Up From the Ashes (Part 1)

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Big, overhead view inside the plant of Brothers Cleaners, the winner of American Drycleaner’s 2018 Best Plant Design. (Photos: Brothers Cleaners)

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The newly built Brothers Cleaners located in Raleigh, N.C. Two years after a catastrophic fire, the business has risen again in a testament to strong relationships with employees, partners, vendors and even local competitors — who all helped out when needed.

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The Brothers Cleaners plant interior shown after a devastating fire that destroyed the facility on Nov. 8, 2015. The plant rose again, two years to the day, to win the American Drycleaner 2018 Plant Design Award grand prize.

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At the new Brothers Cleaners plant the Parker Boiler, they note, “heats our wastewater right from the flue.”

Tim Burke |

Brothers Cleaners wins grand prize in 57th Annual Plant Design Awards

CHICAGO — “Our overhead storage conveyor was on fire. Three minutes later our entire 24,000-square-foot plant was engulfed in flames.

“There were no injuries thank goodness,” explains Bob Hilker, who is one of two co-owners, since the mid-1970s with twin brother Tom, of Raleigh, N.C.-based Brothers Cleaners.

He’s describing the fire that all but laid waste to their drycleaning operation in November 2015. All of his 49 employees were safe.

Family-owned Brothers Cleaners, with four locations in the Raleigh area and pickup and delivery service in the region, was founded in Raleigh in 1916 by Emil Hilker, a German immigrant.

Emil Hilker’s twin son’s, Jerry and Jim Hilker assumed ownership of the business after his retirement and ran it successfully until the mid 1970s, when they went their separate business ways, notes the operations website.

At that point, the business was handed over to current owners, twins Tom and Bob, the third generation to continue their family legacy. Representing the fourth generation in the company, Ben Hilker started with Brothers Cleaners in 2007 and is currently acting as customer service manager.

After the fire, they faced a decision. With smoke and cinders still swirling in the air the next morning, Hilker relates, “the owners and key personnel met at a gas station across the street to decide what to do. We all decided to rebuild.

“Within 24 hours, Metalprogetti was fast-tracking an assembly system, Fairrington and Cleaner’s Supply were overnighting supplies.

“Our phones were blowing up with other cleaners and friends calling to offer help — whatever we needed. It was humbling and extraordinary,” he adds.

“Three days after the fire, we were back processing clothes,” Hilker says.

“We used the back of our largest competitor’s plant in a third shift and used other cleaners’ plants,” he explains. “Our employees never missed a day of pay. Thirty days later we had a temporary office, production location, assembly location and restoration location.

On their website they note services such as, ironically, fire, smoke, water, and mildew restorations, and write that,“we specialize in helping victims of fires, floods, and more restore their clothing and other household cloth items.”

He notes that they moved back into their original location within two weeks of the fire.

“It was magical! We still had conveyors and chillers to install but we were back! We all walked around pinching each other. Within three months of opening our doors we were back to pre-fire sales,” he says.

Hilker talks about the important lessons learned:

Treat your employees well, he points out. “Dedicated employees were one of the keys to our success. We worked third shifts, at home, 24-hour days, wearing multiple hats.”

Value your vendor relationships, he insists. “By keeping our business local and with people we have traded with for decades, they knew this was an insurance claim and literally provided us with hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment in some cases in two weeks.”

Value your reputation he also advises.

“Because we have been in business since 1916, our customers, our employees, our vendors, and our fellow dry cleaners knew we were as good as our word.

“Their outpouring of support and help was immeasurable. Without them, this project would never have been possible,” he says.

Check back Thursday for the conclusion.

About the author

Tim Burke

American Drycleaner

Editor

Tim Burke is the editor of American Drycleaner. He can be reached at 312-361-1684 or tburke@atmags.com.

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