When I asked my quarterly question, "How's business?" to Joel "Bud" Finkelstein, chief executive officer of Ace Uniform Systems, he replied, "I've got bad news. I thought I saw an upturn a few months ago, but it was a false signal. It's turned sour again." He added, "You know, our industrial and commercial uniform add-ons and layoffs have always been leading indicators of business in Baltimore -- it's never failed -- and right now our add-ons are way down and layoffs are terrible. You see, we rent uniforms to dozens of big and small businesses and we've just been through six down quarters, and it's not getting better. Construction is off, autos are bad, building supplies down, supermarkets weak. Sorry to paint this unhappy early spring picture, but at this point we don't see a glimmer of an upturn. The recession will be here awhile."
DUSTY FILES: Rearranging things the other day, I came across a yellowed page headed, "Things I Have Learned Over the Years," read by a retiring brokerage partner at his farewell dinner in l965: "The bee that sticks close to the hive gathers no honey. . . Walk a mile to tell a man something, but don't put much in writing. . . Responsibility cannot be divorced from continuous touch with detail. . . There is no free lunch. . . When you cut bread, expect a few crumbs. . . The harder I work, the luckier I get. . . Be careful what you set your heart on; you will probably get it. . . It's better to be looked over than overlooked. . . It doesn't cost anything to say thank you. . . What happens is often the unexpected. . . Count your blessings. . . We all change places at the rising of the moon. . . Let us keep our eyes on the stars, and do the possible. . . It is later than you think."
CEO CORNER: I chatted with David H. Bernstein, modest, self-effacing CEO, Duty Free International, the Baltimore-based leading operator of duty-free stores along the U.S.-Canadian border and largest supplier of duty-free merchandise to foreign diplomats in the United States. Asked about his success story, Bernstein replied, "I grew up in this business, I've done every job in it, so I learned it from the bottom up -- that's terribly important.
"Also, we were at the right place at the right time, at thbeginning of heavy international travel. And I continue to network around the world by attending all the conferences, meeting the right people and I spend time with men and women who understand where this industry is going. Our business today is strong; we have grown to 70 outlets. People are buying more and more luxury goods -- perfume, jewelry, liquor, tobacco -- at our airport and border outlets because they pay 20-60 percent under downtown prices there. That's because at duty-free shops they pay no taxes of any kind when they leave a country." In the last 52 weeks, the company's stock, adjusted for a split, ranged between a low of 16 and a high of 41 and now stands at 39.
MARCH WINDS: Suggested spring reading: "Working" by Studs Terkel. ("People like working, try to do their best, deserve more recognition."). . . "The best way to get relief from a monotonous task is to think up ways of improving it." (Bits & Pieces). . . The New Yorker, March 11, on newsstands this week, runs a fascinating business story about stock manipulation. . . "There's nothing wrong with having cash in your business; it gives you time to think." (Robert Prechter). . . "For the first time, shareholders' equity from continuing operations exceeded 20 percent."( McCormick & Co. 1990 annual report).