by Jon W. Sparks
Nat Landau is modest and not given to bragging about his achievements even though he had enough savvy to take a small retail uniform shop to the big time as one of the world’s leading quality healthcare apparel manufacturers.
Landau Uniforms has come a long way since Rudolph Landau started selling workman’s uniforms in 1938, traveling from one garage to another in his Model A Ford. Eventually he opened a retail store in Memphis’ medical center and focused on providing uniforms for the healthcare community.
Rudolph died in 1957 and Nat, just coming out of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, started helping his mother with the business. As Nat puts it, “I was headed to Wall Street but I haven’t gotten there yet.”
He and his brother, Ferdinand, decided to expand the business to include manufacturing. “We did it with five people in the basement of our little store,” he says. “I must admit I liked manufacturing — I loved equipment and I love to make things, so that was fun for me.”
And, he says, “We’ve grown since then.”
True enough — he took the enterprise from the store to a group of buildings, then later to Brooks Road and when it grew out of that, to Olive Branch. Landau Uniforms had manufacturing plants in Mississippi and Tennessee, but eventually those would close and now it has facilities around the globe.
The company makes and sells some related items, but the largest part of its sales and manufacturing going to some 20 countries is healthcare apparel with an emphasis on top-quality goods. (Its slogan: “Landau. Made Better.”).
While Nat is modest about himself, he sings the praises of his wife Leslie and sons Bruce and Gregg, who have been a key part of Landau Uniforms.
“I had some extremely loyal and very, very good associates who worked with me,” he says, “but I have to give my wife credit. She put up with me and my constant travel and she was my original designer. We introduced colors and that was mostly her doing. We were also the first people to introduce prints.”
Nat says that his sons taught him an essential lesson in entrepreneurship. “My sons are both attorneys, who came back at different times to Memphis. They’ve built what I believe is an extremely good management team. I think I was rather slow in doing that and missed some good opportunities. I was, for the most part, a one-man business until they built a team.”
If he were advising aspiring entrepreneurs, Nat says he’d ask them first if they were sure that being successful is a priority and if they’re comfortable with risk. “When something doesn’t work out, you don’t worry about it, you go on to the next thing,” he says. “I don’t like to lose, but believe me, I’ve had my share of losses.”
He says he’s always worked to put himself in the place of the customer. “We’ve always tried to help our customer grow and become more sophisticated,” he says.
As for the workplace, Nat says it’s essential to cultivate it as a place that people want to come to. “When I started, we had benefits and salaries that were more than competitive. We’ve had health insurance since the 1960s when it really wasn’t required. I started a profit-sharing plan in the late 1970s and we’ve never missed a year that we didn’t contribute. But I also had an environment where people were not afraid to take on responsibility. If they made a mistake, that was okay and they got the confidence to make decisions. We’re a good place to work. We allow people to grow.”
At 80, Nat has nearly six decades of helming Landau Uniforms, taking it from a retail shop to a leading manufacturer and seller on a global scale. That gives him a keen take on what works and what doesn’t, but also a perspective on how business has changed.
“Knowing what I know now, I guess I didn’t really have any capital and I did things you do when you don’t have capital — you put off doing things,” he says. “The smarter people today find a way to get capital so you can do it right the first time. Times have changed so much I don’t think you could do it anymore. I thought I had a hard time building the business. Some of my biggest competitors could just sell something below my cost. Today it’s even more difficult and more challenging. I’m not talking about technology, but a basic company like this I don’t know that you could do it the way I did it anymore. And I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
Nat’s modesty notwithstanding, he does have a way of assessing his own abilities in his own somewhat self-deprecating way. During the course of the interview he said these three things: “If I have any ability at all, it’s that I know how to take risks. Risk doesn’t bother me.” And: “If I had any ability at all, and there’s a lot of doubt about that, it was taking people who might have been not quite up to the job and teaching them how to move up.” And: “I didn’t micromanage. If I have an ability that’s it.”
Outside of the company, Nat enjoys reading history and biographies. For exercise, he walks. He’s actively involved with the Memphis Jewish Home, the Memphis Jewish Federation, and his synagogue. And when he really wants to get away from it all, he goes to work. “I think I must like it here!”
He may just make it to Wall Street yet.
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