Superior Uniform Group has the look of success and wears it well

January 9, 2017

SEMINOLE — Tucked away down an unassuming entryway off Seminole Boulevard, shielded by other roadside businesses, is the headquarters for Superior Uniform Group.

You may not have heard of the 96-year-old company, but chances are you come in contact with people wearing its apparel every day.

"Sometimes when going home, I look on either side of the road and see our clients everywhere," Michael Benstock, Superior Uniform Group's CEO since 2003, said recently during an interview at his office.

More than 5 million employees in the United States wear Superior's uniforms every day in sectors like health care, retail, transportation, private security and food service. Superior's portfolio of impressive Fortune 500 clients include household names like Walmart, Lowe's, Waffle House, CVS, Walgreens, Disney, Sonic and many more.

The company was founded in 1920 by Benstock's Lithuanian great-grandmother in Long Island, N.Y., with his grandfather building and expanding the business. It went public with an IPO in 1968, relocated to Pinellas County in 1978 and switched from the American Stock Exchange to the Nasdaq in 2008.

From 2011 through 2015, the company experienced 17 percent growth, practically doubling its net sales from $112.4 million to $210.3 million, and is expected to top out at roughly $250 million for 2016.

Superior has diversified, too, stepping into other industries like the production of promotional products, staffing remote call centers, distribution and program management, and now has manufacturing facilities in Central America, the Horn of Africa, and south and east Asia. Superior posted net income of $13.1 million, or 90 cents a share, in 2015, compared to net income of $11.3 million, or 82 cents a share, a year earlier.

With accolades, awards and prestigious annual rankings to its credit, Superior Uniform Group was named to Fortune magazine's list of the 100 fastest-growing companies in the world in September, coming in at No. 24.

How did it get there? Much of it can be credited to the growth under Benstock's leadership.

You have to be laser-focused on projecting where you want to be and tuning out some of the day-to-day noise,"You have to be laser-focused on projecting where you want to be and tuning out some of the day-to-day noise," Benstock, 61, said. "We manage our business long term, and you've got to have great people. I'll take fire in the belly over a college degree any time."

Benstock's style and background go against the grain of what most people think makes up a typical executive profile.

Although he finished high school at 16 and attended Cornell, Lehigh and Tel Aviv universities, he readily admits he never graduated from college, instead winding up in Israel, where he said he became a citizen and joined the Israeli Defense Forces, serving from 1974 to 1979 as a member of its underwater demolition teams.

He's up at 4 a.m., out of the gym by 5:30 and the last out of the office, he said.

Keeping his 1,200 employees happy starts by being engaged, he said.

"Everybody wants to know that what we're doing is interesting, but they also want to know if there's something else available that's more interesting and pays better," he said. "Business is not about standing still and still succeeding. You've got to satisfy shareholders, so you've got to grow."

Negotiating deals and buying companies are challenges that appeal to Benstock — not for the vanity and ego, but for the simple reason that most of what is earned is typically poured back into the company, he said, which makes it stronger.

And he doesn't mind letting people know Superior Uniform Group is well organized.

"There's not another publicly traded company in Florida that has as solid of a balance sheet than we have," he said.

The company has an ambitious long-term objective of exceeding organic net sales growth at a rate of 6 percent per year, he said. With the number of acquisitions Superior has been undertaking, it's a realistic goal, Benstock said.

In March, Superior bought Los Angeles-based BAMKO Inc., a merchandising company with subsidiaries in Hong Kong, England, Brazil and China, and an affiliate in India, according to a statement Superior released at the time.

Benstock confirmed Superior bought BAMKO Inc. for $15.8 million in cash. As a part of the deal, the uniform company issued about $5.5 million in shares of its stock that will vest over five years. Further, Superior agreed to a possible payment in the future of up to $5.5 million in additional contingent consideration through 2021 and is assuming some of BAMKO's liabilities.

Before BAMKO, Superior acquired uniform maker HPI Direct in 2013 for $34.8 million in cash and stock, plus future payouts, Benstock said. He hinted at another acquisition on the horizon for Superior but wouldn't give a name.

According to Sanjiv Bhaskar, an analyst and vice president of research at Frost and Sullivan, the fact that Superior made the top 100 fastest growing companies in the world in Fortune is significant.

"Superior has their own manufacturing facilities around the world — that helps them have control over their design," Bhaskar said by telephone from San Antonio, Texas. "The good news for the uniform services industry is that there are plenty of smaller companies to gobble up. And they are a good acquisition company. They have the experience of acquiring and integrating those companies successfully, something they seem to have mastered, which is good for them."

Benstock suggested the company may have to think about expansion when asked how Superior keeps the good times going.

"Just keep doing what we're doing," he said. "It seems to be working so far. I've only got room for 80 more cars in the parking lot."