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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Up Close: Chris Edwards by Stephanie Nickell

Reprinted with permission from The Business Journal





HIGH POINT - The transition from one generation to the next in a family business is often tricky. But that was not the case when Chris Edwards became president and CEO of A Cleaner World Dry Cleaners in 1996. The 28-year dry-cleaning veteran keeps things fresh by diversifying, a lesson he learned from his father.


Edwards and his High Point-based team have created several divisions in his tenure at the top, including: Tri State Laundry Equipment, A Cleaner World Smoke & Fire Restoration, A Cleaner World Carpet Cleaning and most recently, A Cleaner World Commercial Services, which is a uniform rental and dust control business.


When was A Cleaner World founded?


The company was started in 1969 with three partners. My dad came to work for them in 1981; I came in 1982. Later, he and I bought the business.


How did it get its name?


The name came before my dad and I got involved, but I suspect there was a practical motivation. Starting the name with the letter "A" put it first in the phone book listings. It's been a good name, but it really does present some challenges - like needing to be good environmental stewards for the planet.


Is the dry cleaning solvent you use safe?


The solution we use is perchloroethylene, or perc, and it is from the same family of cleaning agents used in many household cleaners. We continuously purify and recycle our solvent to ensure that no perc is released into the environment when we dispose of it. We also do a lot of air-quality testing and testing for leaks to make sure no vapors are escaping.


What's it take to work in dry cleaning?


A lot of common sense, following directions and being persistent. If you get a stain on a garment, persistence is where a lot of people fall short. In most of our stores, we have nine basic stain removers and 10 to 12 stain removers for really specific things. For example, we may have three products that will remove ink. One will do well with ballpoint, another real well with felt tip, and another real well with red inks. Some of our competitors are all about turning it over quick. You can't spend 45 minutes on one garment when you are charging $2.50.


What would a busy dry cleaning store make in revenue in a year?


The national average is $362,000 and we are significantly higher than that.


You quit franchising in 1991. Why?


We had a lot of interest in franchising. There were a lot of magazine articles being written about dry cleaning being one of the fastest ways to become a millionaire, which was not entirely true. Franchising is in itself a business, you are either in franchising or you are in owning your own stores; it is hard to do both. We wanted to focus on owning our own stores and putting the proper management in place.


What's been the result?


Better control over the finished product. A franchise owner is like a child, and I mean that in a good way. When they are young, they believe everything you say, they ask a lot of questions and they love what they are doing. When they become a teenager they start questioning Mom and Dad saying, "I can do it better my way." So you get a franchisee who owns his own business and he should have input in how it is done. If you are going to be a successful franchisee, you have to put some of that aside and do it the proven way and do it over and over and over.


We had some franchisees who came in and wanted to be a millionaire in five or six years. That didn't happen, so they sold their stores and chased the next thing. A lot of the franchises we bought back. Today we have 39 stores (in North Carolina and Virginia) and nine of those are still franchises.


Will you try to acquire the last nine?


Yes. As owners retire, that's an option for us.


What changes in technology or culture have affected the dry cleaning business most?


Disco wreaked havoc on our industry. Polyester wash-and-wear was popular from 1972 to 1978 and disco people could wash their own clothes. By 1979, disco was dead and people were burning their leisure suits. The preppy look came back and we kind of had a resurgence back to the more professional look. But I think the move to casual business attire has affected us the most. If you wear khaki pants and a knit shirt and buy the wrinkle-free or wrinkle-resistant fabrics, you can wash and dry them at home.


How do you describe what you do to others?


Our core business is retail dry cleaning, but what we do is sell appearance. We sell textile care and care for those garments to make them last as long as they can. People spend a lot of time finding the right clothes. We see a lot of favorites. They get worn every week or every two weeks. I have never had someone come in and say, 'You lost a garment of mine, but I hated it so don't worry about it.'


What happens when something gets lost or ruined?


Fortunately, it doesn't happen very often, but sometimes we'll transpose a number or put an item in with someone else's order. Even then, when that one garment in 1,000 gets misplaced for a few days, the customer usually brings it back. If we lose it or damage it, we play claims.


How do you keep your work interesting?


New ventures. Besides the divisions of A Cleaner World, I have really gotten into real estate. I have developed our corporate headquarters building (2019 Eastchester Drive) and the office building next door (2017 Eastchester Drive) and have two more spaces on Eastchester Drive that I will develop some time.


What's the wackiest thing you've ever been asked to dry clean?


A Santa Claus suit. It was on a Saturday afternoon one December and all the employees had gone home. Santa came in with a big stain on his suit from a spill. He was going to go do a special event for children that evening, so I said, "Take it off and I'll have it ready for you in an hour."


What is the most terrifying food or beverage you could spill on your clothes?


Anything alcohol on silk is not good. It's bad.

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