The SPESA Board of Directors is responsible for guiding the association's policy direction and making decisions to improve our effectiveness in representing the interests of the members and the sewn products industry. With that in mind, we thought it was about time our readers got to know them.
We chatted with SPESA Board member Martin Gopman, President of Universal Sewing Machine Company, an industrial sewing machine distributor in Miami, Florida, to learn more about his experience in the sewn products industry and vision for the future.
Martin has served on the SPESA Board continuously since he was elected by the membership in 1998.
To start off, please tell us a little about your company and career path.
Martin Gopman: I was somewhat tricked into joining this business, but I have never regretted it. My father, who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union three years earlier, with my mother and myself when I was a teenager, started Universal Sewing Machine Co., Inc. in 1964. That year, and the decades that followed, were good for Miami’s garment industry because of the large inflow of Cuban refugees from the Castro regime. After spending eight years in Siberian labor camps as a political prisoner of the Soviet Union, my father came to America with nothing but one thing the Soviets could not take away — his trade as a sewing machine mechanic that he learned in the labor camps. He started working in Miami as a freelance mechanic and was rebuilding used sewing machines in his garage.
In 1973, after almost a decade of being in business, my father asked me to join him. That was the last thing on my mind at the time. I was working at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, having freshly graduated from college with a degree in mechanical engineering. It was my dream job, even though the pay was not great for a starting engineer. My father promised me the world, literally, of travel and riches (compared to my paltry NASA salary). And I fell for it, but with one caveat: I told him that if I did not like the business, or working with him, after a one- or two-year trial, I would leave. That was more than 40 years ago, and I am still here. (Travel came as promised, but riches were harder).
Fifteen years later, in 1989, I started another company, Unicraft Corporation. It became an outlet for my engineering training. We started by manufacturing cutting tables, and quickly expanded into making sewing machine tabletops, manual spreading machines, and many types of material handling equipment such as racks, stands, trucks, bins, and carriers. And today, after 32 years, the company continues to grow by adding new products and gaining market share.
What is the most important thing you have learned during your career?
MG: This may sound like a platitude, but one of the most important “wisdoms” I learned from my father about running a business, and which has served me well over the years, at first sounded to me like an oxymoron for a businessman. It is an old and simple truism: “Honesty is the best policy,” even in business. And I would add “Fairness.” There were countless times when being fair and honest with a customer or supplier, even at a cost to yourself, paid off many times over in the long run. It is a good business strategy as well as a moral one.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned about the sewn products industry?
MG: The most surprising thing I have learned about the sewn products industry is how many really smart people there are in it. I think it would compare favorably even with Silicon Valley. I have met owners and operators of many large and small sewing companies, and they always impress me as strong, determined, smart, entrepreneurial, risk-takers, and go-getters. And most of my supplier-colleagues are the same breed of people.
What is something you have accomplished during your career that makes you proud?
MG: Not closing the doors when our industry was hit by the China exodus in the late 1990s and 2000s. Those were the hard days — watching customers and colleagues going out of business; renegotiating with creditors for payment extensions; listening to my brother-in-law, my accountant, and my divorce attorney advising me to close; and finally plowing my personal savings into the business. But the company survived and prospered in later years.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known when your career first began?
MG: How hard it would be. And how rewarding — in more ways than just monetary. One of my great satisfactions is getting together socially with SPESA colleagues at our meetings. On the other hand, dealing with customers and suppliers is a double-edge sword — it could be exhilarating one day, and infuriating the next. But I learned to take it in stride.
How have you seen the industry change during the course of your career?
MG: I have seen incredible changes. My father, had he been alive today, would not recognize it. Automation in sewing, spreading, and cutting requires a different mind-set, different knowledge base, different personnel, and more training and learning. It is a constant evolution that we need to keep up with; it’s becoming somewhat like the medical or other professions that require periodic refreshers.
What do you think will be the next big change or pivot for the industry?
MG: I see in my crystal ball two big changes that will and must happen for our industry to be more viable in America:
Reshoring, which will bring changes in the landscape of our industry in America. It will create smaller factories, turning out smaller lots or even custom one-of-a-kind garments, quick-to-market deliveries and turn-around-times, and faster responsiveness to fashion changes.
Automated equipment replacing traditional equipment as it becomes ever more difficult to find workers. The industry will become less labor intensive and more capital intensive to deal with labor shortages. This bodes well for equipment suppliers.
How have advancements in technology impacted your company and your customers?
MG: It forced us to learn new things, and to continue learning. Who would have thought that sewing machine dealers will need continuing education? But it has been good for business — selling more big-ticket items with more profit.
Are you working on any new projects right now that you are excited about?
MG: I am sometimes asked: “When will you retire?”
Well, we continue to expand our product line by adding new items — we just added automatic cutting machines to our automatic spreading machines, which were added only a few years ago. And we are constantly expanding our automated sewing machine offering.
Does this sound like a man planning to retire?
What are the biggest challenges right now for your company?
MG: By far the biggest, and not easily solvable, problem we are facing now is finding sewing machine mechanics. We have lost many by attrition when the industry was forced to downsize. Little is being done at this time to create a new crop of mechanics. It is a critical problem for dealers and for the industry.
If we could solve one issue as an industry, what would it be?
MG: Aside from the issue described above, I would like to see our manufacturing industry become less cost/price sensitive. Scouting the world to save cents on a garment, selling products at deep discounts, paying low wages to sewers, and neglecting the environment, are the consequences of this policy, which is often misguided. It may sound utopian, given that profit is the motivator, but I would like to see it become the new normal in a changing world.
What do you think the next generation of the sewn products industry workforce will look like?
MG: It must be different for the industry to thrive — more educated and trained, higher paid commensurate with their professional status — and offered better working conditions to attract younger workers.
What advice would you give someone looking to follow in your footsteps with a career in the sewn products industry?
MG: To succeed in today’s sewn products industry, above all, one must be educated, knowledgeable, trained, and well-rounded in the field of the sewing industry one pursues. It also helps to like what you are doing.
Thank you to Martin for taking the time to answer our questions and for forty years of service to the sewn products industry!