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Leading the Way in the Lonestar State (Part I)

Paul Partyka |

HOUSTON — To some, it could have been a recipe for disaster. To others, it could have been shaky at the very least. Triet Minh Tran was opening his first coin laundry. Russell Dillard, the Mac-Gray representative in the Houston area, was working on his first coin laundry. In addition, Tran, who arrived in this country from Vietnam in 1980, took on an additional role in the project.“Mr. Tran acted as the general contractor on this project, which is very unusual for the investor,” says Dillard. “On top of that, having a general contractor who speaks poor English made it worse.“However, somewhere along the way, he and I clicked and I could understand about 75 percent of what he said. It was a challenge, and this being my first store, it made things interesting. We were learning together as we went along.”OVERCOMING HARDSHIPEveryone has a different definition of what a challenge is. Tran had a huge challenge just getting to this country.After the Vietnam war, Tran was imprisoned for two years as a person who had worked for the United States. He says he went into hiding for four more years until his family was able to construct a handmade but seaworthy craft to make a run to freedom in the nearby Philippines. His family packed enough food for six days to make what was to be a four-day journey. However, as they neared land, a storm blew them off course. Tran, his wife, their seven children, ages 5 to 14, and more than 30 other close relatives on the boat endured near starvation for an extra two weeks before a passing ship towed them to an oil rig. The next stop was a camp in Taiwan for processing before they were admitted to this country.He was a penniless war refugee when he arrived. In Florida, Tran, an engineer in Vietnam, worked first as a janitor and went to school to earn a U.S. degree in engineering. He worked for a short time with a major technology firm before deciding to move to Houston, where he eventually owned a chain of 28 convenience stores. Tran sold these and later built an all-brick, upscale shopping center on a 20-acre site, about 16 miles from downtown Houston, along one of the busiest east-west corridors in an area of more than 4 million people. This move, in a sense, was the first step on the road to opening a coin laundry.FILLING A VACANCYThe large shopping mall features a variety of businesses, including a dental clinic operated by one son, a real estate and mortgage office operated by a daughter and son-in-law, and a chiropractic center owned by another son.A Mexican restaurant in the shopping center closed, and there was a space to fill. “[Tran] had a bad experience with the restaurant closing,” Dillard recalls. “He wanted to control the space and put in his own business. He had a friend in the laundry business who gave him some advice.”Tran spent plenty of time studying the coin laundry industry. He talked with owners, including his Vietnamese friend in Dallas who owned a store. Tran was told to contact the Mac-Gray representative in the Houston area. Enter Dillard.“I started with Mac-Gray in January 2006, and had been on the job three months when I sold this store. A lot of the Mac-Gray people helped me through each step. I had to rely on all the resources that Mac-Gray had in order to build a store of this quality.”One key part of the process was Dillard arranging for Tran, his wife and one of his daughters to travel to Chicago to visit Maytag-equipped stores in order to get a better feel of how modern stores looked and operated.This was essential because Houston was hardly the place to view modern coin laundries. “The Houston market is horrendous,” Dillard says. “Most stores are filthy. Most stores are family-owned and have been run to the ground. This is amazing for the fourth-largest city in the United States.“I talk to people every week who are trying to sell their stores; most have little value. Some have closed their doors because there is no sale.“Tran drove around [the Houston area], looked at laundries and knew he could do something better. He felt like people would come to a quality store, and they have.”

About the author

Paul Partyka

American Coin-Op

Paul Partyka was editor of American Coin-Op from 1997 through May 2011.

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