DALLAS — It was a moment every business owner dreads. Something — perhaps a faulty light fixture — sparked, and the spark became a flame. Staffers scrambled for the fire extinguishers, but soon decided to save themselves instead. Within minutes, a five-alarm fire engulfed the building.
Fortunately, no one was hurt. But only one wall was left standing after the disaster, and more than 10,000 finished garments had gone up in smoke. With the help of the SPOT point-of-sale system and a responsible risk-management program, “we were able to pay out $1.4 million in claims to the rightful owners,” says John Palms, chairman and CEO of Dallas-based Bibbentuckers, Grand Prize winner of American Drycleaner’s 49th annual Plant Design Awards. And in spite of the loss, he soon came to see this as a “glass-half-full” moment.
“The former owners didn’t realize the area was going to grow as fast as it did,” he says; if traffic had continued to grow without changes to the plant, it could affect the quality delivered. “We wanted to build in some capacity when we rebuilt it. It was a chance to enhance our image.”
First, though, management had to keep its customers happy. The company placed a temporary trailer on-site to check in garments, which it then trucked to one of its two remaining plants for processing. “Customers still had a place to go,” Palms says.
Bibbentuckers then went to work with Hank Quigg, an architect with the Dallas-based Richmond Group, and drycleaning layout specialist Billy Moore. Within eight months, the McKinney Ave. plant had been rebuilt on the spot, improving upon the original to become a model of production efficiency, comfort and service.
First, the team moved the production flow’s axis 90° to run east-to-west, giving the plant more room. The new design also pushed the walls back and expanded upward, creating more headroom for storage, offices and conveyors. The plant now has 6,250 slots of conveyor space on some of the longest units White has ever installed.
“One thing we focused on was creating storage space for gowns, boxed shirts and household items, as well as some supplies,” Palms says. “We didn’t get any more square feet, but we gained in cubic feet. It cost us out-of-pocket, but it was worthwhile.”
The all-new production floor nearly doubled capacity, making room for two 100-pound Union hydrocarbon machines, two additional collar/cuff machines, and an upgrade from a 60-pound to a 100-pound UniMac washer. The plant added two complete drycleaning pressing stations.
Today, the McKinney Ave. location handles more than $65,000 a week in the same 5,300 square feet of floorspace. “Everything flows so much better,” Palms says. “The devil’s in the details.”
One new feature — the sprinkler system — was mandated by municipal code. “We were glad to put that in,” Palms says. And — better safe than sorry — Bibbentuckers also installed SonicAire fans to control lint buildup.FIRST-CLASS FABRICARE
The average tenure of a Bibbentuckers’ employee is more than five years, thanks in part to the paid vacations and health and dental coverage the company makes available. Bibbentuckers kept all of the McKinney Ave. store’s employees on during the rebuilding project, and didn’t forget about them in the planning process.
“We wanted a larger breakroom,” Palms says. “We have 35 or 40 employees at that store, and it was hard to have a birthday celebration. They feel they work in a first-class environment, and are inspired to put out a first-class product.”
The rebuilt plant added three stations to the front-counter area, where custom woodwork hides all bundles and wires. Displays from retail partners such as Brooks Brothers and Banana Republic add to the quality image Bibbentuckers wants to project.
“When [customers] walk in with a nice garment, they think ‘I’m in a nice retail shop in the mall,’” Palms says. “That’s what we tried to create with the store environment. The immediate reaction is, ‘They know what they’re doing, and I can trust my Armani suit to them.’”
The six-car drive-thru has TV monitors tuned to MSNBC for those who prefer valet service, and a new rollup door at the back of the plant means that customers no longer have to share the road with Bibbentuckers’ delivery vans.
The plant’s exterior remained largely the same, replacing the tasteful, local Austin stone that lends the plant its curb appeal and makes passersby think that it’s a bookstore or a coffee shop. “A lot of people think it’s a restaurant,” Palms says, and that’s okay. “We set out to be the Starbucks of drycleaning.”
Bibbentuckers plans to expand to more upscale areas in and around Dallas and other Texas metropolitan areas, Palms says. “We envision finding the right conversion — good customers, the right demographics, rebrand it and try to put our thumbprint on the facility.
“The fire set us back. As the economy improves, we are hoping to see more growth from current customers. Our locations are very good, and most have drive-thrus. We pay hefty leases, but I think they’re well worth it.”
And the new plant — operating at a capacity that would have been impossible before the fire — is worth its weight in gold.
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