An Interview with Veteran Laundry Distributor Lamar Thomas
Lamar Thomas, president of T&L Equipment Sales Co., got his start in the laundry industry in 1954, delivering washers and dryers to coin laundries in the Charlotte, N.C. area. In 1967, he joined his father at S.H. Duncan & Co. – and, in 1976, he opened his own company, T&L Equipment Sales. Since those early days, T&L has grown into a leading supplier of not only laundry equipment but also knowledge and expert advice for potential investors, newcomers to the industry and experienced operators alike. Over the years, Thomas has served the Coin Laundry Association on its Board of Directors, its Executive Committee, and as the chairman of its Distributor Services Committee, during which time the CLA’s Distributor Code of Ethics was written. He also is the former president of the North Carolina Coin Laundry Association.
How and when did you first get involved in the laundry industry?
The very first time was as a teenager in 1954, delivering washers and dryers to coin laundries for my dad. My father started out as a presser in a drycleaning plant, but then later worked as a salesman for S.H. Duncan & Co., a laundry distributor in the Carolinas.
After high school, I attended North Carolina State University and received a degree in mechanical engineering. In fact, I was working for DuPont as a mechanical engineer designing equipment for high explosives, when my dad purchased the distributorship and asked if I would come onboard to help him out. That’s when I first officially got involved in the industry.
What attracted you to the laundry industry in the first place?
I grew up visiting what at the time were called “hand laundries” – where people brought their laundry to be washed and ironed by hand – and which were owned and operated mainly by Chinese immigrants. My father called on them to sell them equipment, so as a kid, I would ride with him and make friends with the owners and their families at these laundries. During that time, hand laundries were quite prevalent. I was attracted to the fact that this was an industry that enabled people to own and operate their businesses independently.
Are those aspects that first attracted you still evident in the business today?
How would you best describe the “early days” of this industry?
When I was a child, my mother and our neighbors took their laundry to self-service laundries. The very first machines weren’t coin-operated; instead you paid an attendant – who often was the owner – by the load.
In the early days, some laundries also featured hair dryers; so some women would wash their hair at home, put on a kerchief and go to the laundromat to dry it, while also washing the family laundry at the same time. A typical store might have three or four chairs with coin-operated hair dryers attached. Of course, the laundromats were smaller than today’s facilities – back then, 20 toploaders, two “larger” washers, and eight or 10 dryers made for a great store. Dryers vended for a nickel or a dime, and topload washers were 25 cent per load. And it wasn’t unusual to spend a lot of time waiting for a machine.
In addition, over the years, I’ve seen the cycles in life – whether it was brought on by an economic depression, a recession or a war – where many consumer goods just weren’t available. Afterward, items would appear on the market that weren’t necessarily a function of making people’s lives easier – radios, televisions, HVAC systems, phones, computers, and so on. In my lifetime, people would buy those consumer products that had nothing to do with actually lessening the burden of washing their clothes. They often purchased luxury items, rather than functional ones.
In the meantime, energy-saving, residential frontload washers often weren’t considered a desired purchase. Therefore, the vended laundry industry continues to provide a much-needed service.
Also, through the years, the industry has been impacted by changes in the types of materials used to make clothing. Initially, clothes were mainly 100 percent cotton, whereas today most items are a 50/50 or 65/35 polyester blend, which holds much less water than an all-cotton garment.
Plus, in the old days, the washers didn’t extract water very well, so these 100 percent cotton items would come out of the washer soaking wet. The dripping clothes would then need to be placed into a separate extractor unit to remove much of that water, before the load could be placed into a dryer.
As polyester blends – which, again, tend to release water much easier than cotton – became more prevalent, 18-pound double-load washers were soon being called 20-pounders, and then eventually 25- and even 30-pound machines. Basically, the manufacturers hadn’t done anything different to these washers, other than to change the recommended weight capacity – because, all of a sudden, the units were washing mostly 50/50 cotton blend garments, so now a 20-pound washer truly was a 30-pounder. The manufacturers weren’t trying to deceive anyone; they were just recognizing the fact their machines could now hold more clothes because those clothes held less water.
What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the industry since you’ve been involved in it?
Some of the changes I’ve noticed are laundry owners offering additional incentives to customers – such as pool tables, exercise equipment, TV lounges, charging stations, internet access, kids play areas, bars and food service, brighter atmospheres, and so on. I’ve seen cleaner, faster wash and dry cycles. And I’ve witnessed how laundromats have evolved into meeting places for young adults and seniors, with coffee bars and study areas.
What are the most dramatic equipment enhancements you’ve seen?
We now have programs that enable laundry owners to provide better service to their customers and follow better business practices, as the cash flow and expenses can be managed better. Energy-saving equipment, higher extract speeds, better wash action, improved drying, flexible pricing, and enhanced promotions to specific segments of the customer base raise the level of competition and increase operator profitability. Improving the reliability of equipment has been one of the best moves the industry manufacturers have made.
Elaborate how your particular business and activities have evolved over the years and why those changes were necessary.
At T&L, we’ve gone from a full-service drycleaning and laundry equipment supplier with a fleet of trucks, drivers, service personnel, and installers to focusing on the vended laundry business – providing features to assist our laundry-owner customers in building their operating profits. Finding locations, keeping up with population movements, watching for changes in development patterns, and providing financing all have been enhanced and expanded.
Over the years, we’ve changed the focus of the company more than once. As times changed, we’ve changed as well, going to where the market was most dominant at the time. We have served the coin laundry industry all along; however, these days vended laundry makes up the core of our business. We do laundromat rehabs, as well as building new stores; in fact, we’ve recently taken on more new store buildout projects than rehabs.
What is the most enjoyable part of what you do?
The most enjoyable part is meeting with our customers and then being able to provide them with the opportunity to become independent operators and successful businesspeople.
What is your day-to-day routine like? Please take me through a “typical” day for you.
As soon as I open the door, I make sure that our service personnel get out and provide reliable repairs in a timely manner. Next, I’ll check my email to find out what new requests have arrived from customers, as well as staff. Then, I’ll meet with our sales force, along with our internal employees who help operate the company on a day-to-day basis.
A big part of my “typical day” revolves around planning for the future, reading about what’s currently happening in our industry, and looking for new areas and ideas that will increase and grow the business.
In general, how have self-service laundries changed over the years?
The laundromat business has changed from just cleaning clothes to offering a great customer experience, which is what today’s consumer expects.
It’s gone from customers coming into a store and just looking at each other to now listening to music, watching television, using the internet, having children’s play areas and/or cafes available, playing video games, and so on. There are so many more ancillary offerings in today’s modern stores. In addition, many laundries are developing into meeting places for the entire community – providing ESL classes in Hispanic markets or free laundry events in underserved neighborhoods, just as a couple of examples. Today’s laundries are simply more comfortable and user-friendly for their customers.
Have laundry owners changed over the years?
They have changed. Today, I see more owners who are investing in the laundry business, looking for golden parachutes. However, I also see younger professionals getting into the industry, who are assuming bigger risk for a potentially larger upside.
How has this industry improved itself over the years?
Overall, there is better communication today between store owners, suppliers, and manufacturers. I’ve seen invitations by manufacturers to store owners and distributors to provide some input on product development. In addition, the distributors now communicate with each other more freely.
From your standpoint, what are some of the major hot-button issues facing laundry owners today?
One of the hot buttons involves payment options and that type of technology – basically, how to make the transition from a cash income to a credit income.
Also, there is a tremendous amount of gentrification in many markets all across the country, in older and lower-income neighborhoods. For example, in Charlotte I drive the same way to and from work that I have for the last 30 years. Today, I’m passing $600,000 and $700,000 homes, where before the people living there were paying $300 a month in rent. Those rental buildings have been bulldozed, and high-end houses have replaced them.
With this gentrification trend, a laundry owner, for example, may have his or her store financed for 10 years and perhaps it’s only four years old. That operator is now looking around the neighborhood and saying, “I don’t see my customers anymore. Where did they go?” That’s definitely an issue in the Carolinas, as it likely is all across the country. There’s been a lot of shifting of demographics and gentrification.
Of course, as a distributor, we’re involved in site selection. I look around and try to find places where people don’t have washers and dryers at home or where they may be working all of the time and don’t have time to take care of their own laundry themselves. That’s a challenge.
Personally, what are your interests away from the laundry industry? How do you like to spend your time?
I enjoy gardening and fishing. And, of course, spending time with my wife and family and our grandchildren is a blessing. I’m part of a diverse community at home and within our church.
Also, I’ve recently gotten involved with raising honeybees. I had wanted to do it for a number of years. Then, my friend, who is really involved with bees, talked me into taking a nine-week class – which was held by the local bee association. We had 150 students, and 95 to 100 of us will have opened up beehives during this year.
We garden at our home, and our gardens have suffered because we haven’t had enough pollination. In our area, there are several starter homes, and the construction has torn up much of the woods and dispersed all of the animals, including the bee population. Bees are critical, and their numbers are threatened, due to building and also diseases.
I’m really enjoying raising the bees. Hopefully, I’ll have enough someday to market and sell the honey, but right now the main objective is to keep the neighborhood full of healthy flowers.
Do you have a philosophy that guides the decisions you’ve made in business and in life?
Truth, honesty, fairness, respect for others, doing it right the first time, meeting the customers' wants and needs, having fun, and making a profit for all parties involved. Looking and listening for God to move and then following with trust and obedience.
What have been the biggest mistakes you’ve made in this business over the years?
My biggest mistakes were probably failing to take more risks and not investing long term in the ownership of laundries. In my life, I’ve owned as many as seven stores at one time – back in the early 1970s. But we had a principle that my dad subscribed to: Don’t go into competition with your customer base.
Typically, we have had one or two laundries at a time. We’d renovate them and then sell them. I’m not saying our model was wrong, but personally I should have been more open to owning some and having that experience that I could share with my customers, as well as having it for a retirement fund.
We’ve had drycleaning plants and laundries over the years, but we’ve never kept them for very long. I look at other distributors around the country who have owned stores – and it’s been a profitable venture for them, and they’ve been careful to try to not overrun their customer base. I think I could have been better positioned to do that.
What’s been the most gratifying aspect of your life in the laundry business?
One of the most gratifying aspects was the great experience of serving on the Coin Laundry Association’s Board of Directors for many years, and the encounters and responsibilities that came through that service. Of course, developing the many friendships I have within the industry has been extremely gratifying.
What keeps you passionate about this business today?
Seeing the success of others.
In general, what’s the key to longevity in this industry?
Seeking to live on the cutting edge of the business experience.
What does the future look like for the self-service laundry business?
I envision more large-format stores in urban areas, offering more ancillary experiences. I see younger, more professional operators developing better ways to serve their customers. And I see the industry continuing to lead the way in efficiency and energy savings.