When John Nichols started Heritage Cleaners in Richmond, VA, back in 1956, he didn’t have a lot to work with: a truck, one employee and a $900 loan. Fortunately, he had something else in spades: vision. John was a man who fostered grand visions of a big future.
“Right now, we’re flirting with about 30 million, 31 million pounds a year… somewhere in that neighborhood,” noted Jay, the oldest sibling in the family.
In order to meet such high volume demands, the Nicholses currently operate their businesses out of an 86,000-sq.-ft. building they purchased in 1983 and another 120,000- sq.-ft. facility they bought more recently.
“When we bought that property in 2008, we put in about $9.2 million or $9.4 million into equipment and automation,” Jay added. “It is definitely, by far, one of the most advanced plants maybe in the world right now… definitely in this country. We’re producing about 220 pounds per operator hour. I think the national average right now is 141 pounds.”
That location operates seven days a week, 365 days a year. These days, the business is hardly recognizable from the small operation that John struggled with over half a century ago.
After returning home from World War II, John worked at various laundries and drycleaning plants for about seven years before he opted to go out on his own. In the beginning, the best tools at his disposal seemed to be persistence and hard work.
“When he ventured out, I was born right at the same time he made this move,” Jay explained. “He struggled quite a bit, knocking on doors and picking up drycleaning. He was the hardest working man I’ve ever known.”
After taking on a partner, the two men went their separate ways around 1970, which is when John opted to change the name of the business to Handcraft.
“Around that time, he got involved heavily with the drycleaning supply business,” Jay recalled. “We were paying some outrageous numbers for hangers and what-not so my dad and a couple of other guys had the brainchild to start a co-op back in the 1970s. He was the first chairman and president of a company called Rich Clean, which is still here today.”
The company now services 600 drycleaners in three states. Keith is the current president.
“Everybody pays the same amount, whether you buy 100 boxes of hangers or one box of hangers,” Jay said. “There is no negotiating.”
Starting a co-op was just one clever idea the senior Nichols came up with to increase his company’s chance at prolonged success. In the latter half of the 1970s, he fought against the polyester downturn by adding a uniform rental division that grew considerably before being sold in 1994.
For a while, Handcraft was involved with cleaning for the hospitality industry, as well, but their biggest success came in the form of servicing the medical industry.
In the early 1980s, the family realized they needed to expand from their 10,000-sq.-ft. facilities, but the 86,000-sq.-ft. building they looked at seemed quite daunting at the time.
“I’ll never forget that day we came in. We walked around it. This thing takes up a whole city block. It had been vacated for about six years. I looked at it and said, ‘We will never fill this thing up, as long as we live’,” Jay recalled.
It was John, though, who figured the price was right and the future was full of unlimited potential.
“His thought was we’d just take up what we need and lease out the remainder. He always thought much bigger and had a grander view. He was the visionary,” Jay added. “Now, when I look back, I’m absolutely floored that we’ve outgrown this building. We’re filling up another one. We’re going to fill a second one up… big buildings, too. It’s just amazing to me that we’ve come this far.”
All five of John’s children have grown up around the business and logged time working for it. Shelley was the first but eventually moved away. Neal also left for perhaps one of the few occupations harder than drycleaning: the priesthood.
Jay joined Handcraft full-time in 1979. Keith, who is currently president, started in 1986, and Jeff, the youngest sibling, came aboard in 1986.
The three brothers take turns rotating the title of president every few years, though ultimately it doesn’t really mean anything to them. There is no room for ego. All three try to bring their own strengths to the table in an effort to make the company better.
“Keith is a very strong operations guy. He’s key on the healthcare side,” Jay said. “Keith is a guy who mediocrity just doesn’t cut it. Just to be in the middle of the pack doesn’t cut it. Keith does not like the view of being behind the lead dog. He wants to be the lead dog.”
Meanwhile, Jeff has always been referred to as a “big teddy bear” so his natural fit comes on the sales side.
“He’s got a very outgoing personality,” Jay explained. “Jeff heads up all of our sales in all of our hospitals. He’s responsible for making the contacts, finding out what their wants and needs are, getting with administrators and CFOs and seeing what we can do for them. The healthcare industry is a long courtship.”
One of Jay’s strengths lies on the drycleaning side, which he grew up around. He also handles a fair amount of financial matters, including negotiating real estate and handling leases.
The three boys have been competitive since they were young, but they use that drive as a balancing force for the company. Ultimately, no major business decisions can move forward unless all three are in agreement.
“Even though we have our differences, we sit down and reconcile,” Jay said. “Everybody is an equal shareholder and everybody’s got an equal say-so.”
Whether dealing with a claim, a garment pricing question, or a contract bid for a hospital, Handcraft’s principles remain the same: hard work, honesty and quality.
“Persistence is the key factor. Doing it right and being honest with people,” Jay said. “We’re not in it for the quick fix. We’ve been at it a long, long time. If you ask people have they ever heard of Handcraft Cleaners, everybody in this town has heard of us and I hear the same thing every time: ‘Oh, they’re a great cleaner, but they’re very expensive.’ Consequently, we get a lot of difficult items.”
They do over 850 wedding gowns a year thanks to that reputation. While people associate the word “expensive” with Handcraft, it does not stop them from coming through the doors.
“We spend a lot of money in how we present ourselves. We spend a lot of money on our facilities,” Jay said. “When you walk into our healthcare facilities, it’s very, very clean because we feel that healthcare should be clean. When you walk into the front counters of my stores, I’ve got chandeliers hanging in the front. I’ve got marble on my front counters. Everything is carpeted. There are no bugs in the windows. There’s no neon. A lot of people say, ‘Gosh, I’ve been in hotels that weren’t this nice.’”
Last year, the Nicholses were honored with the 2011 Virginia Small Business Persons of the Year Award, coming first out of 38 nominees. They were also up against the winners in the other 49 states for the national award, but came up just shy. Still, it was a positive indication that they were doing things right.
“We hope we’re good shepherds for the industry. We try to be,” Jay said. “We work hard at what we do and we believe in our industry. It’s not a get rich quick scheme. It’s a hard industry. This industry has been through a lot of tough cycles, but it’s pretty resilient.”
However, those looking forward to the resuscitation of the economy should probably keep in mind that the industry has always had its ups and downs.
“There’s going to be some fallout,” Jay added. “There always is, but the strong will get stronger. They’ll figure it out and move on. Who knows what the next dilemma will be? I promise you, there will be another one right behind this one. Always is.”
With the third generation of the Nichols family recently joining the business (Jay’s son Curtis), the three brothers aim to keep growing the business instead of worrying about what troubles lie ahead. Currently, they have designs on expanding to Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, but are waiting for the right time.
However, there will be a much more immediate expansion since the Nichols secured another 146,000-sq.-ft. building where they will be moving their garment division, suggesting that maybe the brothers are crafting an even stronger legacy for their father, who passed away in 2006.
“My dad was the inspiration in all of this,” Jay emphasized. “We tell our kids all the time, if it wasn’t for this man, you wouldn’t be living the way you’re living, going to the schools that you went to. It was because of his determination and what he instilled in us and that we can instill in you.”