NEW YORK — The way Ted Goldsmith tells it, he graduated from high school on a Friday and went to work the following Monday in his family’s coat business.
Forty-four years later, he has exited just as unceremoniously.
Admired for his easygoing manner and square-in-the-eye honesty, Goldsmith sat down last week to reflect on his career and the changes he has seen along the way.
In 1959, the year he joined what was then Bromley, women still had coat wardrobes and most styles had interlinings for added warmth and retailed for $50. In those days, Bromley was a $2 million operation that specialized in dress and casual coats, with traditional tweed coats comprising 95 percent of the sales. The company’s slogan, “Honesty behind the scenes” — is something that its current incarnation, Herman Kay Bromley, a $110 million business that was the merger of Bromley and Herman Kay Coats, still lives by.
Goldmith’s father, Irving, and his business partner, Willy Bernstein, founded the coat firm in 1928 as Bernstein & Goldsmith.
“The problem was they weren’t so friendly and they had different philosophies,” Goldsmith recalled. “Bernstein was always looking to save a nickel or quarter here and there. My dad’s philosophy was to put quality into the garment to live up to the credo of ‘Honesty behind the scenes.’”
The younger Goldsmith shared that philosophy, according to Monroe Milstein, president and chief executive officer of Burlington Coat Factory. “Ted’s word was his bond. He was the most honorable man in the coat business.”
In 1933, they renamed the company Bromley, thinking that would give the brand more cachet. After the pair split in 1947, Goldsmith remained in the Bricken Arcade Building at 225 West 37th Street. The Garment District was a much livelier scene in the Fifties and Sixties due primarily to the abundance of domestic production, Goldsmith said.
“The streets were so busy you had to watch that you didn’t get hit by a hand truck or rolling rack,” he said.
Business suits were the norm, and men weren’t allowed in elevators unless they wore neckties. The 500 Club, the restaurant on the 15th floor of 500 Seventh Avenue, was abuzz with out-of-town buyers and other industry executives. After 12:30 p.m., tables were hard to come by on any given day. Given the coat market’s vigor at that time, it was common for Bromley to have four tables engaged during market week.
Bromley was a leader in the industry in terms of hiring women for sales positions in the Seventies, Goldsmith said. Prior to that, most working women were bookkeepers, he added.
In the Eighties, Bromley received anonymous letters claiming the company’s plant manager in Douglas, Ga., was having sexual relations with employees during work hours. Goldsmith and his brother, Howard, who worked in the business for many years before retiring several years ago, flew there and interviewed various employees. When they confronted the manager, who was also a minister, he claimed he was praying with them.
“I told him our company policy doesn’t permit two-hour prayer services,” Goldsmith said. “You have one hour to clear out your desk.”
That facility was set up in 1983. A factory in Middletown, N.Y., opened in 1937 and ran for 50 years. Production is one of the biggest challenges coat makers face today. With women no longer buying coats in the spring, it is more of a struggle to keep factories running on a year-round basis, Goldsmith said.
“The wool spring coat business has disappeared,” he said. Once that happened, companies like Bromley were typically in the hole by a couple of million dollars by July 1 and had the added pressure of making up for that loss and turning a profit by the end of each year, he said.
As dress codes became more casual, more sportswear labels got into coats. There are almost as many sportswear firms today that make coats as there are outerwear companies, Goldsmith said. In addition, more mail-order businesses like Talbots, L.L. Bean, Lands’ End and Eddie Bauer are creeping into the business. The boom in private label from a cross section of retailers like Gap and Casual Corner also has taken its toll.
At the start of his career, there were 400 companies that made suits and coats. By the time Bromley sold to Herman Kay in 1999, five of those firms still existed. Bromley’s business at that time was about $50 million. Today, Herman Kay Bromley holds outerwear licenses for Anne Klein, Albert Nipon, London Fog, JLo by Jennifer Lopez and Michael Michael Kors.
Some friendly advice for outerwear makers still in the game? Goldsmith said, “You have to diversify. If you get into sportswear, fine, but there have been very few coat makers who have succeeded. If you’re going to be in the coat business, you can’t depend on any one product classification. Down-filled coats are still in demand, but these things change.”
A University of Pennsylvania graduate who majored in sociology, Goldsmith said training people, such as Gail Von Elm, who has gone on to be product manager for the Amerex Group, was one of the highlights of his career.
Barry Kay, co-president of Herman Kay Bromley, said, “Ted was a great teacher with great people skills. He was well respected.”
Goldsmith said, “The key ingredient to why our firm prospered was we would put employees first. The more opportunity we gave our employees, the more productive they would become and everyone would benefit. We didn’t put people into a mold. When someone came into the business, we assessed their abilities and what they could bring to the company. Each person redefined the job based on what they could bring to the job.”
Giving staffers that respect resulted in their staying with the company — some for as long as 30 to 40 years, Goldsmith said. It also meant when there were vacancies at Herman Kay, there was no trouble filling them.
Goldsmith credits his father for setting the stage. Irving was still working for the company at the age of 85, when he died in 1988.
“He was a gentleman’s gentleman,” Ted said. “When he was talking on the phone, you couldn’t tell if he was talking to the president of Macy’s or Sally of Sally’s Style Shop who ordered 16 coats. That went for our employees, too. When you treat people with respect, you give it and it comes back to you from suppliers, employees and customers. You build long-term relationships.”
Prior to his resignation at the end of last year, Goldsmith spent the past five years focusing on the company’s account with Burlington Coat Factory. Milstein of Burlington said, “gave me free hands to do my job to merchandise our product and make sure he made a lot of money.”
“I was given the opportunity to be a creative merchant,” Goldsmith said. “The Burlington business was one of one of my proudest accomplishments because it was built on trust.”
Now, Goldsmith is building a second career, volunteering his time as a teacher at the High School for Fashion Industries in Manhattan, where he helps students write college essays, among other things. But he isn’t walking away from the outerwear industry entirely.
“This afternoon, I’m going by the [Herman Kay Bromley] showroom. I told Barry [Kay] I have some thoughts about next year,” he added. “It’s hard to get it out of your system after all these years.”