Business with a Handshake: Lifetime Achievement Recipients Bob Gates and Ron Pate 

The keys to success? Innovative products and competitive pricing are important, but the secret to a thriving business is people, and for Bob Gates and Ron Pate, that means doing business with a handshake and treating everyone – from the receptionist to the CEO – with respect. 

Sound corny? Maybe, but there's no arguing with their success. They spearheaded one of the largest chains of uniform stores of the era and created the first centralized and automated uniform distribution program, which remains the industry standard for civilian agencies of the federal government. 

In business for five decades, these lifelong friends and former fraternity brothers have no intention of calling it quits anytime soon. Can you learn something from their experience? Read on to find out. 

How do frat brothers from Texas Tech wind up in the uniform business? 

Gates: My father was in the business, and I worked for him during summers. After college, I worked for him full time as an outside sales rep and did that until we moved to Nashville in 1971. 

Pate: After college and basic training, I used my mechanical engineering degree to land a job designing pumps in Houston. About ten months later, Bob called and invited me over. He and his dad were starting a uniform company in Nashville, and they wanted me to come on board. Of course, that's exactly what I had in mind. 

Fechheimer and Horace Small loom large in this story. Tell us about it. 

Gates: Kay Uniforms, the largest customer in Tennessee and of Horace Small, was acquired by its rival, Fechheimer. Horace Small then began looking for someone to compete with Kay, so they approached us and asked if we'd move to Nashville. And that was the beginning of R&R Uniforms. 

And now the former competitors are being honored together at this year's convention. Seems ironic. 

Pate: It's really funny that they're being honored with us. Bob and George Heldman invited me to come to Cincinnati and treated me like a gentleman, even though we were competitors. And we're good friends with both Roger and Fred Heldman, so we're thrilled to be inducted with their grandfather, father and uncle. 

You opened a second store in Louisville in the late 70s, but by the 80s the uniform landscape began to change. That's when the concept of the managed uniform allowance program was born. 

Gates: Yes, that's right. Ron traveled to Washington, DC and began calling on government agencies. He connected with the National Park Service and quickly learned they were looking for solutions to their current distribution system. Uniform allowances were distributed at Christmas, which of course, really didn't go into improving the actual uniforms. That meeting sparked the beginnings of a computerized uniform allowance program. We went to bid and in 1981, won a three-year contract. The managed program became the norm for non military uniform programs in Washington, and became the first of other government contracts we would win. 

Pate: They're still using the same style numbers we put in effect in 1980. I should be collecting royalties. 

The managed program turned you into a national player allowing you to call on accounts from private industry. Yet you sold a majority stake of R&R to Horace Small in 1985. Why? 

Pate: We took the concept to Federal Express but didn't have a big enough balance sheet. At the same time, Fechheimer was busy growing their distribution network through the retail sector, and Horace Small decided they needed to compete. So we became part of the Horace Small portfolio in 1985. 

The R&R brand really took off at this point. Describe some of the highlights for us. 

Gates: Besides Federal Express, R&R was quite a player in the airline industry for several years. At its peak, we had 128,000 flight attendants under contract with four airlines: American, Delta, Continental and Air Canada. 

Pate: The store base grew from three to 21 over the next several years. I moved back to Nashville and took over the sales management of both the Horace Small wholesale force and R&R. 

Horace Small and Fechheimer eventually got out of the retail business, with Small selling the R&R chain to Skaggs in 1999. Small was subsequently acquired by VF, and you both assumed leadership roles in the company. How was the transition? 

Gates: I became a senior vice president and Ron was vice president of sales, but we missed the entrepreneurial aspect of doing business, so we eventually left. We formed a new company, Unison Marketing Group, calling it that because we had sold the R&R name. Turns out VF didn't really care if we used the moniker, so after a while, we renamed the company the R&R Group. 

It is often said that the uniform industry is one of relationships. I'm assuming you agree with this. 

Pate: Strong relationships are the foundation of our business. Some customers and even competitors have turned into friends. Many times when we traveled, we didn't stay in hotels; we stayed in our customers' homes. We didn't eat in restaurants but were instead invited to have dinner in their backyards. If they took relationship out of my dictionary I'd just have to quit. 

Gates: Part of that relationship building was due to NAUMD. In the beginning we didn't the money to travel to the conventions or join the association, but once we did, we used the experience to network and further cement relationships in a casual environment. The R&R Group reps ten companies; all were met through NAUMD. If the relationship aspect ever leaves the industry then it's time for me to hang it up and retire. 

Well, neither one of you plans to retire any time soon. What would you like readers to know about you? 

Gates: I have a strong faith, and this has influenced my worldview and the way I treat people. To have a successful company you have to empower people, give them a chance to work hard. Hold them accountable but let them do it. Above all, treat them with respect and integrity. 

Pate: You have to stop thinking it's a two-way street; it's not. We try to put ourselves on the same side

of the desk as our customers. If it's not good for both, it's not ever going to work. Most of our business relationships have become good friends and that's the fun of it; that's our best accomplishment. 

Any advice for newcomers? 

Pate: If you think it's going to change it is. If you think it isn't, is still is. We are evidence of this. Don't burn any bridges. You never know. 

Editor's Note: NAUMD will honor this year's Lifetime Achievement recipients on April 9, at the convention in New Orleans. Others receiving the award are: Warren, Robert, and George Heldman (honored posthumously); and Margaret Ramsdale.