You may think that a laundry that has been in continuous operation for 63 years would be slow to change to meet the challenges of a fast moving market. Yet Universal Unilink Member David Friday, co-owner of Wilkins Linen along with wife, Connie, is proudly showing off the company’s new website. “Forget the Yellow Pages; the web is where business is heading.”
In the middle of a booming Houston area market, David sites controlled growth as key to continued success. Well positioned to take advantage of the growing economy, Wilkins’ target segments are healthcare, hospitality, dust control and facilities services. Growth has been steady from the beginning and in the last several years, 12 to 15%.
David attributes some of the impressive growth to the company’s adaptability. “We are the perfect size . . . large enough to handle most any needs our customers and prospects have; yet small enough to make changes relatively quickly.” That flexibility has been good for growth and for taking advantage of new opportunities, but it also helps the customers. “We make it very easy for customers to call and talk to me or other members of the management team.”
David learned that adaptability was a key component to business success as a young man in Birmingham Alabama. “With unemployment around 18%, Birmingham offered little opportunity at that time. I was fortunate to be hired by RUS a week before Christmas in 1980 as a service rep delivering uniforms. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time allowing me to learn the business from the ground up.”
It was a good fit for David and his general manager saw that he had an aptitude for the business. After a year, he was promoted to sales and, a year later, service supervisor, tasked with managing the service rep team. Soon after, at the age of 24, David was sent to Conroe, Texas to manage a new $3 million facility with a substation in Dallas and a second substation between Austin and San Antonio—all with no revenue.
At the time, the oil industry was at rock bottom and the entire Texas economy in a downturn. While many considered the situation bleak, David said “I saw business everywhere I looked!” After months of hard work the Conroe facility was breaking company sales records for growth. The RUS management team gambled on David Friday and won.
“Working for RUS was a better education than most of my college courses. I learned the fundamentals of accounting, how to run a business and people skills that I still use today.” He continues, “Young people today who really want to get into business for themselves should find something they like doing, and then find someone or a company to learn from–that will greatly improve the likelihood of success.”
In the early ‘90s, David was ready for more challenges. He said the owner of Wilkins Linen & Dust Control Service “ . . . was ready to sell just as I was ready to buy.” Wilkins had been a family owned dry cleaning and linen rental operation since opening in 1952. In 1993, David and his wife Connie became the third family to own the business. “We kept the Wilkins name because it was an established local brand with a solid customer base.”
The biggest challenge in those early years was servicing the debt while growing the business. Eight years ago they shut down the dry cleaning operation. In just three months, they replaced the dry cleaning income with new business for the rental side. Recalls David, “We probably should have closed the dry cleaning division earlier. It demanded a lot of resources and was not as conducive to growth as the rental business was and continues to be.”
The business continues to expands; the facilities are stretched. “We still have capacity, but not enough floor space.” David says. A 6,000 square foot addition to the building is in the early stages and should help us keep pace. “We are adding a new route every 18 months now.” David states.
New routes need new drivers . . . David and his team take their time when selecting, hiring and training the new service reps. “Each driver is responsible for over half a million dollars of business. That’s more than many small business owners bring in their entire operation. I want my service reps to treat their route as if it were their own business.” To get to that point, new drivers spend six months in training with other service reps before they are on their own. Says David, “We do check in with them on a regular basis and have tweaks from time to time but for the most part we treat our people as adults and let them do their jobs.”
That training and trust has paid off in long tenures for many of David’s 45 employees. Most drivers have been with Wilkins for five or more years; his plant superintendent for over 40! David and Connie understand the commitment their staff have made and value that loyalty.
Long term employees lead to long term customers; some who have been loyal customers for 25+ years. Once again, adaptability plays a part. David says “Sometimes a customer may have a problem. Whenever possible, we satisfy the customer even if it means taking an occasional loss. It’s the long term relationship that is important. Give them great service, don’t worry about the money, it will come.”
For more satisfied customers, the Wilkins team is turning to the internet. The new WilkinsLinen.com web site launched recently, complete with video of David welcoming current and future customers. “People like to know who they are doing business with and the video allows them to see who we are even if it’s not face to face,” David continues. “We wanted to show a company that is growing. We are changing who we sell to and how we sell to them. Millennials are becoming more prominent. They are gatekeepers, influencers and decision makers. They communicate with digital and social media and we can’t ignore them if we hope to grow in years to come.”
David sees the new web site as a tool to reach the greater Houston area. In contrast to his arrival in the area in the ‘80s, Houston’s economy is booming. Says David, “A lot of our expansion is due to our customers’ growth. As they add new locations, they come to us to provide them the same reliable service that they expect.”
Along with that boom has come more competition. Some local laundries have sold to larger companies. This turnover provides opportunity. David observes, “There is plenty of business to go around, but if our competitors’ customer is not happy with new ownership, we would be happy to bring them into our family.”