. Bell Fatigue became the outlet to sell those seconds, which were desired by the small Army-Navy stores. It wasn't long before Bell was selling more than Mr. Estroff's company could produce, prompting Bell to start contracting out work to more factories.

Bell Fatigue started on Broad Street but moved to Wilco Avenue off Gordon Highway before settling in its current home in 1985.

Mr. Toporek was working for Mr. Estroff, his father-in-law, at the time Ranger started in 1969.

"My wife was a partner in Bell Fatigue," Mr. Toporek said. "And Sonny wanted to be a partner in (Ranger) because Dale was a partner in his company."

The duo of Mr. Fink and Mr. Estroff would be echoed in a sense with the duo of Sonny and Mr. Toporek. Mr. Estroff was the operational guy, spending his time in the factories with the people. Mr. Fink was the salesman.

With Ranger and Bell, Sonny was the stay-at-home partner and Mr. Toporek was the traveling salesman.

"The greatest thing about Sonny is, he is the calmest man in the world. Like the rest of his family," Mr. Toporek said. "I was a guy who flew off the handle when I was younger. I think Sonny calmed me down."

In 1987, Mr. Toporek made Sonny a Paul Harris Fellow at the Augusta Rotary Club.

"There's no better way to tell your business partner that you love him," Mr. Toporek said.

By the 1980s, Bell and Ranger were selling the same types of clothing.

"When we'd go to a show, we'd be competitors. Wouldn't even speak to each other, you know," Sonny said. "We'd go out to dinner, but when it came time for the show, we didn't want our customers to know we were in any way connected."

With duplicated sales reps and bookkeepers, it started to become obvious that the two companies needed to merge.

Mr. Toporek says his children didn't want to follow him into the business.

"I had my fingers crossed that Sonny would buy me. I didn't want to run that business by myself," Mr. Toporek said.

The Levys bought out all of the partners, and it was one company in 1991.

Bell Fatigue employs between 45 and 50 sales reps. There are a dozen people working in the warehouse and office.

Sonny Levy will turn 80 in May.

"Been a good life, I can't complain," he said.

He spends most of his time caring for his wife, Marilyn, who has suffered three strokes.

He has worked with his son for the past 20 years.

"We've never had a disagreement, which is unusual for a family business," he said. "Anything he wants, sit down and discuss it. It is nothing like you read about a family."

His other children, Stephen and Terri, aren't connected with the business, nor are his siblings -- brother Gerald was in TV advertising throughout his career.

More generations?

Joseph Levy's oldest son is 21. He's not sure there will be a third generation running the company, though he'd like to see it continue as a family business.

"I would like for him to go somewhere else and learn business and have the door slammed in his face and then we'll see," he said.

Joseph didn't go to work for his father right away after college. He didn't work there as a youngster either, though he played in the warehouse.

Charles Jefferson, a 43-year Bell employee, pushed the Levy children around in carts.

"I raised him," Mr. Jefferson said with a smile.

Joseph left Augusta for Tampa Bay, Fla., to attend college. After getting his degree in business management, he went to work for a Florida computer software company.

"He wanted me to have the door slammed in my face and know what work was really about," Joseph said. "You learn 'no,' and you learn to solve your problems when people tell you 'no.' "

He met his wife, Marisa, in Tampa. He also picked up his nickname there: "My roommate in college called me 'Little Joey' all the time; he was a big guy. Everyone else started using it."

Joseph didn't become part of the family business until 1986, when the company was getting too big for his father to handle by himself.

Business has become busier; he doesn't play as much tennis and golf as he once did. He played enough tennis that he competed in tournaments. Some of those trophies dot his office shelves.

"You can play golf with him, and he can play once a year and shoot 85. He is athletic, I've got to give him credit," Mr. Foreman said of his lifelong friend. "He has always wanted to stay in great shape. I wouldn't say an exercise-aholic, but he does exercise on a (continual) basis ... to try to conserve his youth. But he needs to color his hair if he needs to do that, I tell him that all the time. He won't do that."

You'd think people who run a hunting clothes company would do some hunting. You'd be wrong. Neither Levy has been a hunter.

"I've been asked to hunt in some of the nicest places in the world. I've had customers call me wanting me to go to Argentina. One of my suppliers asked me to come to Brazil," Joseph said.

A client in Texas who has Ross Perot as a silent partner has invited him many times to hunt on Mr. Perot's land.

"I don't hunt, and I don't tell people that, either, because we're in that business," he said.

A family business still going after 50 years is rare. He says there have been companies interested in acquiring Bell Fatigue, but that's to be expected when a company is growing and successful.

Mr. Foreman says his friend has spoken of retirement.

"But I don't think he ever will," he said. "I think he likes the competitive spirit of the business."

Mr. Levy agrees on that account.

"I enjoy it. I like the competition of going against the customer when they want the dime, nickel and penny. Before we're through, you're going to buy from me," the confident Mr. Levy said.

He'll have his chance on the big stage during the Shot Show, the industry's annual convention. It will take place Super Bowl weekend in Las Vegas. The 1,000-square-foot booth will be in a prime location. They get that choice because they've been in business for so long.

One of the company's major announcements will be an exclusive agreement with bow maker Matthews Corp. Bell will make all of its clothing gear. Mr. Levy sees it as a new customer base and a lot of sales during the next four years.

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