11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
He may be the canniest haberdasher since the men who made the emperor his new clothes. With 11 cents' worth of fabric, Robert Koch can transform a $15 shirt into a $25 shirt, or a $20 pair of jeans into a $45 pair. Koch is one of the major suppliers of those instantly recognizable logos—like Izod's alligator and Anne Klein's lion—that turn mere articles of clothing into status symbols. Koch is president and founder of Swiss Maid, a Fairview, N.J.-based company that turns out more than 40 million appliqués a year. His clients range from Snoopy to J.C. Penney to Levi's to the National Football League, and he has more customers than he can handle. "We haven't solicited business in a year and a half," says Koch proudly. "Our sales office is like a doctor's office—by appointment only."
Koch started Swiss Maid 25 years ago with two embroidery machines and seven employees. Now the firm has a staff of more than 200. In spite of expansion, Swiss Maid remains a family business: Koch's wife, Naomi, is vice-president, his brother is production manager and his sister is an executive vice-president. "It's a pleasure working with your own family," says Koch. "An employee will do some things for you, but a sister or brother will do a little bit more."
The son of a railroad engineer, Koch grew up in West New York, N.J. While working his way through St. Peter's College in Jersey City, Koch got a job as an assistant machine operator in a local embroidery concern. At 26, he bought two machines and set up Swiss Maid. The name, he says, is a tribute to "the best embroiderers in the world."
His machines operate 24 hours a day, 240 days a year. At 51, he has no intention of slowing down. "I enjoy my work," says Koch. "Best of all, when I walk around town, it's awfully hard not to see an alligator—and that sort of alligator doesn't scare me."