From tires to tuxes Entrepreneur again gets back to business

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charles S. Ezrine is not cut out to be part of the leisure class.

Back in 1984, at the age of 45, he sold his chain of 30 retail tire stores, Ezrine Auto Center Inc., to Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., setting himself up financially for the rest of his life. But after **TC year of the good life, he was ready to get back to business.

"I didn't do much in that first year and it was not something that I enjoyed," he says. "Playing golf three or four days a week . . . I'm too young to do that."

Since that brief retirement, Mr. Ezrine has ventured into energy projects that use old tires for fuel and has been a consultant for tire companies.

Four years ago, he got into the business of helping buy and revitalize sagging businesses, and today oversees a collection of manufacturing and distribution companies with combined revenues of $60 million.

In that role, Mr. Ezrine is back in the news. His latest acquisition target: After Six Inc., a struggling, Philadelphia-based tuxedo and formal wear manufacturer that he plans to move to Maryland.

The deal recently was threatened in court by the union that represents After Six workers, but Mr. Ezrine and his fellow investors prevailed. Today, Mr. Ezrine, who will be chairman and chief executive of the company, is completing details of the deal.

The union has vowed to continued its fight against the move, even if it means a nationwide boycott. "We will march on every retail shop and ask them not to entertain After Six," says John Fox, manager of the Philadelphia Joint Board of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.

But those threats will not scuttle the deal, Mr. Ezrine says. "A boycott doesn't scare us," he said, adding that he doesn't think it will materialize. Workers from the Philadelphia factory, he says, will have "first crack" at jobs at the scaled-down operations that will be located at the former Gleneagles rainwear plant in Bel Air.

Mr. Ezrine started in business at the family-owned Ezrine Auto Center Inc., once one of the Baltimore area's dominant tire chains before it was sold to Firestone in 1984.

He joined the family-owned company in 1963, three years after graduating from the University of Maryland with a bachelor's degree in American Civilization. Then in 1971, at the age of 32, he bought out his uncle and his father and became the company's sole owner. But he also was saddled with a large debt.

Over the next 13 years, the company grew from a chain of about 10 stores with roughly 100 workers to more than 30 locations and 350 workers. In the process, the company captured 16 percent to 19 percent of the Baltimore region's tire market, he said.

To expand, Mr. Ezrine took risks, says David P. Gordon, a retired partner of the law firm of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander who was counsel for the tire company.

The mid-1970s were a rough time for tire companies and Mr. Ezrine at first pursued a cautious course, Mr. Gordon said. But when that didn't produce satisfactory results, he switched direction, cutting prices, advertising extensively and expanding quickly. Perhaps his most memorable promotion: the "Ezrine Trouble Truck," which was parked outside Memorial Stadium during Orioles' games to furnish free help to stranded motorists.

Then in early 1984, like a "bolt out of the blue," Firestone came to Mr. Ezrine and offered to buy the retail operation for a price -- still undisclosed -- that he couldn't refuse. Some months later, he sold a tire retreading factory that was part of the business.

With the sale of the retail operation and the factory, Mr. Ezrine was well off financially, recalls Alvin S. Wolpoff, managing partner of Wolpoff & Co., which has been Mr. Ezrine's personal accountant and financial adviser for about 13 years.

"He was not one for early retirement," Mr. Wolpoff said. "He just needed the action . . . He likes the challenge."

And soon, he was back in business. Working with Sterling Capital, an investment group with offices in Chicago and Baltimore, he has worked on the purchases of Castle Foods of Jessup, Maryland Beverage of Arbutus and three darkroom equipment firms that were consolidated into the Omega/Arkay company in Westminster. Mr. Ezrine is now chairman, chief executive officer and president of Omega/Arkay and a director at Castle Foods and Maryland Beverage.

Castle Foods, which has about 90 workers, distributes gourmet foods. Maryland Beverage, which also has a work force of about 90, distributes a variety of juices and sodas, with such brands as Mistic, Elliotts, and Tetley. Omega/Arkay makes enlargers, film processors, stainless steel sinks and drying cabinets.

Both Castle Foods and Maryland Beverage were on-going family firms when they were bought. But Omega, which was based in Brooklyn, was in bankruptcy when Mr. Ezrine and Sterling bought it in May 1990.

Since then, the number of workers has been increased from 45 to about 100, and the firm was returned to profitability. Today, all three companies are profitable, and have combined annual sales of about $60 million, he says.

Both Mr. Wolpoff and Mr. Gordon agree that Mr. Ezrine's management style is characterized by a close attention to detail and a requirement that workers perform. "He is fair but tough," Mr. Gordon says. "A pin didn't drop in that [tire retread] plant that he didn't know about it."

Mr. Ezrine said he doesn't follow any particular management philosophy, but rather bases his approach on personal experience. "People have to understand their jobs, understand what is required of them. I think they have to be treated with respect and dignity. But they must produce."

He adds, "My role at Sterling is to analyze the operations of the companies and then work to build management teams at those companies. My ultimate goal is to transform these companies into high quality, low cost, high value producers."

After Six, which already has 40 percent of the men's formal wear market, is the latest turnaround challenge. Mr. Ezrine and his fellow investors, who have not disclosed the company's purchase price, won't have the crushing debt that the previous owners had and will not be working under the union requirement that the company make all its products.

"We're going to be a strong manufacturer, but we are not going to be 100 percent," he said. "You can't buy a company and go into the battle for market share and have an arm tied behind your back."

The company may also diversify beyond the After Six and Christian Dior tuxedos that it now makes, he added. "We have a lot of plans, but they are not plans we can disclose at this time."

One thing is clear: the company will scale down its operations. The After Six operation in Philadelphia now has about 300 workers. When it moves to Maryland, the factory will have between 200 and 250 employees, he said.

By going into manufacturing, Mr. Ezrine is confronting one of the weaker parts of Maryland's economy. In the past three decades, the percentage of Marylanders with manufacturing jobs has dropped from 34.5 percent, which was close to the national average, to 11.5 percent, far below today's national average of about 17 percent.

"There is no reason that all these jobs have to continue to be XTC exported around the world," he says. "I'm a believer in manufacturing, but you have to educate the work force." This, he says, includes dissuading them from the idea that assembly line workers will earn $12 an hour and enjoy "huge" benefit packages.

Yet, workers can still get paid "decently" with wages of $8 or more an hour and benefits that include medical insurance and retirement savings plans, he says. But workers also owe something to the employer.

"We are willing to give those things," he says. "What we require back from the workers at these companies is a commitment to do a good job every day. And you can get it."

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