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"If you work hard enough, you can make it."
- Ricardo Torres

By STEVE KAUFMAN
Mercury News Staff Writer

Growing up in a tiny stucco house in Jalisco, Mexico, one of eight children of a construction laborer, Ricardo Torres hardly had the makings of a promising entrepreneur. He was forced to do manual labor at the age of 6 and didn't complete the equivalent of a 10th-grade education until he was 25.
No matter. Torres, 50, always had two undeniable strengths - a warm personality and an enormous capacity for work - and he parlayed that into Ricardo's, a 19-year-old tailoring and menswear shop in Sunnyvale.

By some accounts, he has become the most well-known and biggest tailor shop in Silicon Valley. Ricardo's garners $500,000 a year in revenues and employs eight tailors at Hacienda Shopping Center on EI Camino Real. Most competitors, by contrast, are solo acts housed inside a dry-cleaning store.

This isn't to say that the competition isn't stiff. About 40 percent of Ricardo's business comes from men's clothing sales, and that puts him up against Men's Warehouse and other aggressively priced chains while sales of men's suits continue to decline.

There are two ways to beat the odds and succeed. At one extreme, Men's Warehouse, which has seven stores in Santa Clara County alone, sells good merchandise at below-retail prices and offers lifetime alternations and pressings for free.

At the opposite end, Torres wins by delivering personalized service and near-perfection, and by completing work in a day if necessary. That initially attracts tailoring customers, many of who are later converted into clothing buyers.

Torres makes the formula sound simple. "A good tailor understands a customer's needs and the particular way he likes things done," he says. "In a way, it's like being a barber. Once you get comfortable with a person, you go back."

Yet Torres understates the case. Simply consider the paucity of sizable tailoring shops in Silicon Valley or anyplace else.

"There's a lot to be said for doing tailoring work quickly and at a decent price - and for getting it right the first time," says Ira Kalish, a Los Angeles-based analyst at Management Horizons / Price Waterhouse, a retail management consulting firm. "I wish I knew about a place like Ricardo's in L.A."

Doug Adkins, a manager at 3Com Corp. and self-described "clothes hound", says Torres is by far the best of seven tailors he has used in the past decade. Adkins buys Hugoboss and Georgia Armani suits, priced from $800 to $1,500, from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman-Marcus, and disdains free alterations.

Rather, he takes the clothes straight to Ricardo's. "When you care about attire as much as l do, you want it tailored right the first time!" Adkins says. "At Ricardo's, I know it will be done right 99 percent of the time."

Equally impressed are Michele Johnson, a manager at TRW Inc. in Sunnyvale, and Gib Hertler, an independent sales representative for gift manufacturers.

Ricardo's also does women's alterations. In roughly 50 visits over 10 years, Johnson says, Torres had to redo her alterations only once. And his track record is perfect with her husband, Russ, who brought in seven oversized suits and picked up the altered garments without a stitch out of place.

Hertler, meanwhile, appreciates Torres' personality. "He always has a smile and a hello for me," Hertler says. ”As a salesman, I appreciate that. Too many people in business take your buck and can hardly muster a thank-you."
Torres started learning the tailoring craft at the age of 11 in Guadalajara. Within two years, he began learning the difficult task of coat making. He was a hard worker, but the money was deplorable - the equivalent of $20 for 65-hour workweeks. In 1965, after a fellow tailor moved to San Jose and advised Torres to follow him, there was nothing to stop him.

Torres began working at Hart's, a now-defunct downtown San Jose department store, for $1.80 an hour. Soon he took a second full-time tailoring job – his workaholic trademark for years to come - and eventually reached the point of making $500 a week. That wasn't enough to support a wife and five children, however, and so he plopped down t $19,000 in savings to open his first store in Sunnyvale in August 1976.

Torres started by himself. By the end of his first year, he had four tailors. Even today, Torres still works 60-hour, 6 ½ -day weeks.

It's no surprise that shops like Ricardo's are rare. The proprietor has to know how to run a business, as well as the tailoring trade, and few tailors have formal business training. So they try to open a shop and fail - or don't try at all.

“It’s easy for a tailor to start a business," says Dale Achabal, director of Santa Clara University's Retail Management Institute. "But the question is, 'Can he generate the necessary volume fast enough? Does he even know how to run a business?'" To Torres, however, these are moot points. "If you work hard enough, you can make it," he says. "I knew I would eventually open my own tailoring shop for a long, long time."