When W.H. Munro started Munro’s Dry Cleaning in Beaumont, TX, just a year before the Great Depression began, he probably did not envision it one day becoming three businesses managed by four generations of the family.
One thing his vision did include was a carefully crafted business blueprint, according to the founder’s grandson and current owner of the business, Bill Munro.
W.H. was a hard worker and a perfectionist, which is always a good combination for a person in drycleaning. He believed attention to detail was paramount, which was a contributing factor to the company’s success. He was also wise with finances.
“He had some investors who put some money in it with him, some local business people,” Bill said. “Over the years, he eventually bought all of their shares back. They enjoyed a whole lot of free drycleaning during those days. That was how you paid a dividend then.”
The day-to-day aspect of the business was overseen by W.H. until the early 1960s when he handed the reins over to his sons, Harvey and Richard.
Around that time, the second generation helped shift Munro’s in a new direction from routes to drop stores. Then, in 1971, the family opted to open a second business for uniform rental.
“As the late 1960s and polyester were very tough on the industry, we started our diversification,” Bill said.
In 1978, they continued the trend by starting a third business that focused on the direct sale of garments.
In the beginning, they sold a lot of baseball caps, but over time they found a niche with safety apparel, including flame-retardant garments, medical scrubs and work boots.
The Munro family paid attention to their customers’ preferences and it paid off.
“We tried to listen to what industry needed and when we found out that those fire-retardant garments were not going to be rental garments, we just said, ‘Are we going to get out of it, or are we going to sell it to them?’ We wanted to sell it to them.”
Today, the three businesses require about 140 employees altogether; the drycleaning business utilizes approximately 55 to work seven dry stores and a main 15,000-sq.-ft. production plant that handles the drycleaning, as well as the uniform rental garment processing that comes in from nine routes.
Munro’s has also expanded its retail reach to include five safety apparel sales stores up and down the Gulf Coast.
Bill has been working at the company for most of his life. Before running Munro’s for the last 34 years, he paid his dues at a young age pressing clothes and cleaning the boiler. While he studied marketing at nearby Lamar College, he spent his spare time on the business’s front lines in the early 1970s.
“A friend and I sold uniform rental,” he recalled. “Then, on Mondays, I would drive to Lamar with uniforms in the truck and then I’d go run my route when I got out of class. The number one big day for me was when I hired my first route man and I didn’t have to run the route anymore. The second big day was when I hired three route men and I could hire a route supervisor and I didn’t have to run a route when somebody was sick.”
These days, Bill does not always work a full 40-hour week. He even has a fishing appointment every Thursday. It’s easier to take time off knowing he has the right people in place to keep things running smoothly, including sons Jeff and Josh.
Besides, he’s already lived through enough stress to last a few lifetimes. Living in Southeast Texas, he has learned that nature can rear its ugly side at any given time, like it did back in 1983.
“On Christmas Day, we had a big freeze here. I told all of my uniform route people to make sure they load out. I always wanted the clothes loaded out in case there was a fire or something happened… where they were ready to go,” he noted.
Unfortunately, the staff decided to wait until the next day since it was Christmas Eve. The sprinkler system burst and the result was a mess of frozen garments.
“I called all those route drivers up at 4 o’clock in the morning. We had to dry all of those clothes and get them ready to take back out on that route,” he said. “That’s just one of our unique experiences.”
The destructive elements of nature have often appeared unexpectedly in the region. Back in May of 2006, Bill told National Clothesline about evacuating during Hurricane Rita. He explained that he had lived through four hurricanes and did not intend to try for five.
Over the years, Bill’s business has suffered its share of hurricane damage, to be sure: doors on metal buildings have caved in and one store completely fell down after the wind took hold of it and gutted it. However, each experience has taught him to be more prepared and take certain precautions.
“We keep an eye on the weather,” he noted. “The main thing you do for hurricanes is you have to be able to communicate with your people.”
After Rita, Munro fed employees at his plant for ten days and let them bring their kids to work, as well. There was no problem finding things to do for everybody, but there was some problem finding power.
“We have a natural gas generator that runs part of our building down here,” he said. “The biggest single thing when employees start showing back up is we didn’t have enough outlets because everybody was coming here to get their cell phone charged. So, that generator was running wide open. Every plug in the place had a cell phone jack in it.”
It’s not just the elements of nature that can surprise you; human nature can occasionally be a menace, as well.
Having been in business for a long time, Bill was a victim of a scam that he had never heard of before.
“We had a guy break into the store and steal his own clothes,” he said. “Then, he came in the next day and filled in a claim form for like 20 pieces. Of course, they were all top-of-the-line garments and he wanted his money right then.”
What raised Bill’s suspicions was that the thief had only stolen the one man’s clothes. He called the police and told them what happened.
“They went by to visit him and ask him all this stuff, but they couldn’t prove it,” he recalled. “After that, I never heard from him anymore.”
Fortunately, most of the time, Munro’s has a much closer relationship to its clientele, which might explain their long-time motto: “We’re clothes’ best friends since 1928.”
With a reputation that took eight decades to build, Bill is not content to just rest on his laurels. His marketing background reminds him that the public perception battle is never ending.
“You’ve got to keep your name in front of people if you’re going to be successful,” he emphasized.
“You’re still marketing every day. Your trucks have got to look good. Your people have got to look good at the counter in their uniforms. You’ve got to keep that image going.”
That means keeping everything clean, not just the garments that come in to the plant.
“Your stores need to be clean. Keep your signage looking good at your stores. It’s all part of the image,” he said.
“If we don’t have a clean truck, what should people think? Do they think those clothes inside the truck are clean or dirty if it’s a dirty truck? That’s the image you have to project.”
Fortunately, the efforts have worked to give Munro’s a strong positive image.
In fact, the company recently was given the 2012 Spindletop Award from the Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce for its long staying power and its efforts to give back to the community. Past recipients include Exxon Mobil and AT&T.
Over the years, Munro’s has helped well more than 100 charities in Southeast Texas. The way they do it is often in very good taste.
“We have a cooking team and a cooking trailer and we go to golf tournaments and events and cook for them,” he said.
Bill has been perfecting his outdoor culinary skills since he was 17. “I’ve cooked for two presidents and a United States senator, so my reputation for cooking is pretty good. We’re known for our barbecue ribs,” he added.
Offering free food to the community is a clever way to contribute and it generates some nice positive side effects, as well.
“When you go to a golf tournament, they charge you an entry fee. You play a foursome and you see the people in front of you and the people behind you,” he said. “But, if you go out there and cook, you see everybody. They all come by. If my people are going to be out there for a day, I don’t want them to meet eight people. I want them to meet 200.”
It’s not a bad plan, especially since it could lead to more business. Nothing stains like barbecue and nobody removes those stains like Munro’s.
“My dream is that every Rotary Club serves barbecue chicken every week and they don’t have any silverware,” he laughed.