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Work clothes supplier Abe Bernstein Clothing Inc. tailors itself to changing needs

| Tuesday, July 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Bill Bernstein’s inventory at Abe Bernstein Clothing Inc. in the South Side includes size 84 jeans. The company is the oldest in the South Side, having been in business since 1895.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Bill Bernstein stands in front of his business, U.S. Abe Uniform & Clothing, on East Carson Street in the South Side. The business is the oldest company on the South Side, having been in business since 1895.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Abe Bernstein Clothing Inc. branded itself in the 1980s as “U.S. Abe” after Abe Bernstein (right), who took over the company in 1959 and worked there until right before his death in 1997.

A year after William Bernstein founded his work-uniforms supply company in 1895 in the South Side, his wife insisted that he move it from their home to a building next door.

It was a wise decision. Relocating the business preserved household harmony, and the bigger building put the venture on track to last well over a century. Today, the company known as Abe Bernstein Clothing Inc. is the South Side's oldest continuously operating company.

“My grandfather's principal business was supplying workers in the steel mills back when there were about seven steel mills on the South Side,” CEO Bill Bernstein said.

Over the decades, the company fought off problems from the demise of the steel industry locally by diversifying its customer base to cover workers ranging from carpenters to grave diggers, pushing deeply into business-to-business sales and developing online sales.

A revised website for the company, which branded itself in the 1980s as “U.S. Abe” after Abe Bernstein, Bill Bernstein's uncle, will debut within days. Abe Bernstein took over the company in 1959 and applied his name to it, working there until right before his death in 1997.

Abe Bernstein Clothing is making book on supplying work clothes to employees on Marcellus shale natural gas sites. The extra business helped the third-generation company weather the Great Recession, which crimped sales to construction trades.

“When people are not working, they're not buying work clothes,” said Bernstein, who became head of the company in 1986. “Marcellus shale was a real positive bump for us. And this is not an industry that‘s going to go away in 100 years.”

Until a few years ago, two other South Side companies were the oldest operating in that community. Iron & Glass Bank was founded in 1871 but sold to FNB Corp. in 2008. Marshall Elevator Co. was founded in 1818 but sold to Otis Elevator Co., part of United Technologies Corp., in 2011.

Abe Bernstein Clothing started selling flame-retardant clothing at the end of 2011 to work crews at gas drilling sites and to workers dealing with high-voltage electrical panels.

Flame-retardant clothing is expensive. A coverall costs about $100, and a pair of jeans with long-sleeve T-shirt runs about $150.

“Safety is not B.S. to these guys; they take it seriously,” Bernstein said.

About 20 percent of Abe Bernstein Clothing's revenue comes from walk-in retail sales and 5 percent from online sales. Business-to-business accounts for the other three-quarters.

“We buy upwards of $50,000 a year in product from him,” said Bob Urdzik, purchasing manager for Bay Valley Foods, the Treehouse Foods Inc. unit that operates the former H.J. Heinz plant in the North Side.

“We could buy cheaper product from somebody else, but we go to Bill because they have good-quality products that will last over the years,” Urdzik said. He buys shirts and pants for about 300 workers, including those who need freezer coveralls for working in giant, sub-zero freezers all day.

“They are great professionals, with attention to detail,” said Mike McSorley Jr., director of commercial leasing for Sterling Land Co., a property manager in Oakland that outfits 35 janitors, plumbers and others through Bernstein.

“We were going through a uniform rental company for a long time but found buying them from Bernstein was more cost-effective,” McSorley said.

Abe Bernstein Clothing, whose primary market is within Western Pennsylvania, sells uniforms to such establishments as the Allegheny County Housing Authority and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 154, Bernstein's biggest client.

“We purchase well over 2,000 T-shirts from him every year,” said Raymond Ventrone, business manager for the Beechview-based union. “Whatever we need, he gets for us as fast as he can.”

Abe Bernstein Clothing appeared on the silver screen, its CEO said. Actor Matt Damon wore its boots in the shale-gas movie “Promised Land,” and Bernstein outfitted characters in the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.”

The company didn't, however, provide the Caped Crusader's suit.

Thomas Olson is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or

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