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Sy Syms, Retail Pioneer, Dies at 83

Pioneered off-price retailing and grew chain to 30 stores.

Sy Syms, who pioneered the off-price apparel retailing concept when he founded Syms Corp. 50 years ago, died of heart failure at his home in New York City on Tuesday. He was 83.

Syms founded the business in New York’s financial district in 1959 and created the retailer’s famous tag line, “An Educated Consumer Is Our Best Customer,” a slogan he narrated in the company’s first television commercial in 1974. His mellifluous voice, which he honed as a sportscaster early in his adult life, continues to be used on the company’s commercials.

Syms, which had annual sales of $245 million last year, operates 30 stores in 13 states. In June, the Secaucus, N.J.-based company acquired Filene’s Basement, bringing the size of the firm to 52 stores under the Syms and Filene’s Basement names.

In 1983, when Syms had expanded to 11 stores, Sy Syms took the company public. He remained chief executive officer of the corporation until 1998, when he was succeeded by his daughter, Marcy Syms, the current ceo.

“My father had an uncanny talent that made him sensitive to the needs of his customers and the changes in the marketplace,” Marcy Syms said Tuesday. “He knew the time was right for off-price retailing. Certainly he was ahead of his time.”

In her 1992 book, “Mind Your Own Business,” Marcy wrote: “Part of my father’s tradition that has become the foundation of our company culture involves his simplicity, authenticity and directness.” When he started the business, she said, new laws required labels on merchandise be honest and complete. “Irregulars had to be clearly marked so consumers would know what they were buying. In this new atmosphere, Sy opened a store that bought brand-name irregulars for less than wholesale and sold them for less than normal retail. It was defined as off-price.”

Ronny Wurtzburger, president of Peerless Clothing International, called Syms a “gentle, giant gentleman” who was as committed to the men’s wear community as he was innovative. “People went to Sy for help, and he never said no. He was giving with people and shrewd in business.”

Sy Syms was born Seymour Merinsky in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 12, 1926. Syms attended Brooklyn’s Midwood High School, served in the U.S. Army and attended New York University under the GI Bill. He was a sportscaster in Maryland and West Virginia before returning to New York in 1950 to join Merns, a retail store opened by Syms’ father and older brother George on Vesey Street. A fallout with George prompted Syms to open a rival store on Cortlandt Street in 1959, which he named Sy Merns.

Marcy Syms wrote that this resulted in a “volcanic reaction” from George, who went to court to block the business. “Dad took his first name, Sy,” Marcy wrote, “and combined it with the first and last letter of Merns and arrived at a name that the court would accept. Eventually it became simpler for Sy to change his name legally,” a move he made after he launched TV advertising in 1974, she said.

Syms was also the founding board member of the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University and served on the Yeshiva University Board of Trustees. For 15 years, he served on the executive board of state of Israel Bonds, the last two years as its chairman. He was a board member for the Better Business Bureau of Greater New York, and until 2008, was a trustee of the Inner City Scholarship Fund of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

The Sy Syms Foundation, which he established, has endowed many philanthropic organizations, including the American Heart Association (which honored him in 2002 with a Heart of New York Award); Boys Town of Jerusalem; Children’s Cancer Center & Blood Foundation; Congregation Emanu-El (where he was a member); Friends of the Israel Philharmonic; Parkinson’s Disease Foundation; UJA-Federation of New York and Public Television including Thirteen/WNET. Syms was the first retailer to underwrite public broadcasting, beginning with “Frontline.” Through the foundation, Syms also supported many educational institutions, including the Allen-Stevenson School, Boston University, Parsons The New School for Design, Columbia University, Fashion Institute of Technology, Monmouth University and Bryant University.

Syms is survived by his wife, Lynn Tamarkin Syms. A father of six, he was predeceased by his son, Stephen, in 1998 and his daughter, Adrienne, in 1999. In addition to Marcy, he is survived by sons Robert and Richard, his daughter Laura, two stepchildren, 10 grandchildren and three sisters.

The date of a funeral service had not been set by press time; however, it will be held at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to Mount Sinai Heart, c/o Valentin Fuster, MD, Mount Sinai Medical Center, One Gustave L. Levy Place, Box 1030, New York, N.Y., 10029-6574.