April 19, 2014

Staying apace with change key to band uniform maker’s success

It’s one of the oldest family-owned businesses in Wichita, and it doesn’t look like Fruhauf Uniforms is leaving any time soon.

It’s one of the oldest family-owned businesses in Wichita, and it doesn’t look like Fruhauf Uniforms is leaving any time soon.

Tucked away downtown at 800 E. Gilbert, the company produces more than 60,000 band uniforms for students across the country each year.

Inside are thousands of bolts of fabric in every color, at least 28 styles of buttons, feather plumes for hats, sequins, fringe and just about every other kind of embellishment you can imagine. There are high-tech automated cutting machines next to sewing machines that look like they were made a century ago – but which are still running.

The company’s story begins with Herman Fruhauf , a tailor in Vienna, Austria. He immigrated to New York City in the early 1900s and later came to Wichita to work at Innes Department Store before starting his own company – now known as Fruhauf Uniforms – in 1910.

It was the John Philip Sousa era, still two years before the Titanic set sail and four years before the start of World War I.

Over time, Herman left the business to his son, Lou, who left the business to his son, Fred, who left it to his sons, Richard and Kenny, who run the company today – 104 years later.

“We had an opportunity, just like my father did, to work with our father and grandfather in the business,” said Richard Fruhauf, senior vice president.

“We worked in every department, mostly in the plant, factory and stockroom,” said Kenny Fruhauf, president.

Over the decades, business grew as more schools added marching bands.

“As football and sports have gotten bigger, so have the music programs that support it,” Rich Fruhauf said. “You can’t imagine going to a football game and there’s no band playing, just silent or just with screaming and whistles. It’s not as enjoyable. You don’t have that music to help energize you as a crowd and as the student performing. It helps energize them also.”

When he was younger, Richard Fruhauf played clarinet and saxophone. He had a custom band uniform that he got to keep.

There was also never a shortage of Halloween costumes for the family, Kenny Fruhauf said.

Built to last

You might see Fruhauf uniforms while watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Mardi Gras parades, or the football games and marching contests that involve hundreds of bands across the country.

Fruhauf made the uniforms for the Broadway revival of “The Music Man” in 2000. Closer to home, it makes uniforms for the University of Kansas, Kansas State and several local high schools.

During World War II, the company produced Marine dress uniforms, Air Force flight suits and flying suits for the Blue Angels, and it’s done work for Hollywood, including “Austin Powers in Goldmember.”

On average, the band uniforms cost $450 to $500 a piece, Richard Fruhauf said.

They’re guaranteed for 12 years, but many schools buy new uniforms every eight to 10 years. Some wait far longer between orders.

Some may order new uniforms, but they don’t change the style – like the University of Texas.

“Who’s going to take ‘Texas’ off of the back and the fringe? And a cowboy hat? Something is going to happen big time to somebody who tries to do that,” Richard Fruhauf said.

“We want you to want to buy new uniforms, not have to buy new uniforms, so we have to build them to last,” he said. “We’ve taken the same philosophies and procedures and products that my great-grandfather used, and we’re still using a lot of them today”.

“Some of the internal parts we’re putting in our garment, you don’t find those in a man’s suit unless you’re spending $5,000 or $6,000 for that suit. You don’t see that type of construction, and we’re still using it because it is the best way for it to last.”

The company has seen a lot of change in the way it manufactures uniforms, Richard Fruhauf said. It designs the uniforms in-house, and while a lot of work is still done by hand, more things have been automated, like cutting the fabric.

“It has changed night and day not only in the way the machine operates but in your production sequences,” he said. “Because you’re doing certain things automated, it’s eliminated quite a few steps for time and labor, and in manufacturing, time is really your true key to how things come together and ship out the door.”

Economic challenges

The recession brought challenges to Fruhauf, just as it did for so many companies throughout the country. By late 2008, schools started cutting their budgets, including new band uniforms.

“One of the first things to be cut out of school budgets is not academics or athletics, but fine arts,” Kenny Fruhauf said.

“They were shrunk, and that not only affected uniform companies but the many thousands of individuals and companies associated with fine arts – the people with sheet music, the music stores, horn manufacturers. Two or three horn manufacturers closed their doors because the volume dropped so drastically so quickly,” Kenny Fruhauf said.

The business had to make considerable changes and cut back on the number of hours it gave employees.

“We were lucky enough we didn’t really have to lay off anybody,” Kenny Fruhauf said. “There were a few people who didn’t get enough working hours and left, but for the most part we just put everybody on shorter work hours and kept going. We had quite a struggle for three, four, five years in a row.”

Orders are starting to pick back up, but it’s not where it was before the recession, Richard Fruhauf said. The company has three major competitors.

It has about 150 employees, with little turnover, Kenny Fruhauf said. Many employees have been there more than 15 years.

“We had a lady who worked here for 50 years with all four generations, hand sewing for 50 years,” Richard Fruhauf said. “Some of the people, they were here when we were kids.”

Each employee has a special skill he or she brings to the table when making the uniforms, Kenny Fruhauf said.

“They are projecting their talents and themselves and creating this portion of this product we’re producing,” he said.

Hoping for a fifth

Richard Fruhauf has two children he hopes will come into the family business someday, one is in college and one is in high school.

“They work here in the summer and have for several years and they truly feel like they are a part of this legacy and that is a big part of what this company is,” he said.

“We are the fourth owners of this company. Most family businesses are one or two generations, and they ruin it or sell it and move on. We’re the fourth and hopefully we’ll have a fifth and there are very few companies in this country that can say that,” he said.

“You’re doing what you’re doing for your customer, for your family and every family out there, but you’re also doing it for the generations that came before you to continue their dream,” Richard Fruhauf said. “Their dream has become your dream and you have to build on it and continue on.”

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