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Delivering the Goods

Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, his “get dirty clothes,” owner and President Mark Forst looks very much at home in the warehouse at his A.M.E.’s Uniforms in Fort Lauderdale. He could be just another worker pulling items from shelves that run from floor to ceiling and hold every permutation of U.S. Postal Service uniform: Crew-length socks, over-the-calf socks, support hose, padded socks, mini-crew socks, waterproof socks, anti-blister socks; fur-lined hats, sun hats, helmets, caps; sensible shoes in every width and length; fleece jackets, Gore-Tex jackets — even capes.

Forst and his father, Melvin, were looking for a business to enter in 1998 when a business broker told them about postal-uniform supply. The postal service wants its employees looking professional so it gives uniformed postal workers a debit card annually. The amount varies based on the job; veteran carriers get $371 a year. The cards are good only at the 250 approved postal uniform vendors. The Forsts bought the assets of an existing Fort Lauderdale vendor and opened with one employee in a 1,200-sq.-ft. space. In 2003, A.M.E.’s made No. 448 on Inc. magazine’s 500 with $2.6 million in revenue, a 373% increase from 1998 to 2002.

With little production differentiation — a uniform, after all, is a uniform — Forst has sought to win business with quality and service. “I have a great crew that knows the industry well. ‘The answer is yes; now what is the question?’ — that kind of attitude,” he says. Forst provides a life-of-the-garment guarantee. If a belt loop tears away, for instance, A.M.E.’s pays to have the pants shipped back to Fort Lauderdale, repaired and returned to the customer. “We only ship, of course, U.S. Postal Service,” Forst says.

Online is the fastest-growing segment of his business, but the historical sales channel for vendors remains key for him: Part-time sales reps around the nation — often retired postal workers — who set up a table at a post office facility at day’s end to schmooze with workers, managers, union reps — and make sales. Forst says he is told he’s the third-largest uniform vendor.

Forst, 51, who managed restaurants before moving to Florida, now has 26 employees, up from 10 when he was in Inc. He says revenue is four times the $2.6 million Inc. found in 2002. Given that postal employees receive their debit cards annually, the recession was a non-event for him. What is a concern, however, is the shrinking uniformed postal workforce. He’s looking at school uniforms and other new markets.