Alvin Segal’s story: from factory floor to philanthropist

It was 20 years ago when I first met Alvin Segal, not knowing then that he was a giant of the men’s suit industry, a pioneer whose drive and ingenuity were legendary.

It was late at night that winter, and we were rehearsing the first Yiddish language production of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz at what was then called the Saidye Bronfman Centre.

There was Alvin, the wealthy and successful clothing magnate, with then wife Leanore Segal, bringing the cast a case of sandwiches and drinks from Costco, along with his smile, quiet warmth, and encouragement. They did it several times that year.

This was hands-on Alvin, showing what has been his style throughout a career that started when he was still a teenager – personal involvement and commitment, from the bottom up.

He is also there when it comes time to sign a cheque for causes he believes in, which is why his name is now affixed to such institutions as the Segal Center for the Performing arts, and the Segal Comprehensive Cancer Centre at the Jewish General Hospital. Since both his parents died of cancer, Segal told a blue-ribbon crowd at his book launch in July that he has yet to have a guided tour of the highly regarded institution he supports.

Young Alvin moved here with his mom and siblings and lived on Isabella near Lemieux after she married Moe Segal, following the death of his own dad, George Cramer. He died at 42 when Alvin was seven.

This was among the challenges that young Alvin had to face and why his autobiography, My Peerless Story: It Starts with the Collar (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 209 pages,) is such a revealing and inspiring read.

It is not your typical rags to riches tale. Alvin, now 83, came from a comfortable background in Amsterdam, just outside Albany, NY, but two years after his father’s death, their home was sold and the family moved to Albany where they rented. As he writes, his formerly financially comfortable mother Betty now had to struggle “to maintain that illusion.”

An even greater challenge was his stutter and being hyperactive, which affected his social interaction and academic performance. But rather than repeat grades, he opted to move to the next level, displaying a drive that became a character trait – “I
always move forward and let people think I don’t know what’s going on,” he writes. His curiosity about how household objects work and how to fix things turned out to be a big plus for his future career.

His formative years were also marked by his having to fight his way to school because of attacks by anti-Semitic bullies.

Alvin Cramer became Alvin Segal after his mother was invited to Montreal to attend a cousin’s wedding. As he later learned it was all part of a plan by the sisters of Moe Segal, recently widowed, to have him meet and possibly marry her.

It was a classic match – in Yiddish a shidach: Moe and Betty married and the family moved to Montreal. Alvin continued to have problems in school, so when he flunked French in grade 11, he was given a choice – finish high school in the U.S., where French competency was not a requirement or go to work for his stepfather at their Pine Ave. factory at $35 a week. He had never been in a factory and barely knew what his new dad did for a living, but the money was good, it was a way to abandon the frustration of school, so Alvin said yes.

This is where his story begins, Segal told Jewish community leaders and friends at the Segal Centre book launch, his wife Emmelle among the glittering crowd.

Alvin started working at Peerless Clothes on Pine – “Canada’s Best Value in Clothes” – then manufacturing low-priced suits and overcoats and employing 300 workers.

His learning curve began on the factory floor, pairing the top collar with the felt under-collar. And since he always loved tinkering with things mechanical, the factory floor with its many machines and systems was ideal for this rookie to learn. Those early years turned out to the equivalent of a PhD in suit manufacturing and made him an expert “inside man” who knew everything there was to know, from buttonholes to lapels and cuffs and linings, and how the machinery works.

At one point Alvin’s mentor, Harry Diamond, complained to Moe Segal that he could no longer work with Alvin, and in response to his own “him or me” ultimatum, Diamond opted to quit after 28 years.

Alvin was 21, and though he had been with Peerless for less than three years, was put in complete charge of the factory!

These early years are among the most fascinating in the book because it shows how a young man using his inner strength and desire to succeed can overcome what look like impossible impediments. Taking over factory operations was only the beginning. There were union battles to come, and Segal’s strategy was to match whatever increases and gains the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union obtained at the bargaining table for his employees and its house union. Segal credits himself with never giving workers a reason to join a union, even paying for work when the shop was closed on Jewish holidays, which in turn gave him flexibility to acquire new technology and increase productivity, until eventually the Teamsters organized the unit.

Among the secrets to his success was to make quality suits affordable by perfecting the so-called engineered suit. It made the perfect collar, increasing quality without having to use costly tailoring. Segal was extremely active in meeting with industry-labour joint committees and lobbying governments on how to keep the industry healthy, persuading Ottawa that separate policies were needed for textiles and clothing sectors. He then led the apparel sector in negotiations of the free trade agreements in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result of the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. as of January 1989 and a new factory on Pie IX Blvd. in Anjou, Peerless was operating “in a financial sweet spot,” with no import tariff on raw materials for the first five years for garments exported to the U.S. After signing up American sales wizard Ronny Wurzburger – “the best salesman and merchandiser I have ever known” – he followed Ronny’s immediate advice: Although Alvin’s fabric buyer cautioned against it, Wurzburger insisted they manufacture suits from gabardine cloth, which Peerless had been avoiding because it is more difficult to tailor.

Buyers liked it, and in spite of a normally higher price point, it became the firm’s “signature” suit in the U.S.

Until 2003 every unit Peerless sold was made in its Montreal factory, but because of pricing pressure from imported products the company began importing finished garments and reduced the workforce by about 1,500 employees. As he writes, manufacturing offshore opened the door to lower costs and made the firm more competitive and versatile.

The Montreal factory still employs about 1,000 operators, it creates and produces new designs and samples, and allows it to complete rush orders and respond to specific requests. It also is able to produce higher quality “half-canvas” garments for the higher price point. The Montreal production is shipped daily to its huge distribution center in St. Alban’s, Vt., and the trucks return with imported garments that need touch-ups or repairs.

Peerless today is the largest producer of fine tailored clothing in North America, and it is licenced to produce and sell many of the most prominent international labels at the department store level, including Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and as of January Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors.

As Segal said at his book launch: “God bless Macy’s!”

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