Friday the CFO had me do a quick report for Gutheim. Gutheim runs a group meeting for laundries like ours across the country so we can compare and contrast. Gutheim wanted to know for the upcoming meeting how our add-“men” and quit-“men” numbers were doing. He wants 2007 and 2008 numbers and then Jan-April numbers for this year and last and then April numbers for this year and last.
I crunched the numbers and damn if it didn’t look like I had simply copied some bureau of labor statistics from some federal government report. 2007 and 2008 showed drop-offs of 10% to 15% but the recent numbers were showing drop offs of 50%. Our goals this year was to stay even growth wise. In the past our goal has been a modest 5% or so. Our expectations though are to shrink this year. But we don’t want to shrink too much. Goals are always set to exceed expectations.
I didn’t like the numbers I cranked out but it was satisfying in its own way to produce numbers that had stark reality written into them. It’s not often that the numbers you crank out are so attuned with the reality in the rest of reality.
Ok so this post is a bit of a take-off of Don’s post. Working the earth is taken to be down-to-earth. Well it can be if you write like Don. So if he can just write about his day job and be respected around here, why can’t I. Oh yeah Jeff, you do that!
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But really I’m not far off the mark here. The we I refer to above is a third generation family owned industrial uniform rental and laundry that’s been doing business since 1921 and in the same location, on Chicago’s west side, since 1927. “We” saw this neighborhood go from being solidly Jewish to struggling Black. Martin Luther King had an apartment less than a mile away and the owners came in from the suburbs to personally watch the property after the riots of 68 caused so many places to burn.
The first owner was a Scot and a member of the Machinists union. The second was a liberal Republican while the latest is a Reagan-Bush Republican. But he’s probably a lot more liberal than he’s willing to admit. He works honestly with his unions and makes no attempt to get rid of them. His work force, down now to 85 from a 1980ish high in the 300’s, is a very diverse one of whites, blacks and Hispanics.
Our competition is mostly the big national billion dollar corporations like Cintas and Aramark. We can compete because we have real people that answer the phones and work to solve your problems. We can compete also because we have stayed on top of information technologies, from bar-coding our garments to working with a software house that specializes in companies around the country like ours to provide sophisticated applications. I’m an in-law in the business. I was doing computer consulting when I married the current owner’s sister. I was willing to take a cut in pay in exchange for decent and flexible working hours and for the opportunity to work in a place where I could see the results of my work and most of all where I wasn’t a cog in a giant bureaucracy. It was a trade-off that has paid off well for me. It was im many ways a lucky break. It was also a level of security that became obvious with the dot com bust.
So the name of the game for us is long term planning and constant improvement. Our president, no CEO for us, lives and dies by the business’s success. He can’t really run the business into the ground and then walk away with a huge bonus. He’s got a personal stake in the business. A very personal stake. His father is still alive, still looking over his shoulder as it were.
So long term planning means investments in new machinery and a major over-haul in the way we do business to make some major improvements in how we operate. The plans have been around for several years. That’s what long term planning will do to and for you. So it meant borrowing money. And some of the borrowing was to be based on some real estate we would no longer be needing. Real estate that we would have preferred to sell, but now can’t.
We got an offer for a loan from the Bank of Scotland, the one that recently got taken over by the government of Great Britain. But they hemmed and hawed so we went back to our local bank here in Chicago. They couldn’t match the other bank’s deal but a deal you can’t get is no deal at all. So now here we are in the midst of a “depression” borrowing a ton of money when credit is oh so very tight and the future very very dim. Did I mention that a major part of our business is based in manufacturing, manufacturing that is being steadily moved over seas to China and where ever?
But that’s what you have to do if you are to stay alive. Our hope is to be better at what we do than the other laundries and pick up the pieces that they drop.
So here’s a final irony. I mentioned our difficulties with getting credit right. Well what has been one of our owner’s big efforts of late? Collecting past due amounts from our customers. That’s right, we are taking credit out of a credit crunched economy.
As for music, well my wife and I were supposed to go to Katerina’s tonight to hear Erwin Helfer, legendary Chicago blues pianist. But we’re getting too old to make a 10pm start time.
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