By Ian P. Murphy
Success in the drycleaning business can be fleeting. If you’re located in a market with fast population growth, for example, it might be easy to profit even as a new operator with limited experience. On the flipside of this boomtown scenario, the seasoned owner of an operation in a declining community may struggle to keep the machines full.
It takes skill to maintain long-term profitability (and possibly even long-term growth) with market demand that’s relatively flat. Only by consistently meeting and exceeding expectations can an operation survive and thrive. That means delivering garments cleaned to a specific standard, when promised, with courteous, convenient customer service.
The average day in a successful operation meets these goals. But it takes a concerted effort to both produce clean clothes as well as satisfy customers, day in and day out. Successful operations have strategies they use behind the scenes to ensure that keeping the customers coming – and making a profit doing so – is part of the routine.
“We define a great day as a day that our employees are happy, our clients’ expectations are exceeded, and our Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are met,” says Norman Way, vice president of Puritan Cleaners, a 13-store operation based in Richmond, Virginia. “We want happy customers and happy employees, but we also have a job to do: The goal is to get garments finished by the appropriate time, in the most efficient manner possible.”
Efficiency Is Everything
Efficiency, of course, affects the success of any business operation. The more smoothly people follow procedures and accomplish their tasks, the fewer hiccups there will be in delivering the finished product. Successful operators say that following a routine and encouraging good work habits are the first steps toward excellence.
Martin Young, operator of Young Cleaners in Concord, NC, listens to the ‘pulse’ of the production floor to find out if things are running smoothly. He tackles any burgeoning problems immediately in addition to adhering to a detailed schedule of preventive maintenance and other to-dos. “Doing the same things each day or on a particular day of the week keeps the equipment running smoothly,” he says.
“A great day is one where the garments flow smoothly from counter, to cleaning, to inspection, to assembly, to bagging, to rack,” Young says. “A great day is one when I sense a lull, only to have it filled by costumes from the community theater or uniforms from a school band. Employees are moving briskly from task to task, but there is no feeling of tension.”
Keeping Employees Informed
Communication is key to making the many moving parts of a drycleaning operation – including its staff – run smoothly. “We hold daily huddles that allow each manager to communicate information to every team member in every department,” Way says. “We’re not talking about a long meeting – just 5–8 minutes to make sure everyone is on the same page. We might talk about on-time performance, re-dos, or a piece of equipment that’s down. We communicate with everyone.”
Communication isn’t limited to meetings, however. “I’m a believer in not waiting for a meeting to correct a problem,” says Tom Zengeler, owner and president of Northbrook, IL-based Zengeler Cleaners, an eight-store chain. “If there’s an issue, I address it right away; I’m either in direct communication with [my management team] or vice-versa.”
Having experienced employees helps, he adds, since longevity lends to institutional expertise. Of Zengeler’s approximately 100 employees, about 30 have 20 years of experience or more, and 30 more have at least 15. “I don’t like turnover, so when we do hire someone, we’re choosy,” he says. “We’re not hiring for a year or two; we want someone long-term. It’s a family business, and I treat my employees as part of the family.”
On the best days, employees meet their targets and customers go home satisfied. “The staff are finishing their day at an appropriate time, meaning there weren’t any issues with equipment or stores,” Zengeler says. “Having that service means total cooperation – all 100 employees working together.”
Young also credits ‘a stable staff’ for keeping his operation running smoothly. “They share my pride in being part of a business that has been voted the best in the region 16 out of the 19 years the survey has existed,” he says. “They are good every day – and exceptional when the task demands it. They know they’re appreciated, and no one wants to be the weakest link.”
Cross-training ensures continuity. All three operators, for example, have staffers who can cover for each other when one takes a sick day. Since his operation is a single plant-on-premises, Young sometimes steps in himself. “Having an employee out is an inconvenience, not a disruption,” he says. “Each of my employees is cross-trained, and I am technically adept at each workstation – although not nearly as fast.”
The Very Bad Day
Not every day can be perfect, even in a successful operation. The worst are often the result of an equipment failure or weather-related incident. No matter how good your maintenance regimen is, machines can and will fail unexpectedly. A pinhole leak in a pipe recently damaged a boiler control panel at Zengeler’s, for example, shutting down the entire unit.
Worse still, Young says, is when a large order comes in that was mishandled by another operation. “The worst day is one when a new customer comes to me after poor performance by a competitor,” Young says. “The assumption that all drycleaners are the same sometimes leads the customer to be aggressive. Many times, that tension carries over long after the customer is gone.”
Teamwork plays a role in negotiating challenges like this when they do occur. “When different challenges are presented, we all enjoy finding the best solution for our team members and customers,” Way says. “What we have found is that the better we communicate with our team, the smoother the lows and the highs are.”
“Together, we can solve almost any problem that arises,” Way says. “None of us is as smart as all of us, and we don’t need any individual heroes. We set pride aside and communicate when there is an issue. We hope for the best, but always have Plan Bs calculated. When your employees are part of a team, they want to be included in the solution.”
Puritan’s worst days are, “When a team member suffers a family setback or a personal challenge,” Way says. “We don’t like to see our people go through something like that. We’re a big enough family that we can share each other’s burdens. We rejoice in the good things – the births, the marriages – and support each other when something bad happens.”
Adhering to a Credo
Best practices go beyond the plant floor and executive office; ongoing education in drycleaning operations and business practices benefits even the most successful operator. Even though he represents the fifth generation of family ownership (!), Zengeler says, “I learned from my peers in the industry. They trained me to be successful.”
But in a labor-intensive business like drycleaning, successful operators must share that knowledge with their teams. “Every good team has a coach, but nothing happens without great players,” Way says. “We rely on our team operating with a common goal: Quality through people, product, and presentation. Our philosophy is simple, but effective: Make the next person’s job easier and lead by example. It’s been a winning plan for three generations.”
Young’s credo was passed down by his father, and he has followed it for nearly 40 years. “Give the customer a value-added service – something that’s hard to duplicate,” he says. “Know how to go the extra mile in restoring a garment. Pay attention to details and presentation and have a single-minded commitment to customer service. Deliver your level of overall quality – a level that spoils the customer to keep returning time after time.”
Ian P. Murphy is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. He served as the editor of American Drycleaner from 1999-2011.