It was 1951 and Alvin Segal was finishing high school in Montreal a few years after moving to the city with his widowed mother and two sisters from New York State. An uninspired student, he never mastered French and got a failing grade in the subject in his final exams.
His stepfather, a manufacturer of men’s suits named Moe Segal, gave the young Alvin an ultimatum, Mr. Segal recalled in his 2017 memoir. “You have a choice. You can go back to Albany [New York] where you came from and continue your schooling where French doesn’t matter or I can give you a job in my factory at $35 a week.”
Alvin had never set foot in the factory but decided to take a chance. On his 18th birthday, the young man began work on the shop floor of Peerless Clothing Inc., a maker of low-cost men’s suits that had been founded in 1919. A natural tinkerer, he loved it, rising to be its president and owner, transforming Peerless into a major manufacturer and seller of men’s suits, primarily for the U.S. market. He went on to influence North American free trade talks and became a generous patron of the arts, health care and higher education in his adopted city.
For over 70 years, Peerless was Alvin Segal’s life. He remained involved in the family-owned firm even in semi-retirement, calling its executives frequently. He last visited the factory just two weeks before his death on Nov. 4 at the age of 89.
“He grew up in the factory. He really understood the basics of the business. He understood the product. He was a hands-on, touch and feel type of person,” said Elliot Lifson, vice-chairman of Peerless who knew Mr. Segal for over 40 years and has worked for Peerless for the past 23.
“I have a long-range plan that changes every day,” Mr. Segal once said, half-jokingly. He prided himself on eating daily at the company cafeteria, lining up with his employees with his tray and catching up with them over lunch. “I learned from everyone. I once got a great idea from the parking lot attendant,” he later recalled.
“He was the quintessential self-taught entrepreneur and engineer,” said his grandson Doug Raicek, an executive vice-president with Peerless in the company’s New York office. While his grandfather was proud of his progeny’s university achievements, “he was a big proponent of the idea that the best education was acquired on the job.”
He was born Alvin Cramer on Sept. 19, 1933 in Amsterdam, N.Y., the eldest son of George Cramer, a wholesale grocer and supermarket owner and his wife Betty Pearson, a homemaker. Alvin and his two younger sisters had a comfortable life until their father died at the age of 42. Alvin was seven.
His widowed mother struggled to bring up three children on her own. Through relatives in Montreal, she was introduced to Moe Segal, a widower. They soon married, so at 14, young Alvin moved to Canada, later adopting his stepfather’s surname. His failure to master French wasn’t his only challenge. He also suffered from a stutter, which dogged him for years.
Other Segal family members worked for Peerless in office jobs, eschewing the noise and the hustle of the garment assembly line. “But I didn’t mind,” he recalled. “For me, it was heaven.” Within three years, he was in charge of the factory. He was constantly in search of improvements, making regular trips to trade fairs looking for ways to shave a few cents off production costs for buttonholes or lapels.
In the late 1970s, Mr. Segal made a breakthrough, introducing to Canada what he called the “engineered suit.” Mimicking European manufacturers like Hugo Boss, Peerless began moulding and fusing a suit’s inside structural lining to the wool fabric with glue rather stitching the material to canvas. It led to big cost savings by reducing the tailoring needed to make a suit.
In addition, he led the push by the Canadian apparel industry to convince Ottawa to reduce the tariffs on imported fabric used to manufacture garments for export. Domestic raw textile producers, anxious to protect their business, objected but the garment makers won the day.
Then came free trade with the U.S. in the late 1980s. Mr. Segal knew that his U.S. competitors were still burdened with 40 per cent duties on their imported woollen fabric. With his lower input costs, he figured he could make a big impact south of the border so in 1987 he built a brand-new factory in east-end Montreal, in anticipation of free trade.
It was a huge gamble but it paid off. Peerless began to flood U.S. retailers with stylish low-cost suits, carrying names like Chaps by Ralph Lauren, Calvin Kelvin and Michael Kors. By 1994, Canada had surpassed Italy to become the largest supplier of men’s suits to the U.S. Most came from Peerless, which was shipping 7,000 suits a day to its warehouse in Vermont.
When the free trade agreement expanded to include Mexico to create the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Peerless became a major target of U.S. trade negotiators, who were under pressure from garment manufacturers to cut the quota access for Peerless.
“Alvin was doing so well that the U.S. had him in their sights and wanted to stem the flow of wool suits into the U.S.,” said Tom MacDonald, who was Canada’s chief textile negotiator during the NAFTA talks. “It was one of the very last fights in the NAFTA and it was settled in the corridor in the Watergate Hotel between Michael Wilson on our side and Carla Hills, the U.S. trade representative.”
In the end, the tariff-free quota remained and Peerless’s U.S. business continued to thrive. But In the mid-2000s, as price pressures grew, Mr. Segal felt that he had no choice but to become an importer himself. He cut back manufacturing in Montreal and began bringing in suits from China, India and Vietnam, yet the company’s overall volume grew even larger.
Even today, Peerless is mainly a global importer but still employs 1,400 people in its Montreal headquarters, including 900 who manufacture men’s suits for higher-end markets and last-minute orders. Ninety per cent of the company’s sales are in the U.S.
Business was far from Mr. Segal’s only passion. He was a long-time supporter of Montreal’s Yiddish theatre company, which was housed in the Saidye Bronfman Arts Centre. When the centre ran into serious financial problems, Mr. Segal bailed it out in 2007 and helped build a substantial endowment for the renamed Segal Centre for the Performing Arts.
Lisa Rubin, the Segal Centre’s artistic director, said that Mr. Segal was not just a generous patron but a real theatre fan, never missing an opening show and taking a keen interest in all the centre’s activities. When performers were rehearsing on a Sunday afternoon, he and his wife “would show up with platters of pastries and food,” Ms. Rubin recalled.
Mr. Segal also helped create the Segal Cancer Centre at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital with a $20-million donation in 2005 and was a benefactor of both McGill and Concordia universities as well as other charities.
Mr. Segal was awarded an honorary doctorate by Hebrew University in 2015. He was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 2002 and promoted to officer in 2010 and was named to the National Order of Quebec in 2011.
Mr. Segal leaves his wife, Emmelle; children, Joel, Barbara and Renee; two sisters and one stepsister; eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.