Don Shapiro, who rolled into El Paso with $40 in his pocket and in two decades built Action West into a $50 million jeans maker with 2,800 employees, has published a book memorializing his success.
He clearly enjoyed telling his story to local writer Martin Sandoval, leading the two to collaborate on “Power at the Pass: The Don Shapiro Story.”
Now, at age 93, Shapiro says he is just hitting his prime.
The first part of the book chronicles the early years, growing up in the Bronx, enlisting in the Navy and getting a degree in accounting from NYU while working as a lifeguard.
Yet of all the career possibilities open to him, he decided that what he truly wanted to be was a salesman. He said he loved to interact with people and this was the career that afforded the most opportunity.
Drawing inspiration from Frank Bettger’s book, “How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling,” Shapiro worked a series of sales jobs in Texas and New Mexico.
He credits his mother Sylvia with much of his motivation to succeed. She told him, “Picture yourself driving an 18-wheeler down the highway when nothing on earth can stop you.”
Shapiro’s career began to encompass more than sales when he became a partner with Leon Magers, who operated a small ladies pants manufacturing operation in El Paso.
That move laid the foundation for what would become Action West, a vertically integrated company with in-house design, merchandising, showrooms and manufacturing.
On a sales trip to New York, Shapiro recounts meeting Bobbi Alovis, an aspiring actress and singer whose day job was as a secretary for one of Shapiro’s then clients, Majestic Knitting Mills.
The two were married six weeks later and Bobbi went on the road with him, before eventually buying a home in El Paso.
The book is laced with interesting anecdotes revealing a calculating and ballsy side. For example, in 1967 when Shapiro decided to expand, he approached El Paso National Bank asking for a $50,000 loan.
Turned down by the loan committee, he went directly to the chair and president, Sam Young, threatening to pull his accounts. As Shapiro tells it Young said, “To hell with the loan committee. I’m not offering you $50,000. I’m committing $60,000.”
One person he credits with helping open his eyes to the possibility of cross-border manufacturing is the late Jaime Bermudez, widely considered a main architect of the maquila industry.
“Within a year of meeting Jaime … we opened our first maquila in Juárez,” Shapiro told his writer.
And the business grew. On a sales trip to Paris, Shapiro recounts meeting with the American consul there to learn whether he could crack that market – which he considered the fashion capital of the world.
After looking at Shapiro’s production figures, his contact said, “Mr. Shapiro you are producing more jeans in your factories than the entire country of France.”
Shapiro says the beginning of the end of El Paso’s jean heyday came when Walmart began purchasing massive quantities and the cutthroat competition that followed.
Sales were in excess of $50 million by the mid 1970s. But Shapiro saw that looking ahead profit margins might not hold up. So he sold Action West in 2008, but retained its El Paso buildings. The purchaser closed the operation not long after.
Another interesting anecdote involved a 1970s visit to Action West from two members of the Gambino crime family. They had heard Action West was doing a lot of shipping and since the Gambinos controlled the largest trucking company in New York, they went after his business.
Shapiro said he told them he had great service and pricing from his vendors and that he would only switch if they could beat his current providers.
They said, “Ok. We’ll send you a proposal.”
They never did, which he credits to letting them know he would not be intimidated – or do anything illegal.
Another anecdote relates his foray into banking with former state Sen. Tati Santiesteban, Vic Apodaca, Jimmy Salome, Sib Abraham and Walter Klein. The result was Cielo Vista Bank, which he said was eventually sold to Coronado Bank – at a handsome profit.
Another tale is how he was able to defeat garment workers unions on both sides of the border from organizing at his shops. He said they came after him after their victory at Farah Manufacturing, which eventually was crushed by a strike.
“When the vote was taken, we won by 85 percent to 15 percent,” he said. In Juárez the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico also petitioned to unionize his plant there, to be followed by plants in Puebla, Torreon and Chihuahua.
“The vote was even better than it had been in El Paso. We won 88 percent of the vote. … The unions never touched us again.”
Shapiro credits the outcome to good pay, extra benefits and an open door for complaints.
At different points in the book, friends and relatives are invited to chime in. One quote that struck me was from former state Sen. Tati Santiesteban:
“If you have a close group like we did here in El Paso, you can get a lot of things done. … Everybody knew each other and we helped each other. I had control of politics and everything, and then we grew older. … The leadership of El Paso has changed. The elected officials have changed. That seems to be a natural cycle.”
The last sections of the book are a salad of Shapiro’s thoughts on winning in Vegas, his love for El Paso and the borderland, his opportunities to treat with celebrities as a result of his business success and on doing business by the Golden Rule.
At a party in Vegas hosted by the mayor, he introduced Bobbi to Tony Curtis.
“She said to Tony: ‘I know you as Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx.’ ” (I checked. That was his given name.)
Shapiro and Sandoval are selling the book online at PowerOfThePass.com, and at Chuco Relic stores, Tippi Teas and at Shapiro’s offices at 1931 Myrtle. Price: $19.99