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Can You Lead Your Team Through Challenging Times?

ABC Leadership Forum gathers drycleaning experts to discuss doing business during pandemic

DELMAR, N.Y. — There were two main takeaways from Wednesday’s inaugural session of the ABC Leadership Forum: You’re not alone, and there is hope.

The free online video forum organized by America’s Best Cleaners (ABC) brought together five members of the drycleaning community to discuss the business landscape created by the COVID-19 crisis and the methods they’ve found useful in leading teams and companies in navigating this new environment.

Topics discussed included leadership philosophy, maintaining employee morale, pivoting to meet new challenges and more.

“We believe this will be a very valuable series of discussions with some truly wonderful people who are taking actions to help us all as we seek to find ideas, opportunities and support to enhance our leadership skills during this crisis,” says ABC Executive Director Christopher White, who, along with Director of Operations Catherine McCann, led the discussion using the Zoom platform.

RISING TO THE CHALLENGE

Reacting to the way things are rather than the way they were was a key topic of the forum. This creative challenge is something Sasha Ablitt, CEO of Ablitt’s Fine Cleaners & Launderers, has been focusing on in the past few months. “Things suddenly become possible that were impossible before,” she says.

To keep her employees working as the business slowed, for example, her company started making masks. “We got really good at it,” she says. The most popular service was when people would bring in an old T-shirt with a design they liked and Ablitt’s team would turn it into a custom mask.

Her company has also increased its free pickup and delivery services and next-day turnaround, as well as agreeing to clean larger household and outdoor items. “We say ‘yes’ and then we figure out how to clean it,” she says.

Ablitt believes some good can come out of these stressful times.

“Any decision or change we made because of COVID, I wanted to make sure it was something that would make us better than before when this is all over,” she says.

Wesley Nelson, president of Sankosha USA, says his company has shifted some of its manufacturing focus to meet the current needs of dry cleaners.

“We have started to make counter shields — metal frames with vinyl — to enable people to do business over the counter,” he says.

Sankosha is also focusing on the used equipment market as more equipment becomes available and cleaners are looking for ways to save money.

“One of our goals as part of our pivot is to embrace these customers, treat them just as we would a new machinery customer and bring them into the Sankosha family,” Nelson says. This service includes having sales teams and field reps help dry cleaners with setting up and operating these machines. Nelson believes it’s essential to treat these customers with the same respect as they do with new machine sales, especially during this crisis. “We’re going to embrace them and help these people out,” he says.

THE INFORMATION AGE

For some companies, changing doesn’t mean altering future plans but working to meet immediate needs. While noting “one thing that a 100-year-old family-owned German chemical company doesn’t do well is pivot,” Richard Fitzpatrick, vice president of Kreussler Inc., says his company has found ways to support its clients through these times by sharing what it’s learned over the last century.

“We’ve focused on putting material together to the consumer,” Fitzpatrick says. Kreussler’s dry-cleaning chemicals, for instance, are registered in Germany for high levels of disinfection. “We focused transferring the knowledge we had to our clients,” he says, “so they could use that and, in turn, say to their customers, ‘We’re providing you with a safe, clean item, and this is what we have behind us to provide it.’”

Dave Troemel, president and marketing director of marketing agency BeCreative360, believes to survive, dry cleaners need to include marketing in their plans to make it easier for customers to learn about their services. This can include promoting wash-and-fold and pickup and delivery services, or converting a cleaner’s counter customers into delivery customers. “We never had those campaigns before, but now we have them,” he says.

People are looking for you, Troemel says, so reputation management programs, Google interactions and analytics, and other tools are vital to help increase a cleaner’s visibility. Troemel’s company has also started outreach education programs to help cleaners use the tools available to them. “If (customers) have to find a dry cleaner, are they going to find you?”

LEADERSHIP AS A LIFELINE

Leadership style certainly comes into play during a challenge, and SPOT Business Systems General Manager Tom Beidle believes being open with your team is crucial to riding out a crisis.

“The philosophy I adopted early in my career is one of participative leadership,” he says, which uses a collaborative decision-making process. For this style to work, a leader needs to foster this collaboration, which became more difficult for Beidle when his team was decentralized after being told to work from home.

Borrowing from an engineering and technology leadership philosophy, SPOT’s leadership had regular stand-up meetings every day.

“The most distinct thing to come out of those meetings was noticing how our customers were so severely impacted the crisis,” Beidle says. “So, we came up with ideas from a team perspective around launching a series of webinars to help our customers understand what products may be helpful during this crisis.” Out of these meetings, SPOT also enacted billing relief for non-usage and sharing industry statistics to give their customers a feel for the current marketplace. “This is a small example of how collaboration really does work.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Wednesday’s session was the first of six that are planned. Future sessions, always to be held at 4 p.m. Eastern, are scheduled for Oct. 14, Nov. 11, Dec. 9, Jan. 13 and Feb. 10.

Whether interested in attending a forum event or applying to participate as a panelist, more information is available by visiting the event’s webpage.