Building business in the Bronx - accent is on success

E. Doyle Robison watched as three female office workers strolled down the quiet block. A blue-shirted security guard standing near Robison also watched. As did another guard 100 yards away at the street corner.

''This is one of the ways we've coped with the neighborhood safety factor,'' says Mr. Robison, vice-president and general manager of Celebrity Inc., a cosmetic-accessories manufacturer and third-largest employer in the Bronx. ''A guard keeps them in sight all the way to the diner around the corner. In the mornings we send a guard down to the subway exit also.''

Doing business in the South Bronx does have its drawbacks. Security for employees and property are primary concerns. With two presidents (Carter and Reagan) and a major motion picture (''Fort Apache, the Bronx'') declaring it a disaster area, the Bronx has image problems as well.

But Celebrity president Alan Unger and other borough promoters say doing business here also has its rewards. Those rewards, they point out, include accessibility to Manhattan, good road and transit links to Connecticut and New Jersey (the Bronx is New York's only borough on the mainland), low-cost land and buildings - and, most importantly, an inexpensive, plentiful labor pool.

Unemployment in the Bronx has been averaging 18 percent, compared with a national average of 9 to 10 percent.

To Celebrity's energetic young president, the Bronx is one of the hopes for American apparel manufacturing to compete against the Orient. Mr. Unger took over the company with the passing of his father, Jack Unger, who founded it in 1941 in Manhattan's garment district.

Now employing 1,500, Celebrity makes cosmetic and home accessories both for prestigious stores, such as Neiman-Marcus and Bloomingdale's, and more modest ones like J. C. Penney and Sears. Items include cosmetic kits, handbags, mirrors , and travel aids - all in coordinated seasonal styles. Celebrity also produces home-fragrance sachets, containers, and candles.

Cosmetic accessories, like cosmetics, allow stores a 40 to 50 percent markup. It is one of the fastest-growing sectors of American retail trade. Though Mr. Unger is reluctant to release earnings data, he says his company has an 85 percent share of the United States market.

As with many items in the fashion industry, the posh image of accessories is quite a contrast with the laborers who produce them. In this case the workers, primarily low-income Hispanics from the Bronx, are constructing ensembles of purses, make-up kits, and jewelry rolls in lace and floral designs.

But this factory seems far removed from the old garment-district sweatshop. Employees in the cutting and sewing operations, for instance, work in well-lit, air-conditioned facilities. A meditation room is available on breaks. Besides providing private guards on the premises, Unger has janitors clean the streets around the factory daily for the benefit of employees going to and from work in the otherwise blighted area. Staff social workers help employees with personal problems.

''Let's face it,'' Unger says, ''manufacturing is not a glory industry today. The old Seventh Avenue idea of running a cut-and-sew operation by sitting in the back room with a cigar and screaming doesn't work. It may work in the Orient if the employees are living on rice, but not in America. What we're doing is trying to humanize the manufacturing environment to attract good people and keep them happy.''

Despite the recession, new cutting and heat-sealing machines have been installed, as well as an IBM System 38 data processor for recordkeeping. Executive quarters have been expanded at a cost of $1.5 million.

Of his factory's neighborhood, Unger complains: ''The environment's basically nonsupportive. Having our own guards is expensive. Crime is high, and there aren't many incentives.''

The city, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, and Consolidated Edison power company do offer some incentives for businesses in the Bronx, such as inexpensive property, an industrial park, and lower electricity costs. Unger calls for more: ''The city should do all it can to support any indication of life in the South Bronx. There's no reason to believe that people here are any different from people anywhere in the world. Why is it a bad place? Because it lacks economic and social support systems.''

One important attempt to help is contained in a bill by Rep. Robert Garcia (D) of the Bronx and Rep. Jack Kemp (R), his upstate colleague. This would create ''federal enterprise zones'' in selected areas of the country, giving incentives to individuals to develop new businesses (not simply to relocate existing businesses) in a targeted area. The businesses would benefit from 20 years of abated taxes and a 50 percent federal subsidy on job training. A similar bill won Senate approval; the House bill is pending.

''We've tried to look favorably on businesses wanting to expand into the South Bronx,'' says Carol Bellamy, New York City Council president. And, Marlene Cintron director of the Garcia district, says: ''More employment makes for less-desperate people. Those who have dared to begin businesses here have never regretted it.''

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