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Tuxedo Junction executives buy firm from its founder New owners plan to add more stores

The owner of a 37-year-old Williamsville tuxedo rental company that stayed profitable and expanded in the decades since baby blue polyester was hot, resisted big offers from national buyers and instead sold for less to his management team.

"We own a piece of this now," said Mike Bristol, the executive vice president who has been with Tuxedo Junction since he was 18, cleaning rental shoes in a back room in 1972.

The group of buyers, who include Bristol, the company president and seven other vice presidents, closed the deal in November.

"If we're successful in getting this paid off," Bristol said, "hopefully we can bring the next level of people along and sell it to them."

Now the group aims to keep expanding with more stores to reach more grooms renting traditional tuxes along with new casual-yet-dressy striped suits intended for the latest trend in Caribbean weddings.

Barry Snyder, 62, the original owner and a founder of Greater Buffalo Savings Bank, said he felt better taking a lower, undisclosed price for the business he started as a single Amherst store in 1969. Current assets include 32 company stores, 60 stores that license the name and a network of 400 independent operators that rent some of the 35,000 jackets Tuxedo Junction supplies at wholesale prices.

Snyder feels sure the other companies that wanted to buy his firm would have closed the Earhart Drive headquarters, where 150 people work in the offices and warehouse where tuxes are stored, washed and dry cleaned.

"The problem with the consolidators is they just take the revenue," said Snyder, speaking by phone from Palm Beach. It disappoints him that so many family-owned businesses, such as locally owned department stores, no longer exist. "People have to wake up," he said. "People can't keep losing these jobs."

Tuxedo Junction has worked to secure its own Western New York-centric place in the bigger national market by expanding from the start -- first with more stores, then by launching a trade show for brides, adding on a wholesale rental trade and, most recently, selling naming rights in license agreements.

When peak season starts in May, traditional tuxedo rentals cause local staff to double from 200 to 400. Workers help get the right tuxes for the average of 12,000 weddings arranged through the company's 32 stores from Buffalo to Syracuse, and in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Nuptial orders converge with another annual formalwear crush -- some 30,000 prom-going young men. "We have shipped as many as 15,000 suits in one week," said Bristol.

To others in the rental business, the ways of Tuxedo Junction are worth copying. Its practice of designing tuxedos and acting as its own general tuxedo contractor, developed in the early 1980s, saves money and makes for unique styles.

"We didn't just have to play the price game anymore," said Bristol. "We decided to go out and try to do our own thing."

Instead of hiring a single outside firm to design, choose fabric and sew suits, Tuxedo Junction finds separate contractors for each step.

Fabric is picked out on buying trips to New York City. Some is made to order with store staff submiting color ideas that are then re-created at a lab. Another technician develops tux designs and the company's patterns. A factory then makes suits from the supplied ingredients.

Such cost saving seems especially appealing to some now that competition in the tuxedo rental business, valued at an estimated $1.5 billion a year, has stiffened. Last month the Houston-based Men's Wearhouse agreed to buy the 511-store After Hours Formalwear chain from Federated Department Stores for approximately $100 million. Once the deal closes next year, the chain will have 1,165 stores, according to a Web site.

"I'm sure it has some people in the industry nervous," said Mark Morrow, owner of nine Minneapolis rental stores. As a member of a 275-store buying group, he has been considering doing as Tuxedo Junction does and coordinating the separate parts of tuxedo making instead of hiring a single firm.

"Tuxedo Junction has been on the cutting edge of a lot of these things," said Morrow, also vice president of the Chicago-based International Formalwear Association, of which Tuxedo Junction is not a member.

The firm's innovations include the annual "BridesWorld" trade show, developed in the early 1970s, that now draws 2,500 local brides and features 200 florists, limousine companies and other wedding merchants. Similar show setups are now in seven other metropolitan areas from Pittsburgh to Amarillo, Texas.

"Most of our marketing is geared toward brides," said Bristol. "Brides usually make the decisions."

Tuxedo Junction has kept them coming by developing its online approach at www.tuxedojunction.com for the last five years. Brides can go there to create a Web site space to check up on members of the wedding party to see who has yet to register measurements. In the last two years, some 27 percent of all wedding registrations begin online. "It saves a lot of time," said Bristol.

Tuxedo Junction made its way to another valuable business lesson in 1989, when it bought a majority interest in the Chicago-based Gingiss Formalwear company. That company, with 225 franchises in 34 states, had been floundering. A decade later, after arranging for the franchises to rent lower-cost Tuxedo Junction tuxedos, the Williamsville company sold its interest.

But the new owners didn't last. They filed for bankruptcy, the Gingiss name was sold at auction and Tuxedo Junction, franchise-savvy by then, decided this was another opportunity. Three years ago, it offered to license its name to stores about to lose the rights to Gingiss. Now the company has 60 licensees and hopes numbers will rise along with staff efforts to promote the idea.

Lately, other entrepreneurs, unrelated to Gingiss, have signed on. In August a Puerto Rico banquet center owner agreed to open five stores. Another deal is in the works in Las Vegas.

Vests in aqua blues, deep reds, lemon yellows and olive greens hung along the wall racks at the Boulevard Mall store and illustrated a trend in fashion that has been working well for the company for the last couple of years: matching tux vests to bridesmaids' dresses. The plethora of possibility Tuxedo Junction offers was part of the attraction for the wedding party that one mother of the bride was at the store last week to coordinate.

Fran Voight's future son-in-law had chosen Tuxedo Junction. Now it was her job to pick up a sample tie in the designated color -- a deep red with some black, dubbed "legend." Her next stop: The florist to pick out matching roses.

"If you can't find it here, you can't find it anywhere else," she said, before her cell phone rang with her daughter wanting to discuss more wedding details. Voight patiently paused beneath the vest racks. "Go ahead," she said. "What did he say -- ?"

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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