Business Monday

How an immigrant family fell into the uniform business — and turned it into a source of pride

Alexander Arencibia and Menchu Dominicis and their daughter Loriz, with employees at their family business, J.A. Uniforms in West-Miami Dade, June 27, 2017.
Alexander Arencibia and Menchu Dominicis and their daughter Loriz, with employees at their family business, J.A. Uniforms in West-Miami Dade, June 27, 2017.

Garment manufacturing wasn’t part of Menchu Dominicis’ career plans when her boyfriend, Alex Arencibia, decided to start a uniform-making company. At the time, Dominicis was working on a Ph.D in psychology at the University of Miami and she thought the idea was a terrible waste of Arencibia’s talents as a photographer.

Memories of her old high school uniform, a “royal Smurf-blue polyester tunic,” didn’t help either, she said.

Fast-forward 20 years. Dominicis and Arencibia have married and transformed their company into a family business encompassing her brother, their daughter and $10 million in annual sales, Arencibia said. J.A. Uniforms produces style-savvy workplace garb for 350 clients, including the Sedano’s supermarket chain, The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach and Coconut Bay Beach Resort & Spa in St. Lucia.

Alex Arencibia and Menchu Dominicis inspect merchandise at their family business, J.A. Uniforms in West Kendall. CHARLES TRAINOR JR.

Their sample factory in West Kendall can embroider up to 600 logos and make 140 pieces of sample uniforms each day, Arencibia said. Manufacturers in China and South America produce on a larger scale their custom-designed outfits.

On the factory floor, employees print patterns, cut fabric and stitch panels into valet vests, housekeeping dresses and concierge suits. By the loading dock, shipping manager Tere Bohorques ensures that the merchandise, boxed for shipment to all 50 states and the Caribbean, makes it aboard the UPS trucks without a hitch.

At the heart of the factory on a shelf above the shipping desk, Arencibia keeps a black-and-white photo of his parents, José and Mercedes, to watch over the entire enterprise.

“We thought it was appropriate they be in the warehouse,” said Arencibia, who designs uniforms from his desk at the front office but also pitches in to cut, sew and finish garments. “They’re looking upon us helping us get through the daily grind.”

Arencibia’s parents fled from Cuba to Miami in 1959 and found employment as factory workers making clothes.

“My father learned this industry by putting heels on shoes,” Arencibia said. “They injected me with the entrepreneurial spirit and the hustle.”

It was their idea that Arencibia, who was a photographer working a second job at a restaurant and had contacts in the hospitality business, start manufacturing uniforms.

My father learned this industry by putting heels on shoes. They injected me with the entrepreneurial spirit and the hustle.

Alex Arencibia

Intrigued, Arencibia transferred his creative energies from making photos to making garments. But it wasn’t until he asked Dominicis to help him write an application for a small business loan that she began to take an interest in the company. At the time, Dominicis was finishing her graduate internship at a local mental health facility and debating her next step: academia or more clinical training.

“I thought, maybe I’ll take a moment and help my boyfriend with his business,” she said. “I can do this for a couple months, for a year. Then I get out of it. No harm done.”

Dominicis found that growing a business fed into her interest in psychology. But instead of understanding patients, she could affect how she and her staff members related to each other and to clients to build a better company.

“I developed a vision of something I wanted to create in business that I wouldn’t be able to create as a psychologist,” she said.

Today, Dominicis works side-by-side not only with her husband, but her brother, Xavier, who came on board this January after years of coaxing to handle sales and the website, she said.

This summer, their daughter, Loriz Arencibia, 12, started working at the front office matching purchase orders to invoices.

“I’ve always wanted to work here because I like the whole work-with-your family thing,” said Loriz. As a baby, she slept in a cot at her parents’ workplace.

The job is an opportunity for her daughter to learn about business, said Dominicis, and life, too.

“Circumstances change and you need to be resilient,” she said. “If there comes a day that she needs to work for somebody, she knows how to do it and it’s not discouraging to her. If she can have that under her belt, she can land back on her feet no matter what.”

Dominicis and Arencibia also take pride in their long-standing staff, all immigrants or the children of immigrants, and how they have grown with the company.

I just feel this immense sense of pride for the team I put together. The American Dream for us involves everyone moving with us.

Menchu Dominicis

Maria Rivera, from El Salvador, first worked removing loose threads from finished garments. Ten years later, she is a seamstress.

Mario Nuñez, from Cuba, began 16 years ago as a pattern cutter and became the factory manager.

“He thought it wasn’t in his character, but he evolved into it,” Dominicis said. “It’s something he’s very proud of, that I’m very proud of.”

Sabine Salnave, whose parents are Haitian, started working at J.A. after college. She plans to get her Ph.D so she can advise CEOs seeking to “fix their companies with psychology,” she said.

“I just feel this immense sense of pride for the team I put together,” Dominicis said. “The American Dream for us involves everyone moving with us.”

Having a family business also gives them the flexibility to maintain a work-life balance. This includes attending Loriz’s after-school activities.

“I really feel like I’m living the American dream,” Dominicis said. “I’m the child of immigrants. My husband is also the child of immigrants. To be at a point where we have a thriving business and are able to manage the work-family tightrope where we’re not feeling like we have to sacrifice by not being there for our children, that’s huge.”

J.A. Uniforms

Owners: Menchu Dominicis and Alex Arencibia

Where: 12323 S.W. 132nd Crt., Miami; 305-234-1231

Years in business: 20 years

Number of employees: 18