Articles

HE SUITS MILLIONS

RAY GARDNER March 1 1949
Articles

HE SUITS MILLIONS

RAY GARDNER March 1 1949

HE SUITS MILLIONS

RAY GARDNER

TEN DAYS before last Christmas, David H. (for Herbert) Dunkelman, millionaire presi dent and founder of Tip Top Tailors, was relaxing with an after-dinner cigar in his 18-room Toronto home when he was summoned to the telephone by his English butler.

“You don’t know me, Mr. Dunkelman, I’m just one of your customers,” the caller explained. “I’m phoning to ask a favor. I ordered a suit today at your Yonge Street store and I need it desperately for Christmas. The store manager tells me it can’t be done; I ordered too late. Could you do anything to help me?”

Dunkelman wanted to know just how urgent it was. The man explained that he was-leaving for Montreal on Christmas Eve to attend his daughter’s wedding there next day.

“Give me your name,” Dunkelman said. “I’ll see you get the suit on time.”

The bride walked down the aisle clutching the sleeve of a rush-order suit, and the father wrote Dunkelman a thank-you note enclosing a piece of wedding cake.

About the same time a man walked into Dunkelman’s Regina store, sheepishly explained to a clerk that in the parcel he was carrying was the jacket of a Tip Top suit he’d bought 17 years ago, that the sleeves were a trifle long. He wondered if, after all these years, they would shorten them.

They would and did.

In Rivers, Man., a few years ago, a man ordered a suit from Dunkelman’s agent there to wear to the Calgary Stampede. When the suit failed to arrive in time, the agent loaned his own new suit to the customer.

Back from Calgary the customer picked up the suit he had ordered and, because he had become attached to it, bought the agent’s suit too.

Believing that the customer is always right — he puts it “every customer is a gem”—Dunkelman has, in 39 years, built Tip Top into the largest company in the Canadian garment industry. A five-story plant in Toronto turns out nearly 300,000 garments a year. Tip Top won’t reveal the exact figures, but it and its two subsidiary companies do an annual business of between $9 and $10 millions. Profits in the 1947 annual statement, the latest available, were $327,000 after taxation.

A chain of 50 Tip Top stores in 40 cities stretches from Victoria, B.C., to Sydney, N.S., and soon will reach Newfoundland. Six hundred and eighty-five

Tip Top dealers are scattered all over Canada, including Newfoundland and the Yukon, and reach into the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.

Dunkelman gets plenty of stiff competition but none of his rivals has as many fingers in the pie or, for that matter, has as large a pie. The operations of his three companies, Tip Top, W. R. Johnson and William H. Leishman, make his setup more comprehensive than any other.

He sells retail through his own stores and wholesale to hundreds of men’s shops and department stores. He manufactures both off-the-hook ready-mades and tailored-to-measure clothes. He covers all price ranges from $45 to $110. He makes everything from a riding habit to full evening dress, does considerable business in mannish-tailored clothes for women. Both Tip Top and Johnson do a large military and commercial uniform business. In 39 years he has made and sold close to nine million garments.

They Swallowed Pins

DUNKELMAN’S empire is still growing. He’s building a new chain called Dorchester Shops to sell mainly ready-made clothes. There are now three Dorchester shops—in Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver. In time he expects this chain to have as many links as Tip Top has now.

Wherever you go in Canada, even to jail or a mental institution, you are likely to rub elbows with a Dunkelman-made suit or uniform.

Guards in Quebec provincial jails and the Alberta prison at Fort Saskatchewan are outfitted by Dunkelman. So are the nurses in the B. C. Provincial Mental Hospital at Essondale.

Bus drivers on both coasts, bellhops in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel and the Hotel Vancouver, police in Toronto, Moncton and Fort William, and the Speaker of the Ontario Legislature wear Tip Top outfits.

If a Technocrat wants a new suit (they wear a special light-blue serge) or a Salvation Army officer a new uniform, he may order it at one of Dunkelman’s stores.

The Canadian Army’s newest battle dress was designed and is being made by Tip Top. During the war Tip Top turned out an army, navy or air force uniform every eight seconds and they were worn by fighting men of almost every Allied nation. The Soviet Union got a few naval officers’ uniforms.

The man who lives off the well-dressed backs of the Canadian people had only $1,500 and a shiny new merchandising idea when he started in 1910. His idea was so revolutionary at the time many a high-class custom tailor swallowed a mouthful of pins when he heard of it. Dunkelman proposed to make a tailored-to-measure suit for the average man to sell at one price, $14. At that time a tailored suit cost upward of $50. The ordinary man bought his suit off the rack at $18 to $25.

The secret of the $14 suit lay, at first, in the shrewd buying of odd bits of material, but soon depended on a great volume of sales.

While other tailors bought complete bolts of cloth at, say, $2 a yard, Dunkelman would shop around for ends of the same material, pay as low as 90 cents. At times he’d buy as little as three and a quarter yards of a certain material, though it requires about three and a half yards or more to make the average suit. Then he’d have to wait for a small customer.

Today Tip Top’s success depends on a tremendous turnover, which pays off two ways in keeping costs down. On a single trip Dunkelman’s woolens buyer will purchase a million dollars’ worth of cloth, is offered substantially lower prices because of the size of his orders. Tailoring defies 100% mechanization and suits still have to be hand cut, but Tip Top’s plant is run on an assembly-line basis with a high degree of mechanization.

Production costs are slashed by a system of specialization which finds 105 men and women working on a single suit. One man’s job is sewing six stitches in a coat lapel, yet he is one of the most highly skilled workers and one of the few actually called a tailor.

Tip Top has got it down so fine that an accountant can tell how much it would cost them to put an extra pleat in a pair of pants.

Dunkelman is a short (five feet three inches) and slight former buttonhole maker with blue eyes and a fringe of almost snow-white hair. He speaks softly and slowly and seems determined to avoid any suggestion of being dogmatic. “Is that right?” he often asks after stating an opinion. But behind this benign façade lurks a shrewdness that can best lie measured by his company’s assets: at the end of 1947 a capital and surplus of $3,058,171.

At 68 he still puts in an eightto 10-hour day in his oak-paneled office, often pokes an enquiring nose into various departments of the firm’s plant and head offices in Toronto, except when arthritis drives him off to Florida or Arizona for a rest.

Two of his three sons and 32 top-line executives are capable of doing most of the worrying for him, but Dunkelman is a chronic worrier and insists on taking care of details himself. He breathes on the necks of his staff, lecturing them on his two obsessions, quality and coddling the customer.

He writes messages to the staff entitled, “I love my customers.” He once told his firm’s convention, “When a customer is about to leave the store, I’d help him on with his coat, I’d see him to the door and—if I thought he was coming back I’d kiss him !”

Customer Is King

DUNKELMAN possesses a “sixth sense” which members of his family swear is unfailing. He himself chuckles over it; it’s the one trait he’s prone to brag about. This is his ability to spot, among hundreds of garments, the one that has something wrong with it.

“It’s uncanny,” says Ernie Dunkelman, the youngest son. “He can walk up to a rack with maybe two or three dozen suits on it and, bang, first try, he’ll pick out the one with the fault in it.” “Then,” Mrs. Dunkelman adds, “he’ll raise a racket about it while everyone is still wondering how he did it.”

He likes twisting buttons to see if they’re sewed on properly. “If a button comes off, the whole suit is no good, as far as the customer is concerned,” he explains.

Dunkelman is a shrewd trader. Once he walked in on his chief woolens Continued on page 38

He Suits Millions

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buyer and a representative of a mill at a point when the latter had agreed to sell a particular cloth at sixpence a yard less than the asking price. Dunkelman joined in on the bargaining, knocked the price down another threepence. Then, with the price finally agreed on, he instructed the mill representative to add the ninepence back on again. “I want you to put another ninepence worth of quality into the cloth,” he said.

The methods of the company mirror Dunkelman’s own personality. Behind the ultramodern plate-glass and neon fronts of Tip Top’s stores and behind its modern factory methods lurks a business credo that is as old-fashioned as peg - top pants. Dunkelman seemingly believes in those trite mottoes which once gathered dust in almost every shop window—such as “Service with a smile,” and “We aim to please.”

He is old-fashioned enough to wear boots and to call a pair of slacks “an odd pair of pants.” Yet, on his initiative, Tip Top has pioneered many an innovation. His was the first firm on the continent to make mannishtailored suits for women. Dunkelman got the idea when his three daughters talked him into making suits for them like their brothers wore.

He never misses a bet to uncover any new twists of the trade. Morgan Eastman, Toronto advertising executive whose firm handles the Tip Top account, tells how Dunkelman admired a new suit he wore one day to a conference. Dunkelman asked to borrow it for a day or two. Eastman sent him the suit, and it was returned a week later in perfect condition. Next time the two met, Eastman asked Dunkelman what he had done with the suit.

“I had my designers rip it to pieces to see how it was put together,” replied Dunkelman.

Wealthy Dave Dunkelman has changed little since he hustled about Toronto wholesale houses buying up odds and ends of cloth at bargain prices. He has no expensive hobbies. He used to ride horseback a good deal, but arthritis forced him to give that up.

His three interests are his business (“I’d drop dead without it”), his family (three sons and two daughters— a third daughter died in 1947) and Zionism. These, too, are the chief interests of the whole Dunkelman family.

Dunkelman owns one car, a Cadillac, has a chauffeur, who is also the family handy man, but often as not he drives himself while the chauffeur sits beside him.

He smokes two cigars a day, always after dinner, doesn’t touch cigarettes, takes a drink to be sociable. Sometimes he and the chauffeur knock over a beer together in the kitchen.

He dresses well, but is no fashion plate. He has about a dozen suits in his wardrobe, wears a different one every two or three days. “They last longer that way,” he says. They are conservative in cut and material (“I don’t like anything spectacular”) and he is partial to double-breasted styles.

He wears Leishman suits (his “Packard” model), not Tip Top. When he orders a suit it goes through the plant under a fictitious name. “If they knew it was for me they might start putting in a lot of extra and unnecessary stitches and slow down production,” he says.

On the job he observes all the copybook maxims of the conventionally successful businessman. He calls longtime employees by their first names, seldom forgets to ask after their families. To his executives and men who were with him in the early days— and used to call him Dave—he is “D. D.” His eight grandchildren just call him Boggy.

He likes to promote his executives from within the organization (there have been a few notable exceptions) and he has put many a veteran employee on an unofficial pension. The company has no pension plan.

Dunkelman’s plant has been unionized for 30 years, has never been hit by a strike or a lockout. Isaac Calmus, secretary - treasurer, Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union (CIO-CCL), says the union’s relations with Dunkelman have been and still are excellent.

Fast on Buttonholes

Dunkelman was born in Makov, Poland, on July 4, 1880, the son of Eli and Leah Dunkelman, the eldest of their four children. When David was three, Eli Dunkelman emigrated to New York, moved on to Toronto 14 years later.

In Toronto Eli Dunkelman opened a small buttonhole factory with rented machinery. Young David was his assistant. The Dunkelmans worked on contract for other tailors and David, with horse and wagon, would call on them to pick up garments for buttonholing. He never became a full-fledged practical tailor, today jokes that he started Tip Top on less than a shoelace. “On a buttonhole,” he says.

The Dunkelmans lived comfortably off their buttonhole business, the success of which depended largely on the nimble needlework of young Dave.

A girl of eight or nine, named Rose Miller, used to press her nose up against the shop window and watch father

Continued on page 41

Continued from page 38

and son at work. Today Rose, who has been married to Dave Dunkelman for 39 years, recalls, “He was the fastest buttonhole maker 1 ever saw. He could make three to his father’s one.” Faster still are the machines in Tip Top’s plant which punch and sew a buttonhole in a few seconds.

By the time he was 30, Dave Dunkelman had scraped up $1,500 and a desire to go into business in a bigger way. He bought the Berger Tailoring Company, a small firm which did contract work for the larger houses and also sold suits wholesale. This firm, with fewer than 20 employees, was to become the nucleus of Tip Top Tailors which now employs 1,750 persons.

After an unsuccessful sales trip, Dunkelman decided the answer was to sell directly to the public. Within three months after buying out Berger he rented a small shop (the frontage was only 11 feet) on Toronto’s Yonge Street, advertised for a name. A Toronto newspaperman submitted Tip Top, was paid $25.

His opening newspaper ads announced his $14 one-price policy in big type. Competitors were sceptical. Some thought the $14 suit was a loss Dader, a giveaway to lure the gullible inside where, undoubtedly, they would be sold a higher-priced suit. Others thought that extra charges, for lining or even for cuffs, might be tacked on.

The public was less sceptical. On opening day Dunkelman sold 20 suits for cash, $280. “I was a rich man,” he says now.

Today, right next door to the original store, is a two-story Tip Top shop with a plate-glass front five times the width of the original. Its annual turnover is close to a million dollars, though it competes with six other Dunkelman stores in Toronto.

His one-price policy was an immediate click. Within six months he opened his second store, in Hamilton, and within five years was doing a $250,000 business. In 1914 he moved the factory from crowded quarters on Toronto’s Adelaide Street into a larger building on Richmond Street. By 1915 he began making trips to England to buy his material. And in the following year his sales reached $500,000. English firms began turning out materials specially for him.

In 1928 Dunkelman felt Tip Top was about to pop the buttons on its Richmond Street plant; sales had shot up to $5 millions a year. He built a new million-dollar plant on Toronto’s waterfront, at the entrance to the exhibition grounds, and had barely moved into it when the depression struck. For the

first time, Tip Top’s growth was stunted. They lost money one year; the union pitched in and helped them keep going.

Before the outbreak of World War II, Tip Top was back in its stride, and it prospered during the war. In 1944 profits were just short of a million before taxes.

Rose Miller Dunkelman, daughter of a barber-coat manufacturer, has sewn many a stitch in time that has saved Dunkelman nine. In the early days she kept his books; when their first child, Joe, was born she brought him to the store with her. Even now, though bedridden with a bad heart, she helps Dunkelman compose his most important business letters.

Cooking is her hobby. She has a library of more than 100 cookbooks. But the great passion of Rose Dunkelman’s life is Zionism. “I’ve given my life to it,” she says. “That’s what I would like to be remembered for.” Canadian Zionists hope to have a new building in Palestine named after her. She has been one of their most consistent and effective champions.

Ben, the second oldest of the Dunkelman children (he’s 35), is the apple of his father’s and mother’s eye because of his remarkable record in World War II and, since last summer, as commander of the Seventh Brigade, one of the crack outfits in the Israeli Army.

In 1940 Ben enlisted in the Queen’s Own Rifles, a Toronto regiment, as a private; he ended the war as a major with the D.S.O.

When the State of Israel was proclaimed and fighting broke out, Ben, who spent three years in Palestine as a young man, felt compelled to return. In Palestine, where he is known as Ben David (son of David), he is credited with several Israeli victories; he personally accepted the Aral) surrender of Nazareth.

Ben David has married a Palestinian girl, Yael Lifshitz, and will probably make his home there.

Oldest son Joe Dunkelman (36) is his father’s assistant, a hobbyist of the first order. An early flying enthusiast (he’s still a crack pilot), he persuaded his father in 1931 to stage a $5,000 500-mile air race across Western Ontario.

After the war Joe converted a Canadian Navy Fairmile into a luxury yacht, sailed his parents to Florida. When he sold the yacht (the repairs bill was too tough) he switched his tinkering to radio, television and electronics. With the help of a friend he built his own television set, and his home, a Toronto show place, can be spotted a mile away by the television tower he has erected.

The Dunkelman daughters, Zelda and Ronnie, are married to Americans and live in the United States, hut they still send home newspaper and magazine clippings on the latest styles and trade developments. Zelda’s husband is Morton Wilner, a Washington, D.C., lawyer; Ronnie Is married to Walter Annenherg, owner of a vast publishing business that includes the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A third daughter, Theodora, died in 1947.

Today, as Dunkelman watches and worries over his coast-to-coast empire, and as people continue to buy more two-pant than one-pant suits, his principal problem seems to he finding store 'apace to open more Tip Top ynd Dorchester shops. Which really boils down to wondering where his next million customers are coming from.

Not had for a man who started out with a buttonhole. He’s done even better than the guy who took a hole and made a doughnut out of it.