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Put Your Business on Autopilot

Howard Scott |

Dave Davenport, a former drycleaner with a 25-employee operation, once said to me: “This business only works when the boss is there. In the last eight years — except for long weekends — the only time I missed work was my honeymoon.”
Is that the case — that a drycleaner must work 52 weeks a year? That he must open and close the store because his help might be stealing? That he can take a vacation only at great peril? That when he’s gone, the help will goof off and the work won’t get done?
Or are Davenport and other drycleaners who feel that way being shortsighted? Are there drycleaners — good operators — who work 45 hours a week, take two-week vacations every year, and work a short week whenever anyone offers them chicken soup? To restate the issue, are there ways that you can re-engineer your company so it can run without your presence?
Certainly the drycleaning business is people-intensive. You deal with hundreds of customers and put through thousands of small-transaction orders every month. On the other side of the equation is a handful of employees who may not be particularly well-educated or committed to the industry. Supplying the activity are a dozen vendors and technicians who may not be very reliable. With all of this activity going on, mistakes can (and do) occur. You’re there because it all takes management.
You started the firm by working endless hours and pushing out much of the work yourself. Along the way, you learned how to do it “your way.” As you hired help, you taught them to do it “your way.” You depended on others to get the work done more and more often. But still, you had to oversee — be there — because otherwise, things wouldn’t be done right.
The business grew. You opened up drop stores. You now had a network to manage. There wasn’t time to relax, because every day was a challenge to get through without disappointing more than one or two people. And you’re proud of the living you made.
So it grows on you — the responsibility, the power, the mastery, the income, the perks. You’re a fixture there, because it’s expected of you, because there are tasks only you can do, because the help wants to see the boss there working alongside them, because the customers like to talk to the boss.
You work 52 weeks — perhaps taking one off — year after year. Soon, habits become so ingrained that you don’t want to take time off, can’t goof off, or can’t appreciate leisure. It’s a trap you’ve created.
In truth, your long-term business goals should be twofold: to make your company a success so you can draw a comfortable income, and to make it self-sustaining without you always being there.
To accomplish the first goal, you must pump up revenue so that it far exceeds costs. To accomplish the second, you must appoint people to handle the areas in which you function and empower them with the authority to carry out those tasks.
But, you say, someone must be in charge. Then hire someone to be the head honcho. But, you say, you can’t afford to hire a general manager. Then divide up the responsibilities among your staffers. Put your cleaner in charge of production problems. Give your bookkeeper the authority to make decisions on any community activity. Promote your shirt person to be in charge of employee problems. Put your lead counterperson in charge of customer complaints.
But, you say, your people can’t handle such levels of responsibility. Then — and here is the motor of the entire scheme — let them try. Give them the opportunity to exercise their newfound power. Don’t come into work for a day. Next, take a long weekend. Then, go away for a week. Finally, enjoy a two-week vacation. This is how inexperienced people learn to be better managers — by actually running the show.
Want to hear a business heresy? When I owned a million-dollar business, I left my 17 employees for a month and took off on a cross-country train trip, never once calling or thinking about the business. And guess what: It was still there when I got back.
Perhaps it wasn’t run as well as when I was there — after all, they were short one person. But it ran 95% as well — and that’s good enough, because it was just as important that I got away. Every year thereafter, I took a month off.
When I suggested this to one plant owner, he put up a big argument, finally blurting out, “But I do all the maintenance. What will happen if a machine breaks down?” This is a typical drycleaner’s outlook.
The answer is to train some of your staff to be mechanics. And realize that your help isn’t stupid — if a machine breaks down and they can’t fix it, they’ll call a mechanic. It might cost $250, but the expense is just part of doing business.
The point is that: (a) your staff is not helpless; (b) they can rise to meet any circumstance, given the chance; and (c) even if they don’t do as well as you would, they will do the work almost as well — and for a week or two, that’s sufficient.
Your business is production-focused. It’s doesn’t take rocket scientists to realize that inflow must be turned into outflow. Otherwise, there will be a lot of customer complaints, and that requires extra counter staffers. Even your employees understand the built-in needs of that imperative.
I’m not suggesting you should work 30-hour weeks. The drycleaning business is tough: You do have to work 40- to 50-hour weeks to make it go well. But beyond that, your time and enthusiasm is used up, making you less productive.
Train people to do the things that take up the 10 or 20 extra hours a week. And take vacations. You’ll be surprised at the results and learn a very important lesson: You are not indispensable!

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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