How We Got Started In The Dry Cleaning Business

The purpose of this writing is to provide you, the reader, with a little background about my journey as a member of the dry cleaning community. I hope my story provides you with some encouragement that you can get through the trials the past months have placed at our industry’s doorstep. It won’t be easy, but if one is willing to make the effort, I honestly believe we can get through the challenges we may be dealing with.

But first a confession. I never planned on being in business for myself. After graduating from college, I took a job with a community bank as a staff auditor. I successfully completed requirements to become a CPA and received other accounting related certifications. I really believed I would stay in the banking profession forever. I worked for banks in Terre Haute, Indiana; Midland, Texas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and here in Jacksonville, Florida. However, three of these organizations failed or were failing and I eventually found myself on the outside of the industry looking in. At the same time, my bride hit the “glass ceiling” in her place of employment and her career was in jeopardy as well.

So with little savings, a mortgage, car payments, two kids and no income we looked for ways to generate a living. We became entrepreneurs, albeit reluctantly. We bought a van, arranged for a local dry cleaner to process our garments and set out to conquer the world with our pick up and delivery service.

We knew nothing about marketing, except for some vague concepts we remembered from our college marketing class. We printed up some flyers, called on old friends and asked for their business and thought we would soon be rolling in the dough. We soon discovered this was not going to be an easy process. Lead generation? Sequential contacts? Branding vs. direct response marketing? Didn’t know. Targeting the ideal customer? What was that? Referrals? We were just hoping to get a customer. All we had was a truck and an old version of Quickbooks to post our handful of transactions. We knew nothing about marketing. (At least I had the accounting part down.)

I also discovered it was much easier to prepare expense reports than to write checks for expenses. When I was in the corporate world, expenses were generally someone else’s problem. Sure, I had to create and follow a budget, but those were just guidelines. Payroll? Wasn’t my problem. Equipment maintenance? Not a concern. Major problem or system change? Hey, that’s why we formed committees.

But now? When the van went down, it came out of my pocket as did the monthly payments. Gas and insurance was on me too. We couldn’t simply requisition supplies either!

Even without the knowledge we should have had prior to starting our little operation, we did eventually begin to have some success. We moved the business out of our home and acquired a pick up and drop off station and hired our first employee. Now we also had to pay rent, wages and payroll taxes, too. More challenges!

Through the first few years or our company, I think we survived strictly on adrenaline and effort. I found that much of the knowledge I had learned in the corporate world was of limited value as an entrepreneur. Without a thorough understanding of the industry and some of the basic principles of being self-employed, we certainly lacked focus.

Looking back, I am sure we were viewed as nothing more than a commodity by potential clients. We based our pricing strictly on what other dry cleaners were charging. We offered nothing special to differentiate ourselves from our competition and failed to attract good paying, high-quality customers. We also did a poor job creating an exceptional client experience.

We were surviving and we were growing, albeit slowly. And this was in the early 90’s when our industry was, generally, in pretty good shape.

After a couple of years of continuing to operate in this manner, we began to experience issues with our wholesale provider. Work was not getting done on time, quality was slipping and we were getting complaints from clients. As fate would have it, we were given what appeared to be a great opportunity: a chance to lease a plant from an experienced operator with the potential to expand over time.

Almost immediately, we found the landlord had an entirely different perspective on the lease transaction than we did. The relationship soured quickly. We realized this relationship would not be a long-term situation so we did the best we could to develop our business while we figured out our next step. However, there were some positives that came from this arrangement. We learned a great deal about operating a dry cleaning plant, including processes, equipment maintenance and managing a staff.

Knowing we were in a short term situation and the clock was running, we began to look to acquire an existing dry cleaning business. It seems like I looked at fifty drycleaners that were supposedly available. Many were environmental disasters. Others were priced unrealistically high and some were just a dump. Finding nothing satisfactory, we decided to open a new facility.

We purchased an old restaurant building that had been empty for years and leased the equipment needed. Our realtor recommended a contractor for the build out, which had to be done within a couple of months. At the closing we signed a cost plus contract with the contractor.

Utilizing this contractor was the mistake that nearly broke us. Suffice it to say, the terms of the contract were not upheld, resulting in years of legal wrangling that just about did us in. All at the time we were trying to grow our new facility. Legal fees, delays, poor construction – you name it, we experienced it. In reality we were bankrupted (although we never filed).

Worst of all was the sense of loneliness and confusion created by the mess we were experiencing. It’s amazing, when going through these difficulties I felt like I was the only person in world having these kinds of problems. Being a CPA, I was embarrassed and felt I had let my family down. I started to withdraw from others.

Making payroll became a major task. Other financial obligations were put aside as we tried to survive the financial disaster we were encountering. I was only able to focus on putting out fires that were continuously being confronted. I even coined the term “entremanure” to describe my job title.

And yes, I discovered things really can get worse. Seven years ago my wife was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. She was told she had maybe two years to live.

Just as things felt as if they couldn’t get any worse, I began to look at our situation differently. Amazingly, my wife was still with me. And by some miracle, our business survived the overwhelming difficulties of the previous quarter century. I began to look at things differently. I felt as if some divine intervention had to be involved.

My bride went through a stem-cell transplant that stopped the progression of the cancer. Today she is cancer free.

I began to set goals for our company and for myself. I immersed myself in learning how to market our services and most of all I began to seek the advice and guidance of others. I started to prioritize things that were critical for me to perform and to delegate many of the routine tasks in our operation.

Most importantly, I discovered that it does no good to complain or worry about things that haven’t gone my way. I now look at challenges as opportunities and take action on strategies that may improve our situation. By adjusting my attitude, our business today is much healthier than it has been in years, even after the trials and tribulations of the past year. I am looking to the future with more optimism than ever.

I understand our industry has endured a difficult period. For those having challenges and are worried about the future, I encourage you to stand back and look for ways to adapt to today’s changing needs. The market has changed. Ask for help if you need it. It’s out there. There are those in our industry who are willing and able to give you good advice and guidance. Don’t let your pride get in your way and most of all, keep building on your positives. It’s what will keep you going.

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