Now More Than Ever, Women Laundry Owners are Being Heard and Making a Difference
Pat Cunningham was in junior high school when Title IX passed. The groundbreaking statute essentially ended gender inequity for every educational initiative that receives federal funding, including sports programs.
This was great news for an athletic kid like Cunningham who had been blazing her own trail since the beginning – playing football in the streets with the guys, and eventually becoming a world-class softball player and earning induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.
“When Title IX first passed, I marched down to the athletic director’s office and said, ‘Open up that damn weight room; I’m lifting weights. Legally, I can get in there now,'” Cunningham recalled. “I’ve been pushing myself out there my whole life, because that’s how I roll.”
These days, Cunningham and Kelly Corbett are pushing the envelope as the co-owners of Lafayette Laundry in Detroit.
“Being taken seriously and being respected during the buildout was absolutely a challenge,” Corbett explained. “We got a lot of pushback. We were told our design idea wouldn’t work, and, no, we couldn’t do this or that.
“To stay professional and garner respect from these gentlemen who ‘have been in the business forever’ was a challenge. But we persevered and prevailed.”
Challenges for women begin in childhood. Young girls may be brought up to believe that they’re suited for only certain professions or, in some cases, only to serve as wives and mothers. Gender lines are drawn early, and exclusions for women continue throughout adulthood. These constant messages may lead to a false belief that women don’t belong in the business world.
After childhood, many young women are still often encouraged, or even pressured, into pursuing education in more stereotypical “female-oriented” professions, such as teaching, nursing, care-giving, retail and office administration.
Fortunately, there are several confident, relentless women – such as Cunningham and Corbett – out there. And, heading into 2016, their numbers are growing.
Although the creation of new independent businesses has stalled overall, the women-owned component of new U.S. firms has shot up 27 percent in the past eight years. Between 2007 and 2012, according to preliminary U.S. Census Bureau data, 27 percent of the 2 percent overall small-business growth during this period has been attributed to women.
While the post-recession recovery has generally bypassed small-business development, the role of women has expanded remarkably. In fact, women-owned ventures comprised more than 36 percent of all independent ownerships reported in 2012, with the total number of these firms amounting to 10 million in 2012. Although no official figures are reported by the Census Bureau beyond this date, it’s obvious that number has grown substantially within the last three years.
There are exciting things happening inside the world of women entrepreneurs. Women are now the dominant force in small-business ownership overall, and succeeding in industries that were once taboo for women.
Although men still outnumber women at most self-service laundry meetings, service schools and trade shows, the face of today’s store owner is changing, as more and more women gravitate to this business as an investment and a livelihood.
Here are some of their stories:
A&Q Laundry Room
South River, N.J.
I’ve worked in the non-profit sector for many years, moving up the ranks in hopes of providing a better service to those with intellectual disabilities. However, over time, I realized trying to balance marriage and motherhood was becoming more difficult. I enjoy networking with people and helping enrich their lives in any way possible, but the mundane hours of the corporate world didn’t allow me the flexibility I needed to focus on my family.
Owning a business has always been a dream of mine, and after doing some research, I realized the laundry industry would allow me the flexibility I needed in addition to providing me with the social and customer service aspect I enjoy.
Doing laundry is a necessity. Everyone does it, regardless of his or her economic status. This fact is what attracted me to the laundry business. I knew I could run a profitable business that would allow me to meet the needs of my family and provide a future for them as well.
The advantage is having the freedom to be a chaperone for my kids’ field trips or a class assistant to help with parties and events. The ability to pick them up from school and play on the playground, yet still have time to cook dinner, review homework and tuck them into bed. My corporate life consisted of rushing home from work, just in time to make dinner and put them to bed. The biggest advantage is being able to spend quality time with the family while running the business remotely.
My biggest challenge has been trying to acquire new commercial accounts. There is a lot of reluctance toward giving a new business owner a chance. I’m not sure if these challenges are specific to being a woman, but it does seem that I have to try harder to get the attention of serious business owners.
The growing diversity among store owners is what helps to make this community or any community unique. I have the opportunity to meet various people from different backgrounds and get to know them through their stories. I think the self-service business will continue to attract diverse store owners, as more people understand the advantages of owning their own business.
I think the laundry industry is perfect for women who want to be entrepreneurs but don’t want to be pigeonholed into the day-to-day rigidness of the corporate world. This business can be as easy or hard as you want it to be.
Advice to other women: Always do detailed demographics research to ensure a need exists, and be patient. Never give up. The right opportunity is out there, but timing is everything.
Also, my husband has been my mentor, and I look to him for his expertise on business strategies. I often say that I have no clue how to run a business, but I do know what I would like to see as a customer – and I use that as my guide.
I was looking for a business investment that I could own and operate, while keeping my teaching job. So, I was attracted to the flexibility of the hours and the work. Plus, I’m a mother of four – and what mom doesn’t know laundry?
Most of the challenges I’ve faced in developing my business would be common across the gender board. I don’t think I’ve ever been taken advantage of because I’m a woman. If anything – and I hate to admit it – I think there have been more times when people have given me breaks because I am a woman. In business, having a good balance between being assertive and being flexible is to any businessperson’s advantage.
However, one area that might have greater emphasis for women in this business is safety. There are certain safety practices I stringently maintain when I am in my store.
In addition, I’m not that handy and have had to either rely on friends or pay big bucks when things break down in the store. I’ve gotten much better over the years at being able to fix things, but it still stresses me out.
Overall, this is a people-oriented business, and many times women enjoy interacting with and helping others. It’s a business where women can make as little or much as she decides she wants to put into it, and there is plenty of flexibility.
Being a laundry owner also has afforded me many opportunities to help others in tangible, as well as intangible, ways – from overwhelmed moms getting free detergent and a hug to partnering with a large homeless shelter in Philadelphia.
Diverse owners represent diverse customers in diverse demographics, which can only benefit this industry by helping it to grow. Today, laundries serve a much larger cliental than just low-income families and college kids.
Advice to other women: Value and make the most out of every opportunity given to you as a female small-business owner. After all, it’s only been about 100 years since we’ve even been allowed to vote!
Wash Day Laundry
My washing machine broke, and I was living in a rural area – so I had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest laundromat. Then, my teenaged daughters returned from summer camp with trunk-loads of dirty laundry, and I realized how much easier it would be to wash all of their clothes at once at a laundromat. Those two experiences convinced me to start a business plan.
I wanted something community-oriented that was a “need-to-have” business and didn’t involve a lot of employees to manage. The recession-resistant aspect of the laundry business also attracted me.
I’ve been fortunate to have two business partners who have expertise and interest aspects of the business that aren’t my strengths. This enables me to work where I excel and in my areas of interest. It also allows me time to volunteer in the community and spend time with my family.
I’m not mechanically inclined. Not to say that all women aren’t mechanically inclined, but I find myself most distraught and frustrated when equipment breaks down – which is the nature of the business.
Overall, I think diversity should have a positive impact on the laundry business. Owners from different backgrounds, such as women, will approach the business using whatever strengths they bring from their former careers. We all want to constantly strive to raise the bar for our industry, so some healthy competition and some new ideas benefit everyone.
With that said, most of our clientele are women, and most of our employees are women. There is a camaraderie that naturally exists. Many women have worked while raising a family and understand the pressures, and that resonates with customers. It’s also a very social and community-oriented business, and I believe many women enjoy the communal aspect of this business.
Advice to other women: Outsource the aspects of the business you know you can’t or shouldn’t do. That is usually things you don’t like and aren’t trained for. Recognize that you can’t be an expert in everything. Delegate!
Also, I was part of a “mastermind group” – with three other local business owners – during the first few years I was in business, and they were an excellent sounding board.
While unemployed and interviewing for another job, I realized it was time for a career change. I always had an interest in the self-service laundry business, because most of the laundromats in my area were old and outdated. I felt the model had to change.
After doing extensive research, I not only realized that the industry has changed but that I could truly make it work in my area.
The big attraction for me is how the business is structured. I don’t have product on the shelf, and my customers are my laborers. Also, laundry is a need, not a want. Every customer who walks through the door is there to purchase. I just have to provide an inviting, clean, working environment for repeat customers.
The biggest challenge was coming up with the finances for the startup. The equipment and buildout can be very expensive. Banks are strict about lending money to startup companies since the housing collapse, so it was hard to convince the financial institutions to provide a loan to someone with no experience in this industry.
For years, this business has been male-dominated. The main reason was because you need to know how to maintain the equipment; if you have to call a repair service every time your machines break, your business simply won’t be as profitable.
However, laundry has always traditionally been a female role. And I feel that – with a basic knowledge on how your equipment works, how to operate a profitable laundry business and solid bookkeeping skills – this business can be very successful for either sex. In fact, I’m currently looking for a second location.
For women, the flexibility of being your own boss is huge. In this business, you can hire part-time employees to cover your hours and still maintain the needs of your family. Plus, I’ll admit that I enjoy doing laundry. If you don’t enjoy doing laundry, this business may not be for you. I also like interacting with the customers; you have to have strong people skills to make this work.
Advice to other women: Do your research before you begin. Be aware of your competition and always be one step ahead of them. Maintain your equipment, and educate yourself on how to repair it.
As a laundry owner, I visit a lot of other laundromats, and it’s exciting to see owners and operators responding to the new technologies available today. Whether it’s a payment system, tracking, route laundry or simply free WiFi, it’s is exciting what all can be incorporated into a self-service laundry that will enhance the customer experience.
Mostly, I notice that successful owners – women and men – are operating their businesses as “customer-centric” enterprises. This is a fundamental shift from “I collect my money on Thursdays…” to “My customers need and enjoy…” When an operator knows exactly who their perfect customer is and responds by providing a space, equipment and attention, it’s a homerun.
The fun part is that this “meeting of the customer” means each and every laundromat now has its own vibe, tempo and look. Gone are the days of the cookie-cutter laundromat.
At my store, the philosophy is: “People. Planet. Profit.” I manage from on site. My attendants are my number-one priority; in turn, they give my customers top-shelf attention. I meet, greet and talk to my customers every day. I’m very verbal about operating my business with integrity and transparency.
My attendants are trained and trained again on our perfect customers – their age, their laundry needs, social awareness and typical concerns.
Advice to other women: Find a mentor. Mine is a woman who left a top-level executive position at IBM to retire and give back to the community. She had just moved here when I asked her to mentor me. She had been up the corporate ladder – banking, finance and employee management. She is connected beyond belief.
For example, I wanted to learn about commercial leases and the nuances of negotiation. Within days, she had me sitting in front of the region’s largest development firms’ broker, setting up a series of learning experiences for me. Fast forward to this morning, she just called and asked, “Any news? What were your numbers for the month?” That type of mentoring is invaluable.
Also, it’s important for laundry owners to try to raise the bar in this industry in terms of management, operations and fiscal integrity – not to mention environmental responsibility.
Super Clean Laundromat
My dad founded HK Laundry Equipment when I was a kid. And, since then, my brother Karl has taken over that business. So the laundry business has been in my family; however, I was more on the fringes of it, so I didn’t really know much about the laundry business until I built my own store about four years ago.
The recession had hit, and I was worried about job security. I had another job at the time, but I wanted something that I knew would be a good segue into retirement. My dad has always owned laundromats and, at age 86, he still does. It’s just a great way to ensure an income when you’re retired.
Personally, the experience has provided huge growth for me. I’m an office manager, and I’ve been a computer programmer – but I’ve never had to do all of the various tasks I’ve needed to do with this small business. It’s been a great growth opportunity for me, from a professional and personal point of view. What’s more, it has given me a bit of financial security, and simply the pride of owning my own company.
As a woman operator, the heavy machinery definitely can be a challenge. Some tasks – such as taking the door off of a dryer or removing the fronts of the machines – I just can’t do, because I’m not strong enough. However, I can handle a lot of the smaller maintenance job. And, beyond that, I feel women are on an even playing field with their male counterparts in the business.
For women, this business can provide a great additional source of income, and it’s non-threatening. Traditionally, laundry is what women do. From that point of view, I knew what I was doing. It’s just the business side of it that I had to learn.
Advice to other women: Find a good distributor who can help you. You’re going to need some type of a mentor, someone who’s going to help. There will be a lot of things you just don’t know. For me, it was very difficult in the beginning. There were issues like getting the gas line installed or dealing with a landlord. I’d never negotiated a lease before. Of course, either a man or a woman can bump up against those types of difficult issues.
Definitely join the Coin Laundry Association, because it offers a huge amount of information. I turn to them for all kinds of issues. However, I also had an advantage getting into the business, because I could always bounce ideas off of my dad and my brother.
Above all, don’t think you’re going to just go in, collect your money and leave. To run a successful laundry business, you have to put in your time and effort. It doesn’t just happen. I’m in my store every day, at least once a day.
Belmont Eco Laundry
After more than 30 years of working in the banking industry – managing a nationwide team supporting small business – and no longer enjoying what I was doing, I decided it was time to make a change.
I spent three months looking at a variety of small-business opportunities. What attracted me to the laundry business was the flexibility in my day, which would allow me to help my father through his elderly years. I spent six months studying the industry, reading books and attending webinars to gain a good understanding of the business.
As a woman, perhaps the biggest challenge is getting everyone to believe in you, especially if you’ve never owned a business before. You have a lot to prove to get others to believe in you. Laundromats have a stigma attached to them. Now, add the element of a woman owning the business. Those are two big hurdles to overcome. However, if you do your due diligence, create a strong business plan, have a solid business strategy and stay focused, you’ll be successful.
Personally, the advantages of running my business have been the ability to network with the customers, and help people to connect and become strong members in the community. I joined the business district before opening my store, and a year later, I became the president. I like to get involved and have a voice in the direction the district in which my business is located is headed. I also discovered that I enjoy helping others. I enjoy my time at the laundry; when I leave, I walk away with a smile on my face.
My business philosophy is: keep it simple; do one thing really well; and review your business strategy every three years in order to step it up a notch.
Advice to other women: Select one thing you want your business to be known for – and then be the best of the best.
Also, I turn to my husband for advice. I like to get a man’s point of view; they think differently and sometimes a problem will require a well-rounded approach.
Lastly, I have a group of female friends with extremely diverse backgrounds. We meet for coffee monthly and share what’s going on in our businesses and our lives. It’s truly amazing how we have helped shape each other’s points of view. The energy within this group is fantastic, and I would suggest something similar to all women entrepreneurs.
Tracy Johnson and Jill Belilah
(Tracy) Before we bought it, we lived next door to our launderette, which had been in operation since 1960. And, when we talked to the owners, we’d tell them, ‘When you’re ready to sell, we’re interested.’
Coincidentally, when we moved into the area, a woman owned the business. In 1960, she and her husband opened it, but she ran it after he passed away. So, right from the beginning, our exposure to the laundry business was from a woman-owned perspective.
Jill currently owns a hair salon down the street, and I’ve owned a small café in the past. So, as entrepreneurs, we could see the schedule and the benefit of that type of business, not necessarily being stuck behind a counter in a retail setting.
(Jill) Sometimes there’s that slight disbelief when you’re working with tradespeople, and you’re female. We can see people slowly developing a trust; we’re developing credibility. However, maybe a man wouldn’t be confronted with that.
It didn’t get in our way or hold us back. For the most part, people have responded positively. They like to see different people doing different things, breaking the typical mold. They’re a bit fascinated.
(Tracy) We’ve had customers say they can tell the place has had a woman’s touch. It’s an aesthetic difference, as far as décor. The building was constructed in 1960, and we’ve stayed with that retro feel. It has historic and design significance, so we’ve embraced the history of this building.
Advice to other women: (Tracy) Don’t be intimidated by the machines. I think that might put some women off. My advice is to not be intimidated because, once you learn how to do a couple of things and you’re familiar with them, you can make a lot of the updates or fixes on your own.
(Jill) We inherited a very old laundromat and ran it for month, and had to fix machines from the ’70s every single day. And we did.
(Tracy) I’m very pro- small-business. Any women looking to build or start a laundry business should definitely do it. Build a network or join an online forum – there’s a lot of great information on the internet. We used YouTube a lot during our research. And just trust your instincts, because your instincts are probably right.
Tumbler Coin Laundry
I have been a real estate broker for 25 years. I met a man who had a laundromat, and I was fascinated with it, so I decided to buy one.
I like being busy and not sitting still, and that’s how my schedule is at the laundromat. I also like the fact that my customers bring their own product, pay before using my machines, do their own laundry and then leave. It allows me to be somewhat hands off, which is good because I have a son and that flexibility is great.
As a woman, fixing the equipment has been hard to do myself. However, it’s expensive to hire someone to fix it. I’ve faced a learning curve, but now I’m able to fix many of my machines, which saves money and time.
Personally, I think I bring different aspects to the business. For example, I want nicer folding tables, nicer bathrooms, etc. – amenities a male owner may not be as concerned with. I understand what customers want at a laundry because I do my own family’s laundry.
Also, in Europe, the laundromats have coffee shops. In Germany, many stores feature massage chairs and nail technicians. Hopefully, I’ll be able to incorporate some of these concepts into my store.
Above all, this is a great business for women, because of the flexibility. It can be a lucrative business that doesn’t impact family life as much as other businesses. Plus, it’s just empowering to own your own business.
Advice to other women: Learn how to fix your own machines, because paying for small repairs will add up quickly. And don’t let the small stuff upset you.
In addition, my distributor and other laundry owners have helped me along the way. We exchange information and tips about the business. Get to know those professionals in your market.
Pat Cunningham and Kelly Corbett
(Pat) We have a 10-pound Yorkie, and she got sick on our king-size bedding, so we had to go to a laundromat to get it cleaned. And that got us thinking.
We had both recently retired and were looking for an investment. However, what started out to be just a little laundromat in our hometown soon escalated into this 5,000-square-foot facility in Detroit.
We drove to every single store we could drive to, just to get an idea of what it was we didn’t want. We wanted to carve out something quite different.
(Kelly) With items as simple as floor tile selection and pattern or color scheme, we were told, “no, you can’t do that,” “you shouldn’t do that,” “that’s going to cost more money” or “that’s really not going to work.” But we just said, no, this is what we want.
(Pat) In an effort to create a lovely environment, we put our machines on angles and created giant pathways for customers to move about. And that idea was totally poo-pooed: “Oh my gosh! Don’t put your machines on an angle. It’s never been done. What are you ladies up to?”
We put our own footprint on it. And a woman likes nothing more than to go in and make it her own. Make it nice, comfortable and pretty.
Our focus was less about profit and more about making a change in that community. Detroiters deserve nothing more than something nice in their neighborhood. For us, it’s less about a bottom line and living comfortably; it was about bringing a sense of community to an area that sorely needed it. There’s a whole different vibe going on at Lafayette Laundry. It’s a sense of community, and there is no blueprint for that.
That’s what a woman can bring to this industry – her own personal touch. A woman is going to re-do a room differently than a man. It’s the basic differences between women and men. And, if we focus on common sense and treat people how we want to be treated, we’re going to be successful.
(Kelly) When I came home from cleaning the bedding, I said, “Patty, we’re going to open a laundromat.” And she replied, “Did you bump your head?”
But we never looked back. It never occurred to me that we couldn’t do this. Business is business. It doesn’t matter if it’s a laundry, a restaurant or a bar – profit and loss is clear to me, and customer service is clear to me. It never dawned on me that I couldn’t do it. As women, I totally believe we can never say we can’t do something just because we don’t know it. You can always learn. And, by God, we have.
Advice to other women: (Pat) To any women operators just starting out, call us – I’ll tell you how to get some [stuff] done. Stick to your guns, honey. It’s a man’s world. We just pushed for what was right.