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The Evolving Laundry Industry (Part 1)

Editor’s note: Steve Pearce has been part of the self-service laundry industry for more than 30 years. He, along with Bill Saylors, founded Service Laundry Machinery (SLM) in South Carolina in 1973. Pearce sold SLM in 2000, but remained with the company as a consultant. He formed a laundry consulting company a few years back, but hasn’t taken too many commissions since he enjoys spending time at home. Today, Pearce looks after a few properties (laundries, of course).Pearce has a great knowledge of the industry, and shares his thoughts on how he became part of this industry, how the industry has changed, and where it is headed.The year was 1965, and times were good. It was an ideal time to enter the coin laundry industry, with prudence, of course. Utilities were relatively cheap. Vandalism was a minor concern. Rents, or the cost of a building, were still inexpensive. There was little competition and almost no impact fees. Consequently, opportunities were plentiful.My entry into the business could almost be termed “accidental.” At the age of 35, I was driving an 8,000-gallon gasoline tanker. This is significant because I delivered gasoline to a small station in Graniteville, S.C., belonging to a one-legged gentleman named Quimby Wise.Wise had a tiny Laundromat beside his station, featuring eight Philco Bendix 16-pound front loaders and four 50-pound dryers, none of which were energy-efficient. Back then, gas was cheap so efficiency wasn’t a major concern. (Did that change in the future!)Every time I delivered to Wise, his laundry was packed with people. I asked him, “How in the world can you make money at a quarter wash and a nickel dry?” Wise replied, “Son, them quarters and nickels add up in a hurry, and before you know it, you got yourself a bunch of greenbacks to spend.”I was looking to better myself, and take advantage of my mechanical talent. One day, I asked Wise to send his salesman to see me.A salesman for Rembert Moore Machinery Co. (Columbia, S.C.) came knocking at my door. He knew his business and wasn’t pushy. The next thing I knew, I (and South Carolina National Bank) owned a brand-new Philco Bendix Laundromat in Belton, S.C.To me, the 400-square-foot store was huge! It included six Bendix double-load washers, four single-load washers, and two G.E. top loaders, plus four 50-pound dryers.I had an old boiler that scared the tar out of me on more than one occasion, especially the day it wouldn’t light, then did, sending the stack skyward like something seen at Cape Canaveral! My neighbors thought I had declared war. Thankfully, the stack came down in a field with no harm to man or beast.When the end of the first month rolled around, I really sweated paying the bills. We had collected every day, and, on the last day, knew that we had most of our bills covered (including the $261.25 equipment payment), except for the natural gas that would have to be $81 or less for us to break even. It came in at $61 — we breathed a sigh of relief.Within three years, we owned three profitable, small, unattended stores. Things changed when the salesman who got me into this business became ill and couldn’t work. I met his boss, Sumter Moore, and decided to talk with him about taking the salesman’s place. Moore had many wise sayings, including, “You can’t let a penny get in your eye so you can’t see a dollar.” I became one of the company salesmen.My predecessor knew his products backward and forward. He backed the products up, and did not mind helping customers repair machinery when needed. He carried tools and parts in his trunk.Confidence in a product, and the willingness to back it up, go a long way toward building customer trust, whether it be a washing customer or a coin laundry owner. Combine this with good, old-fashioned hard work, and you have something. I believe that at the end of the day, when you come to a fork in the road, one leading home, and the other to that last call you need to make, you should make the call.I became the leading salesman for Rembert Moore, and captured the lion’s share of the coin laundry business in spite of serious competition. We lived by our principles and followed the Golden Rule.One of our creeds was that we would never willingly sell a laundry if we would not put it in ourselves. Distributors would do well to remember that. Distributors should also remember that some folks just are not suited to the self-service laundry business. A distributor should be up front about this, and tell them why he believes this to be so.It’s also key to try and protect your customers’ (small and large) territories. If someone is kind enough to do business with you, you should have an obligation to protect his or her investment. (Some distributors might want to add this quality to their reputation.) 

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