St. Paul men’s clothing store keeps up with changing times
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — From the Cathedral to the Capitol, the executive offices to the homeless shelter, the stadium to thousands of wedding albums, the thread that runs through all of them has been Milbern Clothing Company.
This fourth-generation men’s clothing store on University Avenue has been making Twin Cities men look good since 1946 when Polish immigrant Milton Bernick opened his first store in the Finch Building in Lowertown.
“We were never considered in the circle of the elite stores,” said Milton’s son, Herb Bernick, 89. “We kept our cost down and just continued to give good service and good products.”
The elite stores have come and gone, but Milbern’s ability to adapt to changing retail demands and survive the generational clashes from father to son has made it a long-lasting destination store for customers from all walks of life, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
ROOTS OF THE FAMILY TREE
Milton Bernick grew up in a Polish town that, due to fighting with Russia and Germany, often had an identity crisis.
“We used to go to sleep with one government and wake up with another,” he told the Pioneer Press in 1987. He tailored in Europe until immigrating to the U.S. in 1921, where he worked 23 years with a clothing wholesaler before striking out on his own with Milton’s Clothing Company.
He operated out of a small office in Lowertown on Wacouta Street, gradually moving from wholesale to retail. In 1960 he moved across the street to the Cass Gilbert Building where he stayed until 1985.
“He was just a great guy,” said Herb, who grew up emptying wastebaskets and cleaning the store for his dad until he became a full-fledged salesman in his 20s. “I appreciated his honesty and straightforwardness with people.”
The family opened a second store in 1956 in the Griggs-Midway Building on University Avenue, calling it Milbern, a combination of Milton and Bernick. Herb ran this store and had his son, Steve, work with Milton after Steve graduated from college in 1983.
The generation gap was painfully obvious when Steve pushed to bring Milton’s business practices into the 20th century.
“He didn’t have a cash register, for example,” Steve said. “He had a cigar box in a drawer. He’d always take out the bigger bills and keep them in his pocket.”
Steve wanted to change that. Milton resisted, at first.
“He started the business and he was successful, so that had to be the right way,” Steve said. “Then there was me trying to bring in new ideas and change things faster than he could accept. It was rough at the beginning.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Eventually, Steve was able to implement his changes, which included buying a Kaypro computer with a double density disk drive.
“On the one drive you put in the program running the database and on the other one you put your data disk,” he said. “We started keeping track of our customer database for marketing purposes.”
During Steve’s time, the company followed the retail hotspots around town and moved four times, first from the Cass Gilbert Building to the Endicott Building on Jackson and Fifth streets, then to the Galtier Plaza, now called Cray Plaza, on Sixth Street. In 1995 they moved to the World Trade Center, now called the Wells Fargo Place, on Cedar Street. Finally, in 2000, both stores consolidated into the current store on University Avenue.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Now, Steve’s son Andrew (whose middle name is Milton), 25, has joined the business, and Steve finds himself as the guy resisting changes his son wants to make.
“He thinks we’re doing everything wrong; we’re unorganized; my memory’s no good,” Steve said. When he feels frustrated, he reminds himself it’s just a stage.
Andrew, who worked as a district manager for Macy’s department store in Kansas City before coming home, knows he’s pushing his dad.
“I want some of the changes to happen much faster,” he said. “I have all these bright ideas that I know are going to be successful.”
Despite the friction, they leave their differences at work and admit they can always learn from each other.
For Steve, it was his grandfather’s people skills. For Andrew, it’s his dad’s ability to treat all people with respect.
Andrew tells a story about a homeless man who came to the store needing a suit for an interview. Steve gave him a suit, saying he could pay for it after he got the job. A few months later, the now-employed man returned with money in hand.
“My dad and grandpa have always been ones to give to the community,” he said.
ADAPTATION IS KEY
The business has weathered some tough times with the rise of internet sales and the three-year construction ordeal of the Green Line light rail (or the “new streetcar,” as Herb called it) that almost closed them.
They’ve survived by adapting: keeping prices low for the cost-conscious, making custom suits for the fashion-conscious, and finding and exploiting underused markets, such as millennial weddings, hard-to-find brands and hard-to-fit people.
They’ve made suits for clergy, football and hockey stars, Winter Carnival celebrities, past mayors and legislators, 3M execs and lots and lots of grooms and groomsmen.
STAYING AHEAD OF THE ‘S’ CURVE
Steve took the business online and Andrew promotes it through social media. They both keep their eyes on the future, knowing the need to change could be just around the corner. (For example, baggy suits may replace the trendy slim style in about three years, Andrew said.)
One topic of discussion is whether to stay in their current location.
Except for its bright yellow awnings, the store doesn’t have much curb appeal, sandwiched between a car repair shop and a vacuum store. Inside, it’s stuffed so tight they had to buy space from the repair shop for extra storage. Is it time to move?
“I don’t know,” Andrew said. “This area’s changing with the soccer stadium and the light rail.”
Moving has never hurt the business before.
“We’re a destination store,” he said. “I think our customer base is so diverse that wherever we relocate, if we do, people are going to find us.”
With five-star ratings from internet review sites such as Yelp and The Knot, and glowing comments about their service, it’s not hard to believe their customers would probably follow.
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com