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These centenarians still alive | 128 years of rolling up his sleeves

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Quebec has many small businesses more than a century old, long or still owned by the descendants of the founder. This holiday season, we tell three of these family stories. Today: Empire shirt.

A shirt factory can be very entertaining.

“Hélène and I, our grandfather often took us to the factory when we were little. We used the factory as a playground on weekends,” says Paul Béland.

“The factory was located less than half a kilometer on foot from our house, his sister Hélène reminds him. I didn’t even go to kindergarten and I walked to the factory to see my grandfather. »

Empire shirt was founded 128 years ago in Louiseville. The Canadian shirt, over the years, has shrunk to a trickle under the pressure of foreign competition, but Empire Shirt, with the strength of the wrist, has been kept in business until today.

Paul and Hélène Béland are the great-grandchildren of the founder, Joseph-Édouard Béland.


IMAGE FROM EMPIRE SHIRT, 125 YEARS OF HISTORY

Joseph-Édouard Béland, founder of Chemise Empire, in 1927

The beginnings

Joseph-Édouard Béland was born in Louiseville in 1869, the son of shoemaker Jean-Baptiste Béland. He loosened the strings of his purse to send his son to learn English, and incidentally some notions of accounting, with an English-speaking merchant in Sherbrooke. “A bit like sending someone to study abroad,” comments Paul Béland.

Joseph-Édouard returned from abroad two years later with a small amount of English capital and $400, with which he opened a gadget and trinket store in Louiseville – noveltiesthey said.

From shoe to shirt, there was perhaps only one step for the cobbler’s son, who had inherited from his father the taste for well-tailored things. In 1894, he rented the upper floor of his store to set up a workshop for cutting pieces of shirts, the assembly of which was entrusted to home seamstresses.


IMAGE FROM EMPIRE SHIRT, 125 YEARS OF HISTORY

Empire shirt was founded in 1894 in Louiseville.

This marks the birth of the company, which will soon take the name Empire Shirt Company, perhaps under the inspiration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrated in 1897.


PHOTO FROM THE BANQ ARCHIVES

In its issue of July 31, 1913, The duty recounts the fire that destroyed the factory.

Fire and depression

In 1903, Joseph-Édouard bought land on which he built his first factory, where the current factory still stands. It flared up 10 years later. Joseph-Édouard quickly rebuilt the factory, which was then expanded four times.


IMAGE FROM EMPIRE SHIRT, 125 YEARS OF HISTORY

The factory in 1920 after its reconstruction

Joseph-Édouard died prematurely in 1927, at the age of 58, of heart problems. He bequeathed Chemise Empire to his wife Séverine, who would chair the business until her death. Of the couple’s five sons, three, the three oldest, Lucien, Alexandre and Paul, were working in the family business at the time.


IMAGE FROM EMPIRE SHIRT, 125 YEARS OF HISTORY

Alexandre Béland in his house, circa 1977

In the first financial statements of the company, incorporated in 1928 after the death of the founder, Paul Béland recorded annual sales approaching $600,000. The list of accounts receivable lists several major retailers across Canada, including many branches of the T. Eaton Company.

The following year, the crisis of 1929 struck.

“During the Great Depression, the company fared fairly well,” says Paul Béland.

He found an article that had appeared in 1934 in the journal of the sewing machine manufacturer Union Special, which devoted three pages to the Louiseville company on the occasion of its 40e anniversary. The company is said to have produced 167,000 dozen shirts in 1933, or 40% of Canadian production.


IMAGE FROM EMPIRE SHIRT, 125 YEARS OF HISTORY

In 1934, the magazine of the sewing machine manufacturer Union Special devoted three pages to Empire Shirt on the occasion of its 40e anniversary.

Unsurprisingly, the war caused sales to explode, which doubled between 1939 and 1942.

It was after the war that Chemise Empire’s situation worsened.

From father and mother to son

When Séverine died in 1950, the business passed into the hands of her sons Lucien, Alexandre and Paul. Alexandre took over five years later, just when orders were beginning to decline.

The tariff barriers that protected the Canadian market had fallen after the war, opening the door to American manufacturers who sold off their surplus production.

Like his father before him, Alexandre wanted to bring his son Marc, the only son of his three children, into the business. Marc joined in 1958, shortly after completing his accounting studies at the École des Hautes Etudes Commerciales.


IMAGE FROM EMPIRE SHIRT, 125 YEARS OF HISTORY

Marc Béland in his office, circa 1977

Marc was facing the invasion of Asian imports. “In the 1960s and 1970s, a bunch of players in the industry closed their doors. Empire Shirt was perhaps one of the last survivors. »

In order not to lose his, Marc abandoned dress shirts to focus on uniform shirts.


IMAGE FROM EMPIRE SHIRT, 125 YEARS OF HISTORY

The Louiseville plant in 1966

The stepfather closed the door

Marc had two children, Paul and Hélène.

Despite studying business at McGill University, Paul did not want to join the family business. “My interest in economics and finance took precedence over my interest in the manufacturing sector. »

Moreover, he did not want to work with his father. “I saw my father Marc working for his, and that put me off a bit. »

For her part, Hélène was a nurse and had no intention of embarking on the adventure. “I didn’t feel up to it at all,” she explains, adding that she will have four children within two years of each other. “It was my own business. »

In the summer of 1989, she had been dating for four years a mechanical engineer, René St-Amant, who was working at the time at General Motors (GM), in Sainte-Thérèse. Marc took his daughter aside to ask her what she would think if he offered René to join the business.

“I said to him: are you crazy, what do you want him to do at the factory, he is an engineer! »

They were married in Louiseville a few months later, on February 3, 1990, which gave René the opportunity to visit the factory for the first time.

Marc then invited the couple into his office. “And vlang! recounts Hélène, he closes the door and says: “Sit down. Now that you are married, I can talk.” »

“When he closed the door, adds René, my first impression was: Oh boy, maybe the stepfather is going to tell me that now that I’m married, he’s going to have an eye on me! »

Instead, Marc had closed the door to open it for him.

He offered to join the company to eventually take over.

“He said to me, ‘Think about it on your honeymoon. Give yourself 10 years with me, and after that, you’ll carry on.” »

The honeymoon was haunted by shirts. “I fell in love with the company,” admits René.

At GM, he had deplored the strained relations between managers and employees. “Your father had a good relationship with the employees, and the atmosphere was family,” he tells his wife. “I told him: we try for six months and we will see. The six months lasted 27 years. »

A drama

In 1998, heavily indebted Empire Shirt suffered a substantial financial loss following the bankruptcy of a client. “My father’s fear was that he would be forced to shut down the business in its third generation,” recalls Paul Béland.

“The loss made my father very insecure, and when he had problems in his personal life in 1999, it was the famous straw that broke the camel’s back.

“He had worked 40 years in the company and he retired a little stiffly. »

A discreet understatement. Marc ended his life.


PHOTO STÉPHANE LESSARD, THE NEWSLETTER

Hélène Béland and her husband, René St-Amant, are the former shareholders of Chemise Empire.

New succession

Upset, René St-Amant got down to work.

“I told Hélène: ‘I hope the factory doesn’t go bankrupt in the next year, because I’ll never forgive myself.’ »

The game was tough in the making of shirts, but the last round was not played.

René turned the situation around and continued to run the business until his retirement in 2017. None of the couple’s four children were interested in taking over, so Hélène and René handed over the business to the general manager of the company. factory, François Lizotte, with vendor credit.

“He had the same passion,” comments René. We consider him somewhat, Hélène and I, as our fifth son. »

“Our spiritual son”, completes Hélène.

  • The company is located on avenue Saint-Laurent, in Louiseville.

    PHOTO STÉPHANE LESSARD, THE NEWSLETTER

    The company is located on avenue Saint-Laurent, in Louiseville.

  • Seamstresses at work

    PHOTO STÉPHANE LESSARD, THE NEWSLETTER

    Seamstresses at work

  • shirt in the making

    PHOTO STÉPHANE LESSARD, THE NEWSLETTER

    shirt in the making

  • Production is going well.

    PHOTO STÉPHANE LESSARD, THE NEWSLETTER

    Production is going well.

  • Some company shirts

    PHOTO STÉPHANE LESSARD, THE NEWSLETTER

    Some company shirts

  • Shirts ready to ship

    PHOTO STÉPHANE LESSARD, THE NEWSLETTER

    Shirts ready to ship

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Two years later, the president of Au Noir clothing, Jonathan Sibony, who was looking for a local manufacturer, suggested that François Lizotte make dress shirts for him, which required a large investment in new machinery.

Faced with her reluctance, he offered to buy the company.

“François consulted me,” says René St-Amant. I told him that my goal was to give the factory the best possible chance to sue. At that time, the plant was 60% dependent on one customer. It would diversify orders. »

At the end of 2022, Chemise Empire still employs nearly a hundred employees.

Hélène and René never stopped smiling throughout the interview. The happy man has no shirt, falsely says an old French proverb.


IMAGE FROM EMPIRE SHIRT, 125 YEARS OF HISTORY

Paul Béland, great-grandson of the founder, produced a 28-page pamphlet on the occasion of the 125e Empire Shirt anniversary.

The company: Empire shirt

Specialty: Making shirts for men and women

Foundation: 1894

Some milestones

1894

Joseph-Édouard Béland established a fabric cutting workshop in Louiseville for making shirts, which were assembled at home by local seamstresses.

1903

Construction of a first plant in Louiseville

1927

Joseph-Édouard Béland dies. His wife Séverine takes the presidency, which she will hold until her death. The three oldest of their five sons, Lucien, Alexandre and Paul, are already working in the company.

1950

Death of Severine. Lucien, Alexandre and Paul become equal shareholders.

1955

Paul, who wants to withdraw, sells his shares to Alexandre. Lucien takes over the Grand-Mère plant under the name of Lu’Bel Industries, while Alexandre remains the sole shareholder of the Louiseville plant.

1958

Marc, only son of Alexandre, comes to work with his father at Empire Shirt.

1990

Marc’s children, Paul and Hélène are not interested in the business. Marc convinces Hélène’s husband, René St-Amant, a mechanical engineer, to join the company.

2017

Rene withdraws. None of the four children of Hélène and Paul wanting to take over, the company is sold to the general manager François Lizotte, with seller’s credit.

2019

Empire shirt is acquired by Jonathan Sibony, president of Au Noir clothing, who was looking for a Quebec company to manufacture dress shirts locally.



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