Silver Threads Among The Gold
The next time you spot a fancy name on the rear of someone's denims, bend down and take a close look. If the label is composed of many colored threads, chances are it came from F.G. Montabert Co. The New Jersey weaver is possibly the clothing industry's largest label supplier, but relationships in the garment industry are always in such dishabille that nobody can say for sure. Chief executive officer Fred M. Condon, anyway, finds it hard to believe that there is anyone bigger than Montabert these days -- and, even after 15 years at it, just as hard to believe the rag trade's time-honored disdain of fiscal precepts. "Every class you attend at B school makes it less likely you'll succeed in this industry," he marvels. Sure enough, at 40, Condon doesn't possess and MBA, and judging from Montabert's recent expansion and 50% increase in sales in 1984, he has been succeeding well enough by the seat of his pants.
Lately, however, Montabert has been pulling away from the competition by design, even though among clothing vendors the concept of planned growth is as foreign as a fez. At the industry's infamously feckless heart, a garment marker's next order usually goes to whichever vendor can make the same goods cheaper than whichever one got the last order. In turn, vendors consider it fair game to pirate a rival's product and offer their version to customers. Montabert now has upped the ante. Today, for instance, its new computer-aided design system can pick apart an adversary's label thread by thread, then recreate it exactly on a high-speed loom. And cutting-edge cutting machines snip out the variety of unique shapes that are helping the company increase visibility even as clothing's label cult fades.
"Mind-boggling," Condon tags his company's abilities. Only a few years back, Montabert's floor was barely chugging along with old hand looms, and its office with old hands -- some of each dating nearly to the company's 1914 beginnings. After the founder, Fred G. Montabert, parted this vale in 1971, his grandson, Fred M., discovered that for decades nothing had advanced. "So I got involved in what-if scenarios," recalls the aghast heir, who had merely stopped by to have a look at the quaint mill. Answering the most pressing what if -- what if someone under 70 were to work here? -- he decided to stay.
For starters, Condon tracked down a modern jacquard loom said to be several times more efficient than its manual counterparts. But the dealer refused a demonstration. "I wouldn't have shown it to me, either," he empathizes. "On paper, we didn't exist." A local bank agreed to sponsor some visible means of support, and soon, for $60,000, Montabert was the nominal owner of its first high-speed weaver.But with label labor approaching 50% of costs, the spreadsheet also dictated that the company couldn't wait for each installation to pay for itself.
Fifty automatic looms later, Montabert had cast its lot with capital. The intricacy of the looms attracted an innovative team of engineers and designers. Not only did they halve the average age at the company, but they also developed intricate color capability and invented mod themes that clothiers snapped up and "started sticking on the back of jeans and every other damn place." Not for three more years did Condon's largest competitor put in its first automated loom. By then, Montabert was delivering tony tags by the millions, bearing such names as Klein, Levi, Sassoon, Wrangler, and Izod.
And bearing fashionable prices, too. "Cheaper is not better," Condon lectures buyers. "Better is better. We up-grade the value of your product." His argument was so persuasive that clothing lines are budgeting the extra cost as promotion. This year, Montabert is testing sophisticated looms that are much more productive than the earlier ones. Once in-house engineers finish fine-tunning the operation, his rivals might start acquiring the Montabert-tailored version. Again, too late. "By then," shrugs Condon, "we'll be working on something else."