In 1969, Lois and Hector Black started Castle Uniforms, one of the oldest medical, healthcare, and first responder uniform stores in America. Today, our Editor in Chief, Michael Harbron, couldn’t wait to sit down with Lois, Hector, and their daughter Misti to chat about the generational family business, what matters most to them, and why, on the company’s 50th anniversary, community is still the key to their success.
Michael: Thank you so much for joining us today; I’m just elated to have you all here in one room! Tell our readers, where did it all start for you?
Hector jumps to tell the story: Well, we started Castle back in 1969. Lois was an X-ray technician at the time, but we had tossed around the idea of starting a business that helped those who help others. We started small, and then a salesman named Sydney Schriber walked into our store one day and asked why we didn’t have ladies’ uniforms. I agreed to put two dozen uniforms in the store. And when we sold most of those, we bought four dozen more. We gradually built up the store on Hay Street until we were big enough to move to the Bordeaux Shopping Center by Cape Fear Valley Hospital. We still have a store there.
Hector and Lois Black with their family.
Michael: That’s incredible; the bridge from small store to expansion was ladies’ uniforms. And Lois, you were an x-ray technician. How was that back in the day?
Lois recalls, as a smile crosses her face: It was different than it is today. I specialized in radiation and what we called isotopes at that time. Years later, I was a patient over with radiation and what is now called chemo. Back in the day when I would come out with this real cheery, “Hello, how is everybody doing? Come on back, it’s not that bad,” somebody should’ve just knocked my jaw. Looking back, I realize that every person’s experience is unique. It’s the same as customer service. We realized when opening Castle, you just always have to be aware of others’ feelings; the human experience translates into our business.
Michael agreed, and was obviously impressed: That’s exactly it. Creating a culture is key.
Misti Black Basket was happy to offer her thoughts, as well: We’ve been very fortunate, because for 50 years we’ve dealt with customers that help other people. What a beautiful job to have. You’re waiting on people that wait on other people all day long. So, we sort of had the best of both worlds in retail. It’s very important for us to always go back to our roots; the customer experience is number one and foremost in our family business.
Michael was eager to have her expand on that: How do you feel that translates today? What’s the key value that keeps things together?
Misti: I just think we have to be very cognitive of what’s happening in the world because so much of it is mail order; we have to make sure we keep that human experience, face-to-face experience, when they come into our store. We need to take care of our customers because our customers take care of patients. So, it’s very important that we wait on the customers and help them find selections for their professional appearance.
Lois agreed with her daughter and added her own perspective on mail order business: When I used to mail order uniforms, I was always sending them back. By the time I got something that fit me, I had spent as much in postage as my uniform. But today, if it doesn’t fit, they walk back in and exchange it and it doesn’t cost them another penny.
Misti Black Basket with her mother Lois, as they started introducing Student Nurse uniforms.
By this time in the interview, Michael noted that the pride this family had in their company was definitely palpable. Curious to learn more about the beginnings of the company, he asked: How were the first few years of opening the business? Did you see struggles over the years or different trends? What have been the key differences that have shaped the business over the last few decades?
Misti: Mom and dad both had health issues over the years and their experiences on the patient side helped us improve our customer experience at Castle Uniforms because we’ve seen the other side, not just being the caregiver, but the person that care is being given to. And I think that has helped us improve our business.
Misti adds a personal story about how her parents’ business has further influenced her life: When I graduated from college in 1986 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, same as my mom, we had opened a store in Raleigh, North Carolina where I met my husband. My husband David and I work the store together now. And I had a fabulous role model in my mom and dad working together. And after 32 years of marriage and working together, being together basically 24 hours a day, I’m very fortunate to have watched my parents and how they interacted to operate the family business. And my son Taylor is in the business now, too.
Adding to the tale of Castle Uniforms, she continues: We deal with any type of uniforms for professionals who need a performance fabric to wear to work, whether it’s cosmetology, nursing, dental, respiratory therapy, physical therapy, radiology, chef wear, or culinary. And next week, it’s Nurses’ Week, but it’s also Small Business Week, so it hits home in both ways with our family. But we have seen a big change. We know that our customers can easily access their cellphones and order online and not have to stand in line. But we hope the service we provide will keep them coming back even though internet access is so easily available to anyone.
Strategic Partners has been with us for a while. The year they started I remember when Mike (CEO of Cherokee and SPI) first started selling Cherokee Uniforms.
Michael, impressed with the long-standing relationship the two uniform companies have: Wow! Tell me about that.
Misti then explained: Mike has been friends with my parents and me since 1986. I’m not sure when Cherokee Uniforms started. Michael, you might know the answer to that.
Michael: Cherokee has been around for 27 years or so.
Misti continued, nodding: We started carrying the Cherokee product when he first opened. And our families were just friends and a sales rep kept bringing his line over to us. Mike and his wife and David and I both married around the same time and our children’s ages are sort of stacked, so our personal life followed along with professional life, and that in itself has been a blessing for our business because they have helped us along the way. Not only as business partners, but friends as well, because we want to see each other succeed. And that’s the beauty of working with Strategic Partners, we know they have our best interests at heart, and they will help in any way, shape or form.
Michael turned to another topic weighing on his mind: And, Misti, Castle had been affected by a big disaster. How did that shape you?
Misti: Yes, two and a half years ago we had flooding here in North Carolina and Cherokee Uniforms stepped up to the plate immediately, helped donate uniforms and helped us coordinate delivery to the hospitals in our area that were running without power. They were running on generators. Cherokee was the first company to jump and ask us, “What can we do?” They were very generous in helping us, so we could get our customers back on their feet.
Michael: What else do you think has contributed to the growth and success that you’ve had?
Misti didn’t hesitate: We have run our family business as a family business. We welcome every customer as a family member as soon as they come into the store. It’s very important to be involved in the community. You have to volunteer and give back to your community. Shop local, eat local, be local. We need to keep money in our economy and help each other. We’ve enlisted over 20 local businesses next week for Nurses Week. We’re handing out gifts and drawings for our nurses and other uniform professionals that shop with us to help us celebrate our 50th anniversary. But I feel strongly that our involvement in the community is what has helped us stick around for 50 years. Our family has even started a non-profit outside of the store, the Patient Safety Foundation, to help some of our customers and students in the area that are looking to get advanced degrees. We give out a “Making an Impact” award twice a year.
Wanting to hear more about Castle Uniforms, Michael questioned: Do you feel that there is one story in particular that has always stood out to you?
Misti explains: The one thing that stands out to me is about five years ago our daughter ended up on life support in college. And all our vendors and customers in the community were so supportive of our family as she was recovering. And we started the Victoria Basket Patient Safety Foundation from that. That will be my most vivid memory and the first thing that stands out to me. And I’m so grateful to the community and our customers for supporting us during that healthcare scare with our daughter.
Lois had something dear to her heart to add, too: Another thing that has helped our business is the student uniforms that we’re doing. When we started doing student uniforms, I would go around to see the school directors and beg them to let me sell them uniforms and finally a few did, and it grew a little bit. And then when Misti took over the store and David came in, the sales went up and they did a wonderful job. You won’t believe all the things they’ve done for the store since it was a little old mom n’ pop store. My mother was working with us and we had a couple other part-time employees and now I have no idea how many people are working there, but it is a bunch.
Michael: How many are there?
Mistit: There are 18 of us. It is our fifth generation. As my mother said, my grandmother worked in the store with mom and dad when they first opened the store. And now my granddaughter comes in, who is 8, soon to be 9, so we have had 5 generations of our family at Castle Uniforms.
Lois proudly added with a smile: Misti used to wear crop tops as dresses when we went to expos with her white go-go boots.
Misti laughs and chimes in: They’re coming back in style now, I think too.
With warmth in his heart and a genuine respect for the family, Michael asks: Where do you think this industry is going next?
Misti: I think the key factor in the future will be the continued growth and development of the fabrics for healthcare employees. I think it’s very important that we protect them as they protect the patient. We see patient experience is key in healthcare with all the patient surveys. I think it’s important for healthcare systems to make sure that their employees are happy, so they can provide good service to the patients. And I think we contribute to the happiness of the employee when we provide the tools they need to do their job.
Hector was quick to reconfirm that the personal, hometown feeling is very important in the store.
Misti sums everything up proudly as she finishes up with: The human experience is very important, whether it’s in the store or at a university, or talking to a future healthcare provider. It’s all about the human experience. As my mother says, “We treat them like royalty.”