April 1 is known as a day of practical jokes and foolery, but for Ace Uniforms the date takes on a different tone. If was, after all, the first of April some 37 years ago when Marc Stein broke away from his father’s business to open Ace Uniforms & Accessories Inc. So it was fitting that on April 1 in 2021, Marc Stein stepped away from his beloved business and walked into retirement.
“We half expected him to go out the door, walk around the back and then return,” said Rory Staiger, Ace’s new CEO. “He was such a fixture, the embodiment of what Ace was and continues to be.”
The change in command didn’t follow the usual path one comes to expect from the industry; that is, the handing of the business to an offspring or other relative (married to Stein’s niece, Staiger is not related by blood). And Staiger didn’t have any hands-on experience in uniform sales to speak of. So how exactly did he wind up taking the reins of one of the most storied regional distributors on the west coast? What led to his joining, as he joked during our interview, “the uniform mafia?”
It’s a question Staiger has been asked many times. He had known Marc for over a decade, seeing him at family gatherings and other events, but the banter had been limited to pleasantries and common courtesies. The conversation took a more serious turn about five years ago, when Marc brought up the topic of moving away from the business and having someone else take over who could accelerate the markets Ace was in and build off the foundation he built. Although not in the uniform business, Stein believed that Rory’s background in supply chain operations and organizational design could be leveraged to better position the company for the next generation of shoppers. Staiger was intrigued, but not yet convinced.
The conversations grew serious while Rory was working overseas for Amazon. “Every day for a year, I would get off work around 7:00 pm in Europe, and would call the west coast, which was around 10:00 am in the U.S.,” Staiger remembered. “We’d talk about the challenges of running a business and where he needed help to grow. Though all the conversations it was clear that Ace graduated from the local uniform shop and was primed to become something much bigger. Over time I became fascinated by the business Marc built and the overall industry ”
Finally in mid-2019, there was a meeting of the minds and the two agreed to a business partnership. Staiger became a minority owner in Ace, and was brought on as CEO. Stein began to step back, serving more as a mentor to Rory and ambassador for Ace.
And then the pandemic struck. Being the new kid on the block is always tough, but imagine being charged with running a business during the worst health crisis is a century.
Pivoting During Pandemic
“We are diversified enough so that when our hospitality business went to zero we were buoyed by other customer segments,” Staiger noted. Ace saw an uptick from law enforcement agencies and the healthcare industry, who purchased additional wash and wear garments. Their federal business (Ace Federal Solutions) and contracts with the military, too, were steady and pandemic proof. Most importantly, Ace jumped on the PPE bandwagon, pivoting quickly to sell to customers across the spectrum.
That foresight reaped dividends. While others were reducing staff hours, laying off workers, or shuttering all together, Ace’s ability to pivot meant that none of its 70 employees across three locations had their hours cut. They even emerged from the pandemic with more staff than when they entered.
As Ace is loyal to staff, they in turn are loyal to Ace. Cliched as it might be for an article about a uniform store, employees pride themselves on exemplary customer service. It takes people to sell merchandise, Marc Stein used to say, and it takes excellent service to create a regular shopper. Staiger agrees. “I tell the team every day that problems are treasures, “ he said. “When a problem presents itself, it’s an opportunity to solve and get better for the sake of customer experience. That’s what we’ve been focusing on, continuous improvement each and every day.”
Doing More With Less Through Technology
Of course, getting better in the 21st century has taken on new meaning and brought new challenges. Even before the pandemic, customer expectations had been kicked up a notch, with retailers adapting their systems and processes to meet heightened expectations. “I would tell Marc that if we want to double the business, we can’t double the amount of employees, double the inventory, or double the square footage. That’s the hard way of doing it. We’re scaling through a mix of continuous improvement, new systems, and analytics” recalled Staiger.
In today’s world, you do more with less by leveraging technology and process improvement, an area in which Staiger has been laser-focused. “I was first exposed to the wonders of continuous improvement during my time manufacturing the F-35 fighter jet at Lockheed Martin and I’ve been a believer ever since” he said
Then there’s Ace’s ecommerce platform. The way people shop is changing, with more gravitating online and demanding Amazon level speeds. Staiger says he noticed the trend accelerating during the pandemic, and sees the shift steadily increasing with commodity items and garments that don’t need to be embellished or altered. “We aim to become leaders in fulfillment and supply chain execution all in the name of customer obsession”” said Staiger.
Employees who don’t understand the roles they play in company success are more likely to become disengaged. Staff can make or break a business, so having the right employee in the right role is critical. The Ace team was already crossed trained in numerous job functions which made it easier to move people into positions where they would excel. To fill in the gaps, Staiger added staff to perform specialized tasks. “We pointed everyone towards True North and made sure it was clear the role they were fulfilling on behalf of our customers.” added Staiger.
Hot Products and Diversification
Every uniform store lives or dies on their product mix, and Ace will continue to diversify and double down on what is working. And that means stocking products that customers are clamoring for. In the Ace’s markets, the push for more visible law enforcement uniforms is making hi-vis a priority buy for customers. On the medical side, the tapered, jogger pant tops the list. And sustainable uniforms are on the upswing, especially on the scrubs side. According to Staiger, some of Ace’s larger customers are even willing to go for more high end – and expensive – items to achieve sustainability.
Rory Staiger is upbeat when looking back over the last year. “Going through 2020 taught us a lot and it was a hell of a first year for me,” said Staiger. “We have some battle scars, but it may have actually jump started the awakening of the sleeping giant that is Ace Uniforms.”
Ace Uniforms has three locations: San Diego headquarters is the largest at 25,000 square feet; Phoenix is home to the second largest location at 10,000 square feet; and Vista, CA, 5,000 square feet. A full service uniform provider (everything but the gun and ammunition, quips Staiger), Ace offers in house tailoring and embroidery, direct to garment, heat press, and engraving. Visit them on the web at www.aceuniforms.com