Sy Syms, 83

Clothing retailer Sy Syms, 83

A 1985 Forbes article said the Syms profit margin was among the highest in all of retailing.
A 1985 Forbes article said the Syms profit margin was among the highest in all of retailing. (Syms)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Patricia Sullivan
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sy Syms, 83, the discount retailer who for 35 years told millions of television viewers that "an educated consumer is our best customer," died of heart disease Nov. 17 at his home in New York City.

The off-price clothing that Mr. Syms sold on unadorned racks in large, no-frills stores, mesmerized customers who recognized prestige designer labels in the lining. Although not all of the attire was actually the same Pierre Cardin jacket or Brioni suit you'd find it Italy, it was good enough to satisfy bargain-hunting customers who needed a decent suit for a job interview, and it made Mr. Syms a multimillionaire.

Syms Corp., a New Jersey-based public company, operates 30 stores in 13 states. In June, it acquired Filene's Basement, adding 22 stores to its empire. Mr. Syms, who was succeeded by his daughter Marcy as the chief executive in 1998, remained the firm's chairman.

His success was due in no small part to the television commercials in which he appeared, starting in 1974, and that are still on the air.

"My father had an uncanny talent that made him sensitive to the needs of his customers and the changes in the marketplace," Marcy Syms said in a statement. "He knew the time was right for off-price retailing. Certainly he was ahead of his time."

Seymour Merinsky was born May 12, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His family changed its surname to Merns when Mr. Syms's father and older brother opened a clothing store by that name. Mr. Syms originally didn't plan to enter the rag trade. He served in the Army, then graduated from New York University with a broadcasting degree. In 1948, he became a sportscaster in Cumberland, Md.

After two years, he returned to New York to join the family business.

But family businesses are nothing if not dispute factories, and by 1959, Mr. Syms left to open a rival store around the corner. He named it "Sy Merns" but lost a court battle with his family and was forced to rename the store. He chose Syms and later changed his own name to match it.

"I remember when he first began Syms," said Marcy Syms in a 2006 New York Times profile. "He would do deliveries on Sunday so he would be one day ahead when the stores opened on Monday. He had about three stores at the time, and here he was loading up a Dodge station wagon, driving around town and unpacking boxes of inventory."

Store by store, Mr. Syms built an empire based on discounted men's clothing, which later expanded into women's and children's clothes. The company went public in 1983.

A 1985 Forbes magazine article said the company's profit margin was among the highest in all of retailing, about 13 percent before income taxes. Syms bought surplus goods from manufacturers and also contracted with them to turn their uncut fabrics into special, lower-quality versions of their more expensive clothing. Syms bought in bulk, in cash and agreed not to advertise the brands, snipping off the labels at the checkout counter, the Forbes article said.

Although Mr. Syms was among the first to exploit this inefficiency in the clothing business, he was not alone for long. Men's Wearhouse, Marshall's, Mervyn's, T.J. Maxx and many others adopted similar strategies.

Mr. Syms donated millions to Yeshiva University in New York, which named its business school for him. He was a major philanthropist with a wide variety of causes. In 1998, he offered to buy the New York Yankees to keep the team from moving to New Jersey.

His first marriage, to Ruth Glickman Merns, ended in divorce. Two of their children died, Stephen Syms in 1998 and Adrienne Syms in 1999.

In addition to Marcy Syms, survivors include his wife of 25 years, Lynn Tamarkin Syms of New York; three other children from his first marriage; two stepchildren; three sisters; and 10 grandchildren.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company