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Alfred Sutton’s Story of Innovation in Sourcing Over the Last 60 Years

Richard Sutton, Alfred Sutton, Joseph Sutton, and Alfred J. Sutton in Shang-Hai, May, 2009

By Sophia Franco

Rather than getting complacent in one locale, LT Apparel has been open to trotting the globe in search of newer and better sourcing.

NYC

It is June 1949. In his home at 1882 Ocean Parkway, 19-year-old Alfred Sutton, a sophomore at City College, receives a message from his father Joseph, who was working halfway around the world at the time in Japan. Alfred is told to meet his father in Tokyo immediately; the ticket is on its way.

Excited and scared but up for the challenge, Alfred begins his journey into the world of the Far East with no prior knowledge or education on the topic. He boards a flight to Minneapolis, which continues on to Edmonton, Canada; Anchorage, Alaska; Shemya Island in the North Pacific, and finally, 36 hours later, Tokyo, Japan.

Tokyo

When he arrives on a Friday afternoon, Alfred is dismayed to find that his father is not in Tokyo—he is in Hong Kong. The next flight to Hong Kong is not until Sunday evening. He’d heard that the Tokyo Hotel was the only one at the time that catered to Westerners, so he gets on a bus and goes there. Upon arrival though, he encounters another problem; the hotel is fully booked.

He recalls, “I didn’t know what to do, so I asked the desk clerk to show me the guest list, hoping I’d see a name I recognized. He didn’t want to, but I persisted, and he reluctantly complied. I saw the name Sam Ades, from San Francisco. I didn’t know him, but he was one man in a room with two beds. I asked the clerk to call his room. A man in his late 50s, he came down right away and saw me, a scared young boy with nowhere to go. He not only allowed me to share his room—he took care of me like his own child and did not let me out of his sight until I boarded the next plane.”

Communication what it is in 1949, Alfred arrives in Hong Kong hoping to see his father at the airport but once again, his father is on the move and is now in Swatow, China—an area in South China where many people produced tablecloths and linens. He is looking for new sources for his company, J.M. Sutton Sons & Company. Alfred boards another flight and meets him there the next day.

“In Swatow I took a bus from the airport and finally saw my father,” he recalls, “We spent about a week buying tablecloths and napkins and I was learning. We then went back to Hong Kong where my father continued to teach me the basics of buying products overseas. You had to find the best source to buy from, you needed to know about shipping, packaging, and product specifications and finally, you had to have a letter of credit to guarantee payment for the goods. All business was done in Tokyo at that time, so from there we went back to Tokyo where he introduced me to his agent.”

After a total of about three weeks Alfred awoke to see his father packing his suitcase. “Where are we going now? I’ll start packing,” Alfred asks. “No, I’m going home,” his father explains, “but you stay. There is plenty of work here.” Joseph tells his son about Kanematsu, a factory in Tokyo that he had worked with before the Second World War, and where they had bought most of their goods. He is to go there and see about other items they could possibly export. Alfred is left alone, but he is ready to work.

He remembers, “Soon thereafter, my contact at Kanematsu told me that the agent my dad had left in charge was doing business with other companies. When I spoke to the agent about it, he answered that his services were not exclusive to us, but I knew that was not our arrangement. I was only 19 but I fired him on the spot. He sent a cable to my father complaining about my actions, but the message he got back was, ‘Alfred is the boss. What he says, goes.’”

In March, nine months later, Sam Ades returns to Tokyo and visits Alfred in his room in the Tokyo Hotel as the two now have a bond for life. He arrives to find that the room has become Alfred’s headquarters and a meeting place for whoever comes from America. Also, Alfred is speaking Japanese! Alfred recalls, “Sam could not get over how I had changed so much in such a short time. Kanematsu and other Japanese companies had helped me. I had spent some time in Tokyo and in Hong Kong as well. I listened and learned the language and watched the way things were done. I had grown up and was doing well.”

Japan 

The following month Alfred’s father sends him some cups and saucers. “We are interested in a 17 piece coffee set,” he explains, “six cups, six saucers, a pot, a creamer, sugar holder and lids.” Alfred has been in the country for almost a year. He has bought all types of soft goods from tablecloths to ladies’ scarves, slippers, and embroidered items. Still, he has no idea where to find china. Joseph Kai, a Jewish friend of his from Egypt who is working in Japan, sends him to Nagoya, a two-hour train ride away. He tells him to bring the samples, and alert the company that he is coming.

Alfred remembers,

“They took me to see a factory, but I had no idea of what the set should cost. I haggled with them; whatever they asked, I offered half.

I ordered a few sets in the Dragon design and the five-face Rakkan design. I was starting to learn the chinaware business. That became our main source of income for the next 10 years.”

On the train ride back to Tokyo, Alfred sits by an open window. By the time he is home, he realizes he does not feel well. He walks into the hotel and bumps into Norman Jemal, a friend from Brooklyn who did business in Hawaii and Japan, standing with another gentleman. “This is Dr. Morton,” Norman introduces him to Alfred. “He has just opened a hospital in Yokohama.” Talk about the hand of G-d. He took one look at Alfred and called an ambulance to bring him to his new hospital; Alfred has pneumonia. Alfred recalls, “Norman called my father who insisted I return to New York a few days later. I had been in the Far East for a year already. It was a big adjustment.”

Back home, Joseph Sutton’s retail stores are located in New Orleans,  with an office in New York. During the November and December Christmas rush, Alfred goes to Louisiana to work the stores. He is fine with it, until his father asks him to stay. In a bold move, 20-year-old Alfred answers “No.” He likes New York and the Syrian community. He also plans to return to Japan to buy more merchandise, as no other countries are exporting. His father understands, and Alfred returns home to New York. He travels overseas often during the next few years but in 1953 he meets his wife Renee at her older sister’s sweet 16 party. He marries her on March 13, 1955.

Lollytogs

In the 50s the Suttons are selling mostly ceramics; a very limited business. They are barely making due. One day Murray Millman, a children’s wear salesman, approaches Alfred and his father. “I know you are familiar with Japan. I want to open a children’s wear company with you. I’ll put up $5,000 and you put up $95,000. I’ll do the selling, you’ll do the buying, and we’ll start a business together.” Of course, the Sutton’s answer is no.

Alfred rides to work at J.M. Sutton every day in a van with Eddie Sitt, Abie (Fat) Sutton, Sonny Gindi, Jack Blanco, and Joe Adjmi. They all have breakfast together and then go to their respective offices. On the morning after that meeting, Alfred relays the story about the children’s wear salesman, laughing at the gall of the man, asking him to put up 95% of the capital. Later that day, he receives a call from Sonny Gindi, whose business is Children’s World, a retail children’s wear store on Third Avenue in the Bronx.

“Let’s do it. You put up half and I’ll put up half. We’ll be partners, 50-50. You know Japan, you speak the language and you are familiar with the people. I know children’s wear and I’ll teach it to you.”

Alfred thought about it. He didn’t know Sonny very well, so he calls around and asks about him. His reputation is impeccable; he is an excellent and honest businessman. “Okay,” he tells Sonny. “We’re in.” That day in 1958 was one that Alfred will never forget. He truly felt the hands of fate on his shoulder. For Sonny, Alfred, and his brother Moe, this is the beginning of Lollytogs.

Sonny gives Alfred some polo shirts and he gets on a plane to Japan. He recalls those early days, “I was a quick learner and I had connections in many of the big Japanese companies, but I found out that all garments going from Japan to New York are ruled by quota. But who has the quota? My old friend at Kanematsu has some, and he agrees to give it to me. The price is $2.50 a dozen, and we buy 10,000 dozen polo shirts. Quota is hard to come by and the next day Sonny sells the whole lot to Sears Roebuck.”

At the time Alfred is still working with his father who sends him some plastic fruit to source out. He wants a set of six fruits to sell for $1 dollar in the states. His friend Joseph Kai from Egypt again directs him where to go.

“Japan is not cheap on this type of item,” Joseph explains, “You can get this from Hong Kong, maybe from Swedish Trading.”

Alfred doesn’t know Hong Kong, but he makes the appointment and gets on a plane  to see what kind of deal he can make.

Hong Kong

“I walked into a building that looked like it was going to fall down. We began to discuss the fruit, but I got sidetracked. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a white polo shirt sticking out of one of the drawers of the cabinet.

“What is that?” Alfred asks the export manager, Nick Ivanchenko. “Where did that come from?”

“We export polos to Africa,” Nick explains.

“How much?” Alfred asks. “$1.80 per dozen.”

Alfred insists Nick take him to the maker of the goods, a company called Fuk Chung. He has quickly forgotten about the fruit he came to source, as this polo is equal in quality yet substantially less expensive than the goods he is buying in Japan. At the maker’s Alfred asks the key questions, “Can you ship to America?”

“Yes.”

“Is there a quota on this item?”

“No.”

“How quickly can you ship?”

Alfred goes ahead and orders 480 dozen, not sure of what he’ll get. He duplicates the specifications from Japan, making sure the merchandise is shrink proof, wrapped in a poly bag, and packed a dozen to a box. This brings the price up to $2.00 but it is still 20% cheaper than Japan. It is now November, and the shipment can go out in December. It will arrive the first week of February.

Alfred recalls,

“When we opened up the boxes we couldn’t wait to see what we got. When we did, we were celebrating!

A week later, I got back on a plane to Hong Kong and over the next several weeks ordered 120,000 dozen. It was a real victory—Japan was no longer the only country to supply garments for America. This was a coup. I then had Swedish Trading take me around to different factories, as one alone would not be able to make all the goods we needed. We took the labels off in New York so no one would know where we got the merchandise, and Lollytogs began in earnest. Many thought we’d never be able to produce the goods, but throughout the 60s, business was booming and the company grew. Swedish Trading remained our agent for the next 20 years.”

Richard Sutton, Alfred Sutton, Alfred J. Sutton, and Morris Sutton in Hong Kong, May, 2009. This was Alfred Sr.’s last trip and Alfred Jr.’s first trip overseas

Richard Sutton, Alfred Sutton, Alfred J. Sutton, and Morris Sutton in Hong Kong, May, 2009. This was Alfred Sr.’s last trip and Alfred Jr.’s first trip overseas

Taiwan

In the 70s, Taiwan opens up. The Japanese controlled it until they left during the Second World War, but there were still Japanese companies doing business there, so Alfred finds it easy to do business with them; after all, he speaks the language. They were even cheaper than Hong Kong, so for the next 10 years, Lollytogs buys mostly from them.

By the 80s, other countries are moving in as well, and Alfred opens offices in many of them, including Manila in the Philippines. One day Alfred hears about a trade show at the Pennsylvania Hotel introducing Sri Lanka. “What are they producing there?” Alfred asks his assistant.
“Garments,” he replies.
“Well, where the heck is it?”

Sri Lanka

Alfred sends his assistant to the show and they decide that there is some potential in this strange country. He plans a stop there on his next trip overseas and when he arrives, he finds there is no quota and labor is cheap. He has an order for 15,000 dozen-flannel shirts from JCPenny and he gives it to the Sri Lanka factory to fill. The 30-year-old factory owner cannot believe his luck; he is accustomed to orders of 50 or 100 dozen. He is so excited he asks Alfred to open an office together.

Alfred recalls, “I liked the country and the man. I asked the bank about his reputation and found out he is reliable. His father came from India to Sri Lanka to open retail stores. The shipping company also vouched for his good reputation. We are in. We do well together, but in the early 80s there is an upheaval in the country. The Tamils, a Muslim group, are trying to take the Northwest part of Sri Lanka for themselves. Outside my office I hear shots being fired…it is time to move on. My manager (from India) has heard about a country called Bangladesh and wants to open an office there. He has a friend there he’s going to partner with, and they don’t need me. Again I ask, ‘Where the heck is it?’”

In the 80s, Alfred travels non-stop throughout the Far East, exploring new avenues and forging new connections. While in Hong Kong, a Chinese agent named Mr. Woo asks him if he’s heard of Bangladesh. The agent explains that it is East Pakistan. When they broke up India, half remained India, half became Pakistan, and this last small section that was Muslim, but right next to the Hindus, was called Bangladesh, the same country Alfred’s Indian partner had spoken of. Hoping to make his first trip over soon, Alfred asked the agent about a Visa. Mr. Woo suggests he put a $20 dollar bill in his passport, and it works just fine.

Bangladesh

Upon his arrival in Bangladesh, Alfred bumps into Mr. Thoren Roger, a lawyer he knows from Sri Lanka.

“What are you doing here,” Alfred asks.

Thoren replies, “I’m doing a lot of business here. The government just agreed to a free trade zone.”

This meant that foreigners could now open a factory without a local partner, and that changed everything. Alfred’s Indian partner was joining forces with a local because he thought he had to. The office his partner had intended to open was in the capitol, Dhaka, a 12-hour truck ride from the Chittagong, the port from where the goods would need to be shipped. Chittagong was also the area where the free trade zone was located. It would only make sense to put the factory there. The prices were competitive and a factory could be 100% foreign owned. Alfred called his Indian partner in Sri Lanka—this was a winner. They find a large Dutch owned building for sale in the port. It later becomes the number one factory in the country.

Just because new countries opened up, did not mean the old countries were done. While indeed they were becoming saturated, every place has a different benefit. One day, while in Hong Kong over the weekend, Alfred leaves his office a little early. When he arrives back at his hotel, the manager asks if he is going to the meeting.

“What meeting?” Alfred asks. It seemed it was a garment association meeting, and Alfred decides to attend. There he starts up a conversation with a woman who tells him about her husband who is managing a bank in Vietnam.

Vietnam

Vietnam is the very last of the undeveloped countries in the Far East. Alfred’s curiosity is peaked. “Can you get me a Visa?” he asks his newfound friend.

Within 30 days it is in his hand. His friend from Sri Lanka sends someone to Singapore and then Vietnam. They find out that this is a brand new opportunity in a country with cheap labor and no quota. Alfred gets on a plane. When he lands, he asks where he can find a hotel but learns that there is none. It was just that primitive.

Alfred finds a boat he can sleep on and goes to the government offices the next day. He is then told that there is also a free trade zone in this country. He goes to the area specified and tries to buy a piece of land.

“No,” he is told. “Rent only.”

It is 110 degrees outside. The landowner sends Alfred out to measure the land he intends to rent.

“No,” Alfred says, “I trust you, how big is it?”

Alfred recalls,

“We built a shell of a factory in the free trade zone and took a 15 year lease on the property. Still, at this time there was no trade allowed between the United States and Vietnam.

We took a gamble, but it was a calculated risk. We knew that eventually trade would open up; it had to. Until then, we played a waiting game.”

In 1995 the gamble paid off. President Clinton opened up trade between the two countries but did so with a catch to discourage it—a double duty tax would be added to the bottom line. No matter—labor was so inexpensive in this primitive land that it is still worthwhile.

Lollytogs installs all the machinery necessary and finds that the Vietnamese are hard working people. In 2005, the double duty comes down, as Alfred knew it would. Today, Lollytogs has three factories in Vietnam, and it is their number one exporter.

Alfred explains, “Because I started in each of these countries when they were undeveloped, the price structure was good and there was room to grow. Now, it is much more difficult. The Far East is saturated. The American economy is not where it could or should be. It is much tougher for an importer just starting out today. Still, I will stand by the fact that good business is rooted in honesty, experience, and connections made all over the world.”

Today

From a happenstance conversation in a crowded van, Lollytogs, now LT Apparel Group has grown into a large multi-national company. Their brands, French Toast and Health Tex and their licenses, Adidas, Carhartt, Lee school, Sean John, and Pelle Pelle have placed them in both department stores and mass merchants, while still maintaining a strong business with the community stores. Their school uniforms, French Toast Official Schoolwear, has taken them from good to great. Their mission, as always, is to execute the right product, at the right time, at the right price for their customers.

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