Efficiency Expert

For a Miami entrepreneur, uniform describes both a product line and a lifestyle

Lely Barea glides along Eighth Street in her maroon Mercedes. It's 8 a.m., and the owner of Ibiley Uniforms is on the way to her second meeting of the day, this one at the company's West Miami store. Suddenly, the book-sized purse lying beside her on the seat begins to chirp. Barea unzips it and pulls out a Nextel cellular phone. "This is Lely, 10-4." Switching to the Nextel's two-way radio mode and holding the phone to her mouth like a CB handset, Barea talks in rapid-fire Spanish to her human-resources manager, Carlos Nuñez, at headquarters.

By the time Barea, 38, pilots her rolling office into a strip-mall parking space 10 minutes later, she has spoken to headquarters twice (in Spanish) by radio and delivered a stern lecture (in English) by cell phone to her pattern maker on the importance of treating customers well. By the end of the day she will have used the radio at least 20 times, mostly to talk operations with her managers but occasionally for something as mundane as telling her husband, whose car she is trailing, that he's made a wrong turn.

Lely and Eddy Barea, both born in Cuba, launched Ibiley in 1990. The company's first customers were public schools that elected to use uniforms; later Ibiley sold to private and Catholic institutions. Then, in 1995, Dade County adopted mandatory uniforms for public-school students, and the business rapidly grew to $7 million. The Bareas moved some of their manufacturing operations to Santo Domingo two years ago and opened their own warehouse, cutting room, and corporate offices. They now own six stores in the Miami area and are launching a nationwide wholesale business.

Lely Barea, who oversees design, manufacturing, and distribution (Eddy handles marketing, sales, and finance), is big on personal communication: in other words, she's a meeter. So every other week she flies to Santo Domingo to talk personally with her plant managers. When she's not traveling, she's holding daily tête-à-têtes with her Miami store managers, always before opening or after closing time.

Despite the fact that every minute of her day is filled, Barea is scarcely ever late for appointments, largely because she plots each week in advance on her Sharp Zaurus digital assistant, assigning a set amount of time for each activity and refusing to let it take longer. In her pursuit of accurate scheduling she's carefully calculated the best routes to all the places she normally visits in all types of traffic. She's even able to control how long it takes her to get dressed in the morning, thanks to a closet organized with military precision. (Clothes are arranged from left to right by category--tank tops to short-sleeve shirts to long-sleeve shirts--and by color--white to pastel to dark.)

One Monday in May, Barea is up at 5 a.m., in the office at 6, sitting down with the manager of her Little Havana store at 7, and at a café sharing café con leche and guava and queso pastries with her West Miami store manager by 8:30. Before each meeting she consults the electronic file she stores on her organizer for that particular manager: the files contain copious notes for and about her employees, and Barea makes more notes throughout each conversation. At 10 she leaves for Miami's Miracle Theater to spend an hour chaperoning her youngest daughter's field trip. (The Bareas have four children, ages 7 to 17.) The afternoon will be filled with--among other things--a visit to her mother's clothing factory, where some of Ibiley's samples are made, and a few hours at headquarters preparing spreadsheets for summer staffing.

At 8 p.m. Barea finally comes to rest at Dave and Buster's, a casual restaurant where she and Eddy are dining with their banker. Even though she's been going for 14 hours straight, the strain doesn't show on her face until the cell phone, which she has laid on the table in front of her, calls out once more for her attention. Barea picks it up, and everyone at the table can hear the tiny voice bleating out, "Mommy, when are you coming home?" "Christina, this is Mommy, 10-4," says Barea, soothingly. "I'm in a meeting. I'll be home in a little while."

She disconnects, but then Eddy's phone starts to beep. It is family time, and her children are impatient for their pre-bedtime attention. Lely Barea calls for the check.

Here are some of Barea's tricks for staying on top of things:

1. KEEP IT UNIFORM. What sounds like a slogan for Ibiley Uniforms is also the watchword on which Barea orders her life. She's an apostle of standardization (her corporate idols are Walt Disney and McDonald's), so the Bareas have designed their stores to be identical, right down to the location of the pink highlighter pen on each cash register. Barea has also equipped all 24 of her reports with identical cell phones. (Her children use one too.) That way, when she has something to tell more than one person, she snatches up the device, presses a preprogrammed button, and broadcasts her message to her warehouse managers or her retail managers or the entire staff. The phones, which cost about $200 a pop, have also improved communication among Ibiley's managers.

Barea's passion for uniformity extends to her personal life: she dresses her three girls identically and thus cuts down on time spent shopping and rummaging through closets in the morning. That tactic also makes it easier to spot the kids from a ski lift in Aspen or in a crowd at Disney World.

2. TRAVEL LIGHT. Barea refuses to waste time looking for things, so she's minimized the number of places those things can be. She has no home office; and since she spends so much time tooling around Miami, she keeps the files she needs each day in the car. A master delegator, she is proud of her ability to push much of the paperwork off her plate. And everything that can be stored electronically goes into her Zaurus, which she sometimes takes to bed with her to catch up on the day's activities.

Barea doesn't even carry a briefcase (although for Mother's Day, Eddy bought her one, a subject of some contention), opting instead for an astonishingly small purse that she tucks under her arm "like a schoolgirl." The cell phone is either stuffed into the purse or hooked to her belt, depending on the day's outfit.

3. DO IT NOW. One reason Barea is able to travel light is that she refuses to let things accumulate. The file holder on her desk is labeled "Do It Now." It begins filling up at 8 a.m. but is almost always empty again by the end of the day.

The minute something occurs to Barea, she gets on the radio or the cell phone. On a store visit, Barea notices that one employee is not wearing the uniform (white polo shirt, checkered apron, blue shorts) mandated for temporary help. After a brief discussion with the store manager, she's back in the car and on the radio with Nuñez, asking him to remind the other managers about the dress code. "Don't ever leave things for later," Barea says.

Emily Esterson is an associate editor at Inc. Technology.