Article contributed by Joe Lehr, Glissen Chemical
As with many kids, I looked up to my Dad. As you know from my earlier columns, my Dad Eugene was very special in so many ways. The life lessons he taught me years ago have become the foundation of who I am today and the joy that life has brought me on so many fronts. Among the most vivid of my memories is my Dad sitting at the dinner table with his jacket and tie on. I remember asking him as a little kid why he wore a tie to the dinner table. He told me that he felt it was proper. Not right or wrong but proper, and that stuck with me.
I’m certain that a lot of his feelings about being properly dressed had to do with his being a child of the Depression. It turned out that his attitude towards clothing began with an interesting job he had as a kid. He was a bellhop at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. At that time the hotel was located where the Empire State Building is today. My Dad was known in those days as “Red” for his full head of red hair. As a poor kid from New Jersey, he couldn’t help but notice how the hotel’s better clientele were the most beautifully dressed men and women and he wanted to start to emulate them.
For Red the Bellhop (aka Dad) in those years, a 10 cent tip was a good tip. He began to notice that better dressed folks would tip a quarter or half dollar so he started to try to emulate those people’s behaviors. Of course, it was passed down to me. My Mom’s definition of proper was lightly different. She came from what she called an English background and proper table manners were very, very important in our day. She was all about how to hold a knife, fork and spoon. I still chuckle about the threat of being sent to my room if my elbows were up in the air when I was cutting a piece of meat. They even put a book under your arm.
Somewhere along the road, America began to get very casual when it came to clothing. But for me at age 19, starting my career at Glissen Chemical as a road salesperson, it was all about what I looked like when I represented our products.
It is funny looking back and thinking about how I actually aspired to one day be able to affair the $4.00 per night for a single room at the Holiday Inn. The greatest thing that ever happened was not being able to stay there. Because it set me off on a lifetime of staying the most magnificent Victorian homes that were known then as guest houses and would be known today at AirBnb.
They all had the same charming story. They were all run by a “Mrs Smith.” They were 8, 10, or 12 rooms. The husband had died and there was a sign outside that said Tourist House, Salesmen Welcome. Remember, I was on the road for 2 to 3 months at a time. It was too expensive to come home and I just kept traveling to build our business. Imagine for it was $1.75 a night for a room with a private bathroom. There was even a guide that we subscribed to: the Berkshires Travelers Guide. Think Yelp/Trip Advisor way before its’ time. You would have dinner or breakfast with Mrs Smith. I can remember thinking that while I was in someone else’s home that it was only proper like my Dad taught me to be properly dressed with shirt and tie.
In the early days, I bought most of my clothes at the original Barney’s in Manhattan. Back then, a nice suit costs $35 to $40. Then I graduated to a personal tailor named Noblie Fimiani. He had a little shop near our factory in Brooklyn. I can still see and hear the foot pedal on the sewing machine.The first suit he made me was going to be 4x more than a regular suit.
What made it different? It was hand sewn hand stitch. The buttonholes were handmade, four on a sleeve and the sleeve opened up. So, if you sat at your desk, and you opened the buttons on the sleeve, you could roll up your sleeves.
There was an inside pocket which I still use on all my suits in those days to hold my cigarettes. Today I use it to hold my glasses. And there was always a buttonhole on the left flap of the jacket to take the penny coin/the tea kettle that my dad gave me that I have worn every day of my business life.
I used Noblie Fimiani to make my clothes until I got married. Sixty four years ago, he made my wedding suit. I’ll never forget as he was putting on the “jack” as he would call it in his thick Italian accent, he was getting very emotional. I can still hear him: “Mr. Joe, there are 10 thousand-a-stitch in this jack and each one is perfecto.” That’s the pride I brought to everything I wear to this day and to how we look at our Glissen line when we present it to a customer.
As we bought our home and had children and began to prosper, twenty years later, I was able to go back to custom clothing again. We began a relationship with another local tailor: Ercole. He started by making a sports jacket for me and he’s made everything for me for the last 20 plus years. When my daughter Toni left home, I converted the space into Ercole’s closet, that’s how proud I am of my clothes.
I am so blessed to have these clothes and I look at them as confirmation of the growth that I have been able to accomplish both personally and professionally over a lifetime. They are a reflection of who I am, what Glissen has become and my core beliefs.
Every day as I pick what I am going to wear, I treat it as part of the planning for a sales call. There’s always a jacket and tie and sometimes its matched with a suit and sometimes a double or single breasted sports coat.
I’m convinced that even in today’s word of business casual and Zoom call, that attention to details with your clothes still makes a big statement about you and your product. I see it everyday with my Grandson, Richie Ryan Knoop who works side by side with me at Glissen. He sees that when we walk into a room properly dressed, people listen and want to hear what we have to say.
There’s no question that clothes still make the man (and woman) in today’s business world.
For 70 plus years, Joseph “Joe” Lehr has been a pillar of the Metro New York restaurant and foodservice industry. At the helm of Glissen Chemical, Lehr has built the Brooklyn, NY based company into a national manufacturer of the industry’s highest quality detergents. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at (718)436-4200.