CHICAGO — While many dry cleaners are part of a generational business, passed on from parent to child, there are others who are just now entering the industry with optimism but not a lot — or in some cases, any— experience.
As an industry that often prides itself on its willingness to share ideas and offer suggestions to those looking for answers, what would drycleaning veterans say to those who are just coming in?
The Voice of Experience
“I didn’t get shot out of a cannon into this (business),” says Brian Butler, president of Columbus, Ohio-based Dublin Cleaners. “I grew up in it.”
Butler is the third generation of his family running Dublin Cleaners. He worked in the business growing up, and returned to take up a leadership position in 2003. So, what’s the first bit of advice he would have to someone considering opening a drycleaning business or buying an existing one?
“Do your due diligence,” he says. “When people ask me about this business, and I tell them stories, sometimes they’re shocked.”
Butler recalls speaking to a supplier who had been in the business for about seven years. “He said, ‘I’ve been a part of a lot of different business models over 30 years, and I’ve never seen a harder way to make good money than being a dry cleaner.’”
Jennifer Whitmarsh, who opened Snappy Dry Cleaning in Williamsville, New York, in November 2022, certainly did her due diligence. While she is new to owning a cleaning company, she has more than 18 years of experience in the field, having started at age 16.
“It wasn’t a family business,” she says. “I just happened to get into it, because I had a friend who is in it. I was working at the time in a pizza shop, where the leadership was not good. At the dry cleaner, I just loved what I did.”
After college, she became an office manager, and again started working at a dry cleaner, this time at an administrative level, and eventually becoming a partner. Over time, she and the owner talked about Whitmarsh buying him out of the business, but couldn’t come to an agreement. Whitmarsh then went to work for The Route Pros consulting firm as a customer service coach on a remote basis, but the idea of owning her own drycleaning company never left her.
“I said to them, ‘As long as I can own and operate my own cleaners locally, I’m all in,’” she says, “and they told me, ‘Of course you can.’”
What They Wish They Had Known
Even with the benefit of years of experience in the field, taking a leadership role in a drycleaning company can be an eye-opening experience.
So, what was Butler’s biggest surprise?
“The amount of energy that it’s going to take to lead effectively, because it’s a lot of people in a very labor- and people-heavy business,” he says. “It’s not the ‘blocking and tackling’ that’s hard — how to run a trouser press is a definable objective and skill. It’s more of getting into the mindset and understand why an employee won’t show up on time or perform their task in the way they’ve been trained. It’s figuring out, when someone isn’t getting along well with others, what the bee is in their bonnet.”
Butler likens this experience to becoming a parent for the first time.
“You can study all the books,” he says. “You can have all the older siblings and parents and aunts and uncles and cousins tell you what it’s going to be like, and you can understand their words. But you don’t feel their meaning until after you’re driving home from that delivery unit thinking, ‘Oh, my God, for 18 years, no one’s coming to my rescue.’ Then you know what they meant.”
For Whitmarsh, she wishes she had understood how much knowledge about the industry is available, simply for the asking.
“I’ve kicked myself over the years about this, but I wish I would have started soaking up more of the ‘industry as a whole’ knowledge rather than just ‘local’ knowledge,” she says. “I truly wish I would have been going to Clean Shows or even small regional shows more over the years. I quite literally didn’t even know any of those existed until I was 16 years into my career. I just had no idea, and I really feel like I would be 10 steps ahead if I had.”
In fact, those entering the field, Whitmarsh says, are sabotaging their efforts if they don’t take advantages of these resources.
“The industry is much bigger than the four walls that you are in,” she says. “So, I wish I would have learned that, and I wish somebody would have brought it to my attention, or told me about it sooner than when I finally did discover it.”
Come back Tuesday for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll examine what it takes to get going with a new business, and the mindset it takes to become successful.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].