Thanks to its apparel and textile practice, Top 100 Firm CBIZ MHM is tightly stitched into the fashion industry. For nearly 45 years, the New York City-based practice has provided middle-market textile and apparel companies with consulting and business advisory services, and it recently set out on a new venture to help with the development of emerging designers.

The new endeavor was developed in September 2014, after CBIZ Apparel formed a partnership with one of the fashion industry’s leading trade associations, the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The not-for-profit organization has been around since 1962 and offers programs that support professional development and scholarships for emerging fashion designers. “We were introduced to [CFDA],” explained Jay Silver, managing director and apparel services practice leader at CBIZ MHM. “We then started to run across some up-and-coming designers who all had interesting problems and issues that were similar.”

Some of those similarities revolved around innovative designers not being knowledgeable enough about the business side of the retail and apparel industry, which tends to have several different layers to it.

Part of the agenda of the partnership is to focus on the growing apparel market from a business perspective. “It is always a growing market because there is always fresh talent coming out and we are giving back a little bit,” said Silver. “We have been very successful and we’ve been doing this for a long time. We felt that it was important that we help people develop and grow.”

CBIZ has the experience to assist aspiring designers attain their goals of breaking out of startup mode. Silver had a hand in helping one of the firm’s clients take their apparel business, which started from the comfort of her own home, into a major label. “That story repeats itself a million times,” admitted Silver. “But watching them grow from a startup to a small company and all of a sudden getting to the next level of a strong label has probably been the most fun the last couple of years.”

Although CBIZ Apparel values the designers and their creative abilities, it’s the business side that needs a personal touch. “The creative stuff is the stuff you can’t buy. You just can’t buy talent like that,” noted Silver. “The operational and business side you can create. There are so many nuances for someone who is coming out as an upstart designer.”

Silver explained that new designers usually get tangled in the dynamics of the business when they have an opportunity to sell their collection at a high-end retailer. Some may not understand how the business economics work of selling to a retailer. Then there’s the economics of how to deal with the warehouses, where to locate production, and how to make a product that is “artistically great” but may not be considered as a commercial product that can be sold in retail stores. “Or, everybody wants handbags and shoes, and they all want to go to Italy to do that,” said Silver. “But at what stage does it make sense to do that and when should they do that? At what stage do they do a secondary line?” He explained that it’s really a question of taking it from an art to something more commercial, without sacrificing anything in the process.

 

WORKING WITH CLIENTS

Like the CFDA emerging designers, CBIZ Apparel’s clients are mostly privately held companies. Silver considers the apparel practice as an extension to their client’s inner management team, which helps them make major
decisions. “It’s really a very traditional accounting client service, where clients are calling us on a regular basis. Not
just accounting questions, but also business advice.”

One of the other things that the apparel practice provides is to help their clients with finding capital financing. Silver explained that the fashion industry is quite unique, and so it’s important to comprehend how cash flow works within it. “We work from the capital perspective to help them get working lines of credit. … There are only a few banks that are familiar with the apparel industry,”
Silver noted. “You have to know exactly what those banks are looking for and understand the hot points for the banks of what makes sense and what doesn’t.”

In addition to financing, the firm’s apparel practice also works with the private equity industry. “A lot of private equity groups are coming into this space because in New York some of the designers have good cash flow and good earnings,” explained Silver. “We use all of the expertise we have gained over the years to help them get additional financing and long-term financing.”

 

STIFF COMPETITION

Silver noted that there aren’t a lot of accounting firms that work in the apparel and textile industry nationally, but the competition on the coasts is fierce. There are about five firms on the East Coast that have the same kind of in-depth knowledge of the apparel industry that CBIZ Apparel has. “Whenever we pitch a client, it’s all the same firms that are pitching the same client,” said Silver. “We are very friendly with all of our competitors and we all know each other very well.”

CBIZ Apparel makes a point of being “very proactive” as a way to stand out from the completion. A while back, the firm’s business developer created her own handbag line. This added experience is valuable to the firm’s clients because she is able to relate with those clients who have to make those phone calls to retail stores to get their products on the racks. One of the firm’s directors was a chief financial officer in the industry for 30 years. “He knows what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table and negotiate,” shared Silver. “We’re not just coming in and providing commodity service — we blended and applied best practices to all of our clients. We take a look at what our clients are doing really well, and we try to apply that to all of our clients so that they all get better. Our differentiator is that our ears are really down to the ground here.”

CBIZ Apparel especially keeps its ears to the ground at conferences, trade shows and abroad. The apparel practice regularly ventures out to Asia, where it has extensive connections. In the months of February and August, CBIZ Apparel heads to Las Vegas to attend the “Magic” shows — regular events where apparel, footwear, accessories, and manufacturing companies come together to see what the latest trends are in the retail apparel and textile industry. The firm also hits the pavement at the conferences of Women’s Wear Daily, the daily publication of the retail and apparel industry that keeps senior executives well-informed of the ins and outs of all aspects of their business.

 “We are constantly networking with clients, bankers and attorneys. We live and breathe this market,” Silver said, adding that this isn’t an industry that can be tackled on a part-time basis. “The key to the industry is to have the banks, the attorneys, and finance companies know and respect you and they should be willing to work with you.”

Silver said that working in the apparel textile industry has its rewards. “The middle market is very entrepreneurial. Someone who has become successful in the apparel business really looks to other businesses.” Real estate and estate planning are two of the firm’s services that Silver noted benefited from its apparel textile clients. “We have a very successful family office here that came from the apparel business because one of our clients became very successful. It’s a good feeder into other industries, and the New York metropolitan area is a good market [for that].”

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