Heritage Businesses in WNY / S. M. Cristall
Helping to keep American textile manufacturing alive
Contemporary photos by Stephen Gabris
1865 Kenmore Avenue, Buffalo
Sewing and embroidery supplies distributor
How old: 125 years
How many employees: 15
Number of locations: 2
Why it’s survived: While adapting to changing trends, the family business has remained dedicated to quality products and strong customer service, no matter how large or small the client.
At least 125 years ago, Samuel Cristall began selling thread to tailors and small clothing manufacturers in the Queen City. Today, his great-grandsons continue his legacy with the much-expanded S. M. Cristall Co.
Based on Kenmore Avenue in Buffalo, S. M. Cristall Co. distributes sewing and embroidery thread and supplies to companies across the Northeast. Its inventory includes all types of industrial thread, tailoring and alteration supplies, needles, pins, and some of the textile industry’s top brands, like Velcro and YKK, which manufactures more than half of the zippers used worldwide. Meanwhile, its customers run the gamut from small businesses to big-name companies like New Era, Land’s End, Eddie Bauer, and Riddell.
And it all started in 1893 with one savvy Buffalo entrepreneur.
Sheridan Millard Cristall
“Thanks to the loyalty of a lot of our customers, we’ve been able to keep our business going for a long time,” says owner Gary Kaufman, who runs the operation with his brother, Jeffrey Kaufman. “It’s a challenging environment today in the textile industry. Over ninety percent of the apparel manufacturing that was done in the United States is now overseas, so you have a limited customer base to try to grow your business. It’s a challenge, but it’s an exciting challenge.”
Samuel Cristall ran the business until he was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1930s, and his son—Gary and Jeff’s grandfather—Sheridan Millard Cristall took over. Providing the name for the present-day company, Sheridan grew the business by becoming an independent sales rep for many major suppliers in the industry.
Jeffrey Kaufman, Virgina Cristall Kaufman, and Gary Kaufman
The boys’ mother, Virginia Cristall Kaufman, took ownership in 1977 and continues to stay involved today. Gary came into the organization in 1989, and Jeff joined five years later.
“Originally, I was going to school to be a dentist,” Gary recalls. “The company was ninety-six years old, and I thought, ‘A family supporting itself for ninety-six years is pretty amazing. It’s so close to a hundred—I gotta see what we can do.’”
In the early 1990s, Gary re-established distribution contracts for key product lines and diversified into new areas, including embroidery, which turned out to be a fortuitous move as many manufacturers began moving operations overseas.
“All of a sudden, all these manufacturers were shifting their business over to China and any place else they could find cheap labor. We had to reinvent ourselves,” Gary says. “Industrial embroidery requires a quick turnaround, and with business casual, everyone was wearing their company logo on a shirt. I got us a distributorship for a company called Robison-Anton, which is a US manufacturer of embroidery thread, and was able to expand.”
Ten years ago, the business expanded again with the acquisition of a Chicago-based company, that was rebranded Cristall Thread & Supply and now serves as the base of the company’s Midwest operations and accounts for two-thirds of sales.
So, what’s the S. M. Cristall secret for 125 years of success? The current generation credits their commitment to quality products and one-on-one customer service—for every customer.
“We’re lucky to have a grandfather who was a smart, successful man, so we learned old school,” says Jeff Kaufman. “What’s kept us around so long is being able to take care of the customer the right way, knowing that you’re not going to press one for this, two for this—we pick up. We’re there.”
Jeff continues, “Whether you buy one cone of thread or a million cones of thread, you get treated the same.”