How We Got Here: Katie and JT Hampton

Current Positions: The husband and wife team of Katie and JT Hampton, both 28, work for Fireweed Cleaners in Anchorage, Alaska. JT is the general manager and Katie is the bookkeeper.

The Company: Since 1967, Fireweed Cleaners has been Anchorage’s premiere clothing conservator. In 2000, Randy and Julie Earp (the current owners and Katie’s parents) purchased the family business from Randy’s mother Helen, one of the original pioneers of Fireweed Cleaners. Katie remembers being around eight years old and barely being able to see over the counter while she waited on customers.

As times and technology changed, Fireweed Cleaners has adjusted accordingly. “When Randy started to get involved, they were still handwriting tickets,” JT said. “He invested in computers which helped with efficiency.” The use of bar codes on the clothes helps keep track of all items throughout the plant. This enhancement has been instrumental in eliminating unsolvable errors such as lost garments.

Fireweed Cleaners installed a Columbia K4 machine, which JT loves. He is especially fond of the solvent mileage and its ease of use. “I used to say perc is the only way to go, but am really loving the K4,” said JT. He believes the clothes come out great and is a less harsh, overall easier and efficient way to dry clean. “Machine load times are about one hour which is important for our customers needing clothes faster.”

Randy and Julie still own the company but find they are enjoying semi-retirement. JT stated, “I call them ‘practicing retirement’ right now. They still have the final say in everything but for the most part, they’re not there.” The current dynamic and working arrangement pretty much leaves Katie and JT completely in charge of the day-to-day operations at Fireweed Cleaners.

College Daze: Katie (born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska) and JT were both accepted to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado (JT’s home state). As fate would have it, the couple met each other for the first time at freshmen orientation in 2006. They immediately hit it off and began dating.

Katie declared her major in Criminal Justice but after the first year, she could not pass the math classes needed to move on in that area of study. “I have always struggled with math, so it’s a little ironic that I ended up being the bookkeeper, but at least now I get to use a calculator,” said Katie. “I changed my major and ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in Social Work. I was the first person in my family to graduate college, so this was a big accomplishment for all of us!”

Initially believing that it would be a good fit because of his innate ability to connect with people, JT chose Psychology as his course of study. However, he found that Psychology was not his cup of tea and switched over to the school of business. He declared his major as Business Management with a focus on Entrepreneurship and Human Resource Management. To finish his degree, he was required to start an imaginary company and work through all the logistics of owning and operating a business. He found the exercise quite helpful in shaping his direction. “I knew working for myself was the only way to go.”

Northern Exposure: JT visited Katie in Alaska during Christmas breaks. He got his first taste of the dry cleaning business by working at Fireweed Cleaners over summer vacation before having to return to school in the fall. He developed an affinity for The Last Frontier (Alaska’s official state nickname) almost instantaneously. “I loved Alaska from the beginning. Its rugged and expansive landscape has so much to offer, especially for someone like me that loves to be outdoors,” reminisced JT.

Getting Hitched: “After graduation JT and I moved back to Alaska and got married,” said Katie. Randy and Julie presented the newlyweds an awesome opportunity to join Fireweed Cleaners on a full-time basis as managers with the future option of eventually purchasing the company. Katie recalled, “We had a wonderful opportunity to take over the family business and even though this is never what I had imagined doing with my life, it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.” JT enjoys the wide range of tasks within the industry that alleviates boredom and keeps him in constant motion. “I jumped at the opportunity and have never looked back. The dry cleaning industry is a great fit for me,” said JT.

Into the Fire: A month after their wedding, Katie’s father was in a terrible motorcycle accident in Arizona that left him hospitalized for over a month and absent from Fireweed Cleaners for over three months. The incident and its aftermath propelled Katie and JT into the daily grind of operating Fireweed Cleaners much sooner than they were expecting. “It gave us the opportunity to problem solve and work together to keep things running smoothly,” Katie said.

Management Style: JT prefers open communication and an easygoing vibe with his employees. Not wanting to come across as overly confrontational, Hampton is learning to master the subtle art of taking a step back and using the other person’s point of view as a filtering process. “I manage through training, explanation and communication instead of consequences and penalties.”

Remote Control: Katie primarily accomplishes her bookkeeping duties in her home office. This arrangement affords her the freedom and flexibility to work from home while the Hamptons raise their two young children: three-year-old Jamison (son) and one-year-old Finley (daughter). She does the bookkeeping during naptime and after they have gone to bed for the night. “When the kids are sleeping, I have to work. I have to really motivate myself and not just want to enjoy quiet time.”

In addition to being the bookkeeper, Katie’s versatility in other areas is a bonus for the company. “If JT needs help at the cleaners, my mom is two miles up the road and can babysit for me. I can fill in if he’s short-handed or if he’s pulling his hair out with little tasks he just can’t get done.”

Unplugged: The Hamptons enjoy camping and spending time at their remote cabin. The cabin is on a lake, so there are plenty of boating and water sports to fill recreation. They especially like fishing and basking in the sunshine during the summer months. To say it is a vacation home would be using the term in a very loose manner since there is no running water or electricity. However, that is just fine with Katie. “It’s a wonderful way to be off the grid and not have to worry about cell phone service or the internet.”

The young couple rounds out their non-work hours by playing hockey and softball in various leagues and with friends.

To-Do List: One of the things on their collective family radar is to make the trek down to Southern California and take the kids to Disneyland. Katie said, “Our son Jamison loves Mickey right now!”

JT is excited about their newly acquired travel trailer. “There’s so much to do and see in Alaska and it’s right here in our own backyard. But we also want to get out and see more of the world!”

When the children are older, they would also like to travel internationally to Ireland and other parts of Europe.

Personal: As JT and Katie prepare to celebrate their sixth straight wedding anniversary on August 14, the couple acknowledges the inherent perks and challenges of working full-time side by side with one’s spouse. The Hamptons admit that finding the balance needed to master such a delicate dynamic is a day-to-day work in progress.

About John Leano

John Leano can be reached by e-mail: Leano@BryansCleaners.com or Twitter: @JohnLeano or www.facebook.com/johngleano