‘We’re Not a Have-To Business – We’re a Want-To Business’

By Bob Nieman, CLA Member posted 01-25-2017 11:02

An Interview with Michigan Laundry Owner Mark Murray

Murray_1.jpgMark Murray – who owns the 5,200-square-foot FabriCare Express Laundry at the Adrian Image Center in Adrian, Mich. – grew up in the self-service laundry business. In fact, at one point, his father’s laundry chain numbered a dozen stores across several Michigan cities.

Today, Murray is focused strictly on that chain’s one remaining laundry, which was opened in 1968 and Mark purchased from his dad 10 years later. Although claiming to be in semi-retirement, Murray’s passion for the business seems to burn as strongly as ever. He recently sat down with PlanetLaundry Editor Bob Nieman to share his views on the industry that has been such a major part of his life.     

How did you get involved in the laundry business?

I was born in 1952, and my family got into the business in 1961. So, I remember being a little kid, riding in the backseat of my dad’s car to that very first store. I helped clean out the dryers and sweep the floor – and that was my first experience at less than 10 years old.

My father was a dentist who got into the business as it was developing. From 1961 to the mid-1970s, he bought and opened a number of stores in these local small towns. He ended up with 12 stores.

Throughout high school, my job was working in those stores. Then, I went away to college in Colorado. I was looking forward to a new life, and I planned to stay out there after graduation. Unfortunately, due to the economy at the time, selling life insurance or being the assistant manager in the tire department at Kmart were the only types of jobs I could find. I didn’t want a big-shot job, but I wanted something that would be fun and productive.

At that time, my father’s general manager had a passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack, and the stores had gotten a bit larger and more unruly. So I was offered a job to come back for a couple of years and help out with the business. That was in 1975. Since then, I’ve done a lot of different things, but I’ve never been away from the coin laundry business.

Are those aspects that first attracted you to the industry still evident in the business today?

At the core level of life, as a young person what attracted me was having a job and a paycheck – and a way to support myself. Today, that’s still at the core. Having a viable business that has a cash flow and that supports my life and the way that I want to lead it is the reason I’m in business.

I love being successful. I love being on the cutting edge wherever possible. However, the bottom line is that every business has to cash flow; if they don’t, I’m not in them anymore. I was in a number of businesses that I’m not longer in. Making money is the critical aspect of any business.

Beyond that, I love when customers are excited about what they get, especially when they write online reviews for us. Reviews that read: “I haven’t been in a laundromat in 10 years, and I can’t believe what they’re like now!” That excites me. I love that. Every time we get an amazing review, the staff knows it, because I’m jumping up and down, shaking hands and buying drinks.

Once you’re making money, that’s the most exciting part of the business. Exciting people and having really happy customers – that’s it. If you’re not providing a valuable service to people, why do it?

Murray_2.jpgWhat are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the industry?

Obviously, the industry has matured since I’ve gotten into it. In the early days, you could get into it and hit an easy homerun. Today, you have to work to get a base hit and stay on your game all the time. You have to be better than your competitor, or you won’t make it.

Of course, there are all of the technological changes, too. For example, when this store went in back in 1968, it had 64 washers – 60 of which were toploaders. Today, we’re taking out the last of the double-loaders and installing 60-pound machines. Triple-loaders are now the smallest machines we have.

At this store, there are no more coins. Plus, we have automatic doors, air conditioning and so on. These days, being clean, having an attentive staff and offering quick refunds is the norm – that’s what you have to do.

However, we recently bought a new washer and dryer for our house. And while at the appliance store, I was looking inside the drums of these home frontload washers, thinking that they are way bigger than the double-loaders we’d had in the laundromat. It made me think that we, as an industry, have got to be careful – if this is the new norm for home machines, we need to be sure that we’re ahead of the game. Toploaders and even double-loaders don’t seem to fit into what’s happening out there.

In addition, at home, people can put their clothes in a washer, push a button and walk away – and then they can do the same thing with the dryer. I wonder how our industry views that basic, simple process the customer expects as the norm at home – and for them then to come into a laundromat and experience roadblocks. If we can’t do better than what’s at home, we’re going to end up with just the people who can’t wash at home.

I think we forget that sometimes. The idea of putting a dryer in a store with a coin mechanism that requires customers to insert a number of coins and then make some determination about how their clothes are going to get dry, to me, seems a bit insane. If our process is more complicated or difficult than what’s at home, we’re kidding ourselves. As an industry, we have to demand that we, as operators, figure out how to make the process more convenient than what people have in their homes.

Who wants to be less than that? Our job is to be better than what is at home. When the industry first began, on Day One, the laundromat was phenomenally better than what could be accomplished at home. It has to stay that way. We have to continue to drive ourselves hard. And I think we are.

After all, look at all of the changes – frontloaders, full-cycle dry and so on. And, in the markets I’ve been in, people really do want convenience. They want a clean store, wide aisles, automatic doors and short cycles. They want to get in and out.

Has that changed a lot over the years? I think people’s perception of it has changed. What used to be unique is now a commodity. Customers now just expect us to do all of those things. We have to do a little bit better than the guy down the street. If we don’t update the store or put in new equipment, our business becomes old and tired – and the customers won’t stay.

What are the most game-changing equipment enhancements you’ve seen?

High-speed extract machines have made a big difference. They’ve cut the time it takes to dry, enabling us to charge more for less on the dry side. That’s a big improvement.

The other game-changer is increased capacity. Today’s customers, from what I see, roll into the store, heap their stuff into the machines, throw in some soap and start them up. They’re in and out of here in an hour. To me, capacity gives us the ability to get them in and out fast – and that’s what they want.

Early on, we installed two 50-pound washers, and people lined up for them on Saturdays. We thought it was great, but the customers didn’t. They didn’t like the idea of waiting for those machines. When they walk in the door, they want to feel like they can get in and out of there in a timely manner.

As a result, we’ve gravitated away from the philosophy of having a bunch of different types of machines. We used to have four levels of machine capacity, but we’re down to three now – and I almost think two would work.

So, rather than boosting capacity by putting in two 80-pounders, for instance, we installed a full row of 50-pound washers – and then another full row of 50s. The idea being that the next person through the door doesn’t want to find out the machine he or she loves is taken. Simply put in a bunch of the same thing so that every time customers come in, they’ll find a machine they’re comfortable with. And they’re not going to have to wait.

The whole idea is to provide customers with the capacity to get in, wash their clothes and get out. Have enough of the machine that you know they want – just put in a whole row of whatever you’re going to put in. In fact, if I was to build a new store, I’d have 30-pound washers and 60-pound washers – and that would be it.

Look at McDonald’s. They’ve played around will all of the various types of food to sell, but they keep going back to their core menu; it’s what people want and expect. McDonald’s knows that its strength lies in staying focused on the customer experience and in providing its guests that same consistent experience every time. Nobody claims that the Big Mac is the best hamburger in the world. But we’ve got a McDonald’s next to us, and it’s jammed all the time. People really want a consistent customer experience.

What is the most enjoyable part of what you do?

I like to feel proud of what I do, as evidenced by customer reactions and their feedback. I like striving to be the best I can be, given the limited resources of my small market. Simply put, I want to be the best I can be, and when I’m done with that, I’ve got to quit.

Murray_3.jpgWhat is your day-to-day routine like? Please take me through a “typical” day for you.

That has changed a lot in the last five to 10 years. I’m getting older and I’ve moved out of the hands-on phase of operating the business.

When I bought the store in 1978, I worked a lot. Now, I’m in and out. My wife, Mary, and I have a wonderful staff – and she is a phenomenal leader. There is a great team of people who run this business. I’m completely blessed that their professionalism, skill sets and training give me the opportunity to semi-retire, which I have been for a long time.

I do a lot of community service. Mary and I are both licensed counselors, so we also offer some marriage preparation for our faith community. In addition, we are both Rotarians in the Adrian Rotary Club. We’re involved with our faith community and some other community projects.

At this point in our lives, we’ve been able to move out of the day-to-day management of the laundry, which we were doing for many decades early on – and move into a secondary role.

Today, my involvement with the laundromat is to walk through it, smile and feel good, and pick up a couple of papers once in a while. I hate to say this, but I really don’t have a specific role in the laundromat. I’m there – and being there is a role.

Over the years, the energy level for the business has come and gone. I’ve been involved in some other business ventures; however, the coin laundry business has been there all the way through. It’s the one thing that’s been there through all of the other various enterprises. The laundry industry has provided me with the opportunity to lead a wonderful, blessed life. I can’t be thankful enough for that.

Have laundry owners changed over the years?

Early on, everyone got into the business, because anybody could hit a homerun – or at least a double. However, that changed in a fairly short amount of time. Therefore, the owners I see today who are successful are the ones who are interested, who have the tenacity to stay with it, who are curious, who have a healthy respect for their customers and staff – and who are involved in the business.

Those are the competitors that I fear the most – the ones who are truly engaged. For all of us, as operators, it’s hard to maintain that high level of vigilance over time. We’re human. Our lives change and stuff happens – death, marriage, divorce. It’s hard to maintain a certain level over a long period.

With regard to owners, there are various levels of commitment throughout the industry. But it’s the people who are members of the CLA and who are active in the business that are the successful ones. They’re the ones I want to be around, to talk to, to learn from and get energized by.

From your standpoint, what are some of the major hot-button issues facing laundry owners today?

Competition is an important aspect. When we’ve had too much competition in our markets, it has been very hard to generate cash flow. Prices can get too low, and business can become difficult. That can be an issue in some markets.

Earlier, we discussed making our processes simple, convenient and fast, as well as staying on the cutting edge of consistently giving people the experience they’re looking for. That’s tough.

The hot-button issue is always upgrading, always figuring out what’s next. For me, humility, curiosity, learning from the CLA’s online forum and learning from my distributor are all hot-button issues – because it’s so easy to get stuck in “the way that I do it,” or to justify my own existence or to listen to just a few people who think like I do, and to not be willing to move to that next level. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to really be sure that I’m willing to work, to hustle and to invest in the business. Am I willing to go to conferences and shows, and to learn what CLA President Brian Wallace has to tell me about what’s going on in this industry? To me, those are hot buttons.

It doesn’t necessarily have to do with machines or equipment. It’s about laundry operators. Are we willing to be the most professional we can be, to grow and learn from our industry and trade association?

We have wonderful resources in this industry, and I can’t tell you how valuable the CLA is in providing these resources. For those of us who don’t go to every trade show or industry event, and can’t visit every other laundromat in the world, we have to rely on a two main sources – our distributors and the CLA. Those two sources are invaluable in helping owners stay ahead of the curve and not behind it – and, once you’re behind it, you’re fighting for survival.

Personally, what are your interests away from the laundry industry? How do you like to spend your time?

I’m pretty busy. I enjoy having a variety of relationships in my life.

I play the drums in a band that I’ve been in for 50 years, and I still love doing that. I enjoy doing some community service work. I’m also part of a small men’s support group that was started through our faith community. And, of course, I love spending time with Mary.

Can you recommend a book, a website or a blog that you would strongly suggest today’s laundry owners read?

I’ve got a lot of books on my shelf that I shovel off to people all the time. But I would suggest owners simply go to Amazon and search for “top books” or get online reviews from Google – and read at least two books a year. I pick books that help me think outside the box. Read ones that make you think differently then you did before you picked them up. I read with the intent of trying to learn to think differently.

That’s part of the humility that needs to be in my life. I’ve had it beaten into me by competitors and even some customers over the years. However, it’s much more palatable when I can drink my own cup of humility through a book. After all, hubris is a fairly fatal disease.

I need to pay attention, be curious and realize that I’m always in a growth period. As soon as I think I’ve got it, I’m a dead duck, because somebody is going to show me very soon that I don’t. So I look to all of the wonderful resources out there and try to incorporate a piece of them into my life. So, I will read two books this year that will help me see the world differently.

Of course, I also go onto the CLA online forum on a regular basis to see what people have to say. I appreciate the variety of operators who are out there, and I get a lot of information and support from that group.

As the industry has matured, our association has matured, and it’s a wonderful group. I’ve been involved in other industries over my lifetime and there has rarely been a high-functioning industry support group that does the job that the CLA does. It’s a blessing. And we’ve had much less in this industry in the past.

Do you have a philosophy that guides the decisions you make in business?

With the business, we’ve gone through phases with our mission statement. We initially created our mission statement based on some business book 30 years ago, and it was a full page of flowery language – “we care about our staff,” “personal growth” and so on.

However, over time, I tried to make it something real for me, which I can demonstrate in my life. We made it simple, because I’m not a complicated guy. So, over the decades, the mission statement has gotten down to: “We help our customers feel better by providing fast, friendly, professional service in a clean environment. And, when we do that as a team, we prosper.”

That’s it, and that’s my business philosophy. Everybody in the company memorizes that during their internship phase. If they don’t, they’re not here long.

I don’t have any other game plan. It’s very simple. Just pay attention to that stuff. Of course, I can concoct some great moronic plots and crazy ideas outside of that mission, but if every day when I come into the store that statement is tattooed on my forehead – and we all do that as a team – then we get paid next Tuesday, which is really why we’re in business.

That philosophy is the way we get paid, and everybody gets that. This is how I run the business part of my life. For the other part of my life, there are different sets of values going on. However, the laundry is an economic enterprise, and the day we don’t cash flow is the day it’s game over.

Have you had any business mentors who have helped you along the way?

My father, people in the industry and even my competitors have been extremely helpful to me. My competitors have kicked my ass, handed me my lunch and eaten it in front of me.

I have a lot of good men in my life. One thing I’ve done over the last 20 years is looked to guys older than me who I admired in the community, and invite them to dinner once a year. I would take the day off, prepare the best meal I could make and invite these guys over to learn from them. I’ve always tried to look to and emulate men that I wanted to be like, that had those attributes I admired.

What have been the biggest mistakes you’ve made in this business over the years?

The biggest mistakes were thinking I had anything figured out, thinking that my customers really loved what I did and thinking that I had any amount of special creative energy in me. My mistakes were hubris, pride, immaturity and foolishness. I’ve made every mistake and have been lucky enough to have survived them.

Thinking people are going to be honest, because they ought to be. Thinking that my way is the right way. Thinking that I know more than somebody else. Those are all mistakes that I’ve made in life.

I needed to figure out that life will move on and that I better stay on my game all the time – and, if I don’t, I better get out of the business. It took me 30 years to learn that, but then I woke up one day to find a new store in town that did it better than me. That store took two-thirds of my business, and that’s a very painful learning experience.

What keeps you passionate about this business today?

I like to eat, and I make a good living in this business. I’m proud of trying to be the best I can be. If I can be really good at something, and it takes work to do it, that’s pride of accomplishment. We have to work at it. We have to plan ahead, and push ourselves all the time to be the best we can be. That’s a challenge, and I like doing that. I like trying to be better than I am.  

What are the keys to the incredible business longevity that you’ve obviously enjoyed?

One aspect of our longevity is our multiple profit centers. I would have been knocked out of the coin laundry business a few times over the years, but we also have a car wash, drycleaning, tanning and a fitness center. Through the years, we’ve experienced significant competition that has intruded into our markets; however, when one business got hammered by a new competitor, we could rely on the others and a cross-trained staff to pick up that slack.

What does the future look like for the self-service laundry business? Is this still a good business to get into?

It’s so bright I’ve got on two pairs of sunglasses. It’s a wonderful business – with all of the new technology, the high-speed washers and dryers, cashless systems, full-cycle drying and so on. Customers can have wonderful experiences in our stores. And they do.

People want to bring their clothes to a beautiful, well-designed, modern, clean, professionally run laundromat. That really hasn’t changed much since I’ve been in the business – the only change over the years has been my level of commitment to providing that.

Today, we are claiming new customers from home washers every single week in our store. It doesn’t get any better than that. We’re not a have-to business – we’re a want-to business, even with that big new double-load washer I now have at home.


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