CHICAGO — While business owners can feel isolated in running their companies, the truth is that dry cleaners have peers who are often willing and able to assist them in their navigation. Often, all they have to do is ask.
In Part 1 of this series, we examined some of the newer networking opportunities available in the drycleaning field, and in Part 2, we looked at some that have been around for decades. Today, we’ll dive into the networking options cleaners have available to them today.
Face-to-Face vs. Virtual Networking
Both the Tuchman Advisory Group (T.A.G.) and Methods for Management (MfM) — networking groups with decades of experience — were built around getting their groups together in a common place and offering opportunities to network and critique member operations — and both organizations had to adjust when the pandemic limited travel and gathering opportunities.
“Virtual networking became the only option we had,” says Kermit Engh, managing partner of MfM and owner of Fashion Cleaners in Omaha, Nebraska. “At the beginning of COVID, we were all absolutely in crisis mode. So, it at least gave us the opportunity to see each other (and) talk.”
Engh says his organization made the best of the situation, but virtual gatherings just weren’t the same.
“It really only gave a portion of the value of a peer-to-peer, in-person networking opportunity,” he says. “You can’t do a plant tour and critique online.”
Engh attempted to emulate this activity during the pandemic by walking around a plant with a camera during a Zoom meeting, but the attempt was less than successful.
“You can’t see what the plant is really about,” he explains. “You can’t get a feel for the employees, the culture or the quality of their product. You just can’t do that virtually.”
While she certainly still believes in the value of getting together in person, ” Ellen Tuchman Rothmann, president of T.A.G., says a virtual “something” was better than a pandemic-fueled “nothing.”
“We have always had in-person, face-to-face meetings until COVID hit,” she says. “All of a sudden, we had to go virtual on Zoom. While they are not as good as face-to-face meetings, they definitely alleviated that feeling of ‘I am alone.’ Every week, everyone could get on that call and talk about what was going on and what they were doing. We discussed what was working and what was not working.”
Now that travel is possible again, Rothmann’s group is adopting a hybrid solution: “While we are back to in-person meetings, we continue our monthly Zoom and plan to continue that tradition until the group feels it is unnecessary.”
Engh believes his group is relieved face-to-face gatherings are again possible.
“The recent meetings we’ve had have just been full of energy, with the pent-up need to actually see, visit and shake hands,” he says. “It’s the personal side of things that we’ve missed. The attendance at our quarterly Bureau meetings has been fantastic, and the energy has been great. People are just really glad to get back together again.”
Still, Mary Scalco, CEO of the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI), says there are advantages to taking the hard-fought lessons from the pandemic to heart, and virtual meetings are most likely here to stay.
“I think you might see a lot of people go back to fewer in-person meetings and more hybrid virtual/in-person meeting schedules,” she says. “Virtual meetings can reach a much larger audience, where people don’t have to travel and figure out staffing. There’s a big difference in time and expense between closing your door for an hour and having to drive or fly somewhere.”
Putting Your Best Networking Foot Forward
Whether in-person or virtually, Scalco believes that, to get the most out of networking opportunities, you’ve got to go all-in when it comes to participation.
“You have to be willing to give, not just take,” she says. “You can’t go on there and just ask questions and then sit back.”
Also, to receive the full power of networking, you have to be ready for the truth — even if it might be difficult to hear.
“You need a bit of a thick skin,” Scalco says, “because if you ask a question, you’d have to be prepared for the answer — and it might not be the answer you want. You must be able to say, ‘OK, I appreciate your honest feedback, and I want to know your honest feedback because that’s the only way it’s going to help me.’”
In the spirit of full participation, Peter Blake, executive vice president of the North East Fabricare Association (NEFA), South Eastern Fabricare Association (SEFA) and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Cleaners (MAC), believes that members shouldn’t be afraid to show their mistakes to their group. Rather than being embarrassed, those are the moments that might provide some of the most valuable ways to help fellow cleaners.
“You’ve got to be able to offer your opinions and experiences,” he says. “And sometimes it’s not the good experiences — sometimes it’s being willing to share the pain you’ve endured with something that you tried that didn’t work. ‘I put in this piece of equipment, and I had nothing but troubles with it,’ or, ‘If you’re going to go down this road, make sure you take a look at this and see how this works.’ You’re sharing your bad experience so people don’t have to relive the mistakes that you made.”
Brian Johnson of the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute (DLI) joins us to examine the value of taking part in virtual and in-person continuing educational opportunities.
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