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Friday, October 31, 2014

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Needletrade pioneer goes high-tech

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Jeremy Becker and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Teitelbaum stand by a digital printing machine.

MONTREAL — Rubenstein Brothers, a company whose name was synonymous for decades with Montreal’s garment industry, is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

During that time it has been owned principally by only two families –the founding Rubensteins and, for the past 85 years, three generations of Beckers.

But what is most remarkable is that it has survived the decimation of the domestic needletrade – there’s little demand in Canada anymore for the industrial sewing machines that were its main ware.

Rubenstein re-invented itself, moving into advanced technology, and now concentrates on selling the machinery and software required for the new field of digital printing on both fabrics and nearly every other medium.

This computerization allows for the mass printing of everything from T-shirts to awnings to banners on the sides of trucks – rapidly and more appealingly, and at very low unit cost.

In December, the St. Laurent-headquartered company was renamed Rubenstein RB Digital Inc., to reflect the direction it has been going in since the turn of the millennium.

The name Rubenstein is sacrosanct to the Beckers, as is keeping the base of operations in Montreal.

Rubenstein was founded in 1864 by a Polish-Jewish immigrant family as a brass foundry catering to the horse and carriage trade. After two sons, Louis and Lazarus, took over the business a small machine shop was added around the turn of the century.

Louis was, of course, a famous figure: Canada’s first world figure skating champion, a founding member and president of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association and a Montreal city councillor for 17 years.

His presence is still felt in the company; photos and articles about this trailblazing athlete and community pillar cover the walls of today’s headquarters.

A fountain in his memory has stood in Fletcher’s Field (now Jeanne Mance Park) on the slopes of Mount Royal since 1937.

Brothers Jack and Dave Becker (present-day immediate past president Jeremy Becker’s great-uncles) bought Rubenstein in 1929. The two Rubenstein brothers were childless and never married. The Beckers, who were already well established as button and trimming suppliers, certainly recognized the value of the brand name, but took upon themselves to keep Rubenstein the man’s memory alive as well. Louis died just over a year later.

Today, the Becker brothers’ nephew Hillel, Jeremy’s father, now retired from the business, has assumed the role of curator of the Rubenstein legacy.

The Beckers followed in the Rubensteins’ tradition of community service. Jack and Dave were philanthropic in the Jewish community; their younger brother Lavy, who died in 2001, was the founding rabbi of the Reconstructionist synagogue and a leader of Canadian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Federation, as well as involved in the business.

Hillel is a past president of the federation, and Jeremy, who has been with the business since the early 1980s, carries on in that vein. Rubenstein has been one of the major donors to Combined Jewish Appeal over the years.

Rubenstein still imports and assembles sewing machines, as well as elaborate racking systems and even a few pressing machines.

But its real pride and joy are the Japanese-made digital printers, both small format and large, as well as laser engravers and computerized embroidery machines.

The original Becker owners used the Rubenstein facilities to manufacture the Beaver cloth cutting machine, post office boxes, electrical intersections for streetcars and, during World War II, landing gear components for Canadian and British aircraft.

Firmly entrenched in supplying the cutting rooms of the garment industry, the company expanded into and, in time, focused on sewing, pressing and distribution equipment.

Rubenstein grew rapidly after the war right up until the early years of this century, opening sales offices in Toronto in 1947, Winnipeg in 1949, Vancouver in 1995, Edmonton in 2001 and now Saskatchewan.

The 1987 Free Trade Agreement was a big boost to the Canadian garment industry, opening up a vast market to the south, said Jeremy Becker, but when the World Trade Organization started phasing out duty on clothing over a 10-year period from 1995, things rapidly went downhill.

Apparel manufacturing moved to Asia, many companies simply closed. Certainly, Rubenstein’s competitors did across the country, eventually leaving them not only the oldest but only major needletrade supplier in Canada.

“We saw the writing on the wall,” Becker said. “By 2005, things had fallen off the cliff.” But Rubenstein was prepared for this new economy.

Around 2000, Becker took the company into the computer age investing heavily into new methods of decorating fabrics and just about everything else.

Its digital product sales doubled from 2000 to 2010, and doubled again from 2010 to this year.

Digital printing has replaced laborious and costly screen printing or the old ways of engraving on, say, trophies and plastic or glass promotional souvenirs.

“The possibilities of printing and embroidery using graphic software-based machinery are endless,” said Becker, “from a simple pen to a huge truck wrap image, from the serial number on a tractor to gigantic key pads on industrial computers, or from a baseball cap to tablecloths and drapes.”

Rubenstein’s current president Kevin Price is in Vancouver; he, like half of the company’s principals today, is Jewish, Becker said. The Becker presence, however, will not carry on into a fourth generation: Jeremy’s children are not involved.

It remains 100 per cent privately and Canadian owned.

The company employs about 55 people nationally, 35 of them in Montreal. (In 1989, there were 130 in Montreal alone, Becker said.)

Yes, there is still a market for sewing machines, as Rubenstein’s full warehouse attests to, but the customers are different: Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, prisons, and vocational schools, for the most part.

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