Who buys a business site unseen? Warren Buffet did just that in 1986, when he purchased 84 percent of stock in Fechheimer without ever setting foot in the Cincinnati plant. In his letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway the following year, Buffet explained his reasoning: “There's nothing magic about the uniform business; the only magic is in the Heldmans. They know the business inside and out, and they have fun running it. We are fortunate to be in partnership with them.” 

On April 9 during the convention, NAUMD will salute the men Warren Buffet touted so highly all those years ago. Warren, Robert and George Heldman will be celebrated posthumously for the significant contributions they made through their leadership, service and dedication to the uniform industry. They will receive the association's highest honor – the Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Active in NAUMD – all three are former presidents – these pioneers helped usher in the modern uniform industry. They opened a mass production plant during a time when uniforms were primarily made to measure garments. Later in the 20th century, they are credited with growing the postal uniform program and were part of a team that saved multi-vendor licensing. In the words of Fred Heldman, current Fechheimer VP and George's son, “the industry wouldn't be the same without them.” Fred, along with brother Roger, share their take on their ancestors' legacy. Read their memories below. 

How did Fechheimer become a Berkshire Hathaway company? 

Roger: My uncle, Bob Heldman, was a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder. In January, 1986, he wrote Warren Buffet saying he thought Fechheimer met the criteria for the type of company Berkshire liked to do business with. They met, and in the summer of that year Berkshire purchased the company. 

What was the Buffet criteria? 

Roger: Berkshire Hathaway evaluates economic characteristics of a business - its competitive strengths and weaknesses - and the quality of the people they will be joining. Fechheimer was a standout in both respects. At the time Fechheimer's profits were at record levels; and we were a family business, with 3 members of the next generation already in place. That ensured continuity. 

Neither Warren Buffet or anyone from his team ever visited Fechheimer headquarters. A bit unusual, no? 

Fred: Yes, it's a testament to the type of businessmen my father and uncle were. Buffet didn't know much about uniforms, but he was expert at sizing up people. He was impressed with my uncle and my father, George, and knew they were talented, high-grade managers who loved what they did. So Fechheimer was exactly the sort of business he liked to buy, and he said so in his report to shareholders the year after the acquisition. 

Fechheimer has had three owners in its 177 year history. Your grandfather, Warren, purchased the business in 1940. Tell us how that came about. 

Fred: Warren had a clothing business in the same building as Fechheimer in downtown Cincinnati and wanted to expand operations. His sons, George and Robert, started working there on a part time-basis, but came on full-time after World War II. By the 50s, my father and uncle were running the business; Robert as CEO, and George, president.

The industry during that era was known for producing custom, made-to-order uniforms. But that started to change in the late 50s. How significant was the decision to build a facility that manufactured uniforms on a mass scale? 

Fred: Having the Hodgenville facility allowed us to tap other markets, the most prominent being police and postal. The police market in particular was steady and had national potential, and as it became more of a stock business we grew our salesforce and developed relationships with distributors. It repositioned us, and took the business to the next level. The Kentucky plant opened in 1961, and is still around today. 

At first the idea was met with resistance by your grandfather. Why? 

Roger: My grandfather loved the custom business, and wasn't crazy about building a factory in Kentucky for stock uniforms, but my dad and uncle convinced him that this was the future, so he finally agreed. 

The acquisition of B. Lippman is the 80s also took the company in a new direction. 

Fred: We were a trouser and coat manufacturer up to that point. The acquisition of B. Lippman allowed us to add shirts to our product offerings. 

Let's turn to how George and Robert ran the business. What was their management style? 

Fred: George was well liked, but he was a hard-nosed business man. Robert was strong on the financial side. They didn't have an official open door policy, but anyone could come in and talk with either of them at anytime. And there were no scheduled meetings; it was more ad hoc, as things happened. 

Roger: They liked walking around the office, talking to folks, finding out what was going on. In the sales department there was a pad that listed orders, and my father and uncle wanted to see every significant order on that pad. If we received an order, they knew about it. They'd open the mail to see what was coming in and what we were buying. And if they saw a price that they felt was out of line, you'd hear about it. Fred and I still laugh about this. 

Your father was known to have a dry sense of humor. Is there a story you can share as a example? 

Roger: One of our salesmen had a great relationship was a state police department. Over lunch one day, the department handed him a $700,000 trouser order, which was significant for the times. He quickly drives back to the office, eager to share the news with my father and uncle. My father looks at the order, turns to the salesman and quips: “who got the jackets?” 

Great story. All three men have long passed: Warren in 1967, Robert 1998 and George in 2008. What do you see as their greatest contributions to Fechheimer and the industry? 

Roger: They were genuine. They made people feel welcome. Customers big or small, if they came to town, George and/or Bob would have then over for dinner, or take them out to a Reds game. To them, it wasn't just a job. They could have retired much younger, but they loved what they did.