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This trader is forever in blue jeans
Photos and Story by James Hill
by James Hill"Money talks, but it don’t sing and dance, and it don’t walk. And as long as I have you here with me, I’d much rather be forever in blue jeans." – Neil Diamond, 1979.This opening line to Neil Diamond’s hit song, "Forever in Blue Jeans," seems to be a fitting way to describe Mike Minsker. The Levi 501 blue jeans are what he buys and sells, profiting from a sometimes-lucrative business.Minsker owns USA Traders Inc., which scours the Willamette Valley for used Levi Strauss 501 blue jeans to purchase. Minsker’s buyers get the jeans and bring them to a warehouse where they are washed, mended and sold to stores specializing in worn Levi’s. Most of his business comes in the form of storeowners from countries like Japan, South Korea and Israel, which make big money feeding a used blue jean craze.To remain forever in his blue jean business, Minsker has enlisted the help of Portland Community College’s Small Business Development Center to help him stitch any loose ends in his business savvy. Minsker has completed the first- and second-year Small Business Management courses and even took the second-year class again last year."Taking the PCC classes has taught me many things," Minsker said. "I think I would say that most of all they have helped me be a better person by becoming more organized, from my inventory to my desk files. Being organized is a big part of being in business and it’s a big time saver."Thanks to a friend, who had a good experience with the Small Business Management class, Minsker enrolled with the Small Business Development Center in 1996. USA Traders Inc. employs two part-time employees and four independent contractors to purchase blue jeans, so Minsker needed to know how to effectively run his business. Currently, USA Traders Inc. sells jeans to 20 local businesses from Portland to Salem as well as Goodwill stores in Maine, and collectors from Ohio to Texas, in addition to its international trade. "He is a hustler in the nicest way," said Marcia Pry, a part-time instructor for PCC’s Small Business Development Center. "Those are qualities I admire. He believes he should make a profit. Frankly, not everyone in business gets that part. People like Mike are fun to work with because they catch on and want to learn more."During the years between 1995 to 1997, the used Levi blue jean market saw its peak, which Minsker, who has been featured in The Oregonian and Salem Statesman Journal newspapers, said helped him establish his business. He purchased a 1968 Dodge van for $500 to be a buyer/seller in early 1996. From that colorful van, Minsker rolled to location to location, buying people’s old and worn Levi Strauss 501 blue jeans and, "made really good money doing it." During that time, he was introduced to Doug Clark, owner of USA Traders Inc. Later that year Minsker bought the company from Clark, who had become burned out from the business, and the rest is history for Minsker."I thought at the time I bought the company, ‘How can one make money selling these brands?" Minsker said. "But it seemed like there was no end to my success when I first got into it. In the first month I took over the business I tripled my sales. Now, I’ve got this little niche market and I’m just able to make a nice living."Minsker said the business grew quickly after he bought it four years ago, allowing him to obtain a 12,000-square-foot warehouse at Second and Alder streets. When he looks back to those initial days as a buyer, what convinced him to purchase the business was the amount of money he was making every Saturday out of that old Dodge van, working between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. along stretches of Fremont Street. It also didn’t hurt when, before he bought the company, he visited Clark’s warehouse in Sandy, Utah (a suburb of Salt Lake City) where he had almost 40,000 pairs of Levi Strauss 501 blue jeans waiting to be shipped overseas."I was pretty convinced that I could make money doing this," he said. "The warehouse convinced me this was the real deal. Even though I knew I was quitting a good job at the train station in Portland, I knew this was going to be a good opportunity to learn a new business."The Small Business Development Center offers classes and counseling to current and prospective small business owners. PCC operates the center in conjunction with the Small Business Administration, who oversees a statewide network of small business development centers in Oregon. For information about PCC’s SBDC, please call 503-977-5080.