As the owner of Lansing Cleaners in Indiana and Illinois, Tom Ustanik didn’t start off implementing environmentally friendly practices to save the Earth. He did it to save money.
It started decades ago with advice from his uncle who explained that losing energy is the equivalent of losing profits. Thus, Tom began insulating various pipes and equipment and immediately noticed a smaller electric bill. From that point on, he began searching for the next way to be greener — both environmentally and economically.
Over the years, Lansing Cleaners has caught the attention of the public for those efforts. The company has earned 4 1⁄2 stars on the Green Cleaners Council and won three Governor’s Pollution Prevention Awards. It also was granted the EPA’s National Environment Performance Track Award and is a two-time winner of the Illinois State Drycleaner of the Year Award.
“It’s not like one individual thing is saving you a whole lot of money. Collectively it is and that whole collective gives you a nice halo, too. It makes you into the good guy. All you have to do is show it,” Tom said. “And, the more things you do, the more that halo grows.”
These days, that halo is not the only thing growing brighter; once everything was insulated properly throughout his business, he turned to improving other things, including lighting.
It started in the 1980s when he upgraded from T12 lighting with magnetic ballasts to T8 lighting with electronic ballasts, immediately cutting energy use by 40 percent.
Then, in an effort to make sure fixtures reflected light downward (instead of pointed back at the ceiling), Tom started designing his own lighting that lasted longer and was more efficient. More recently, he stepped his efforts up a notch when LED lighting improved greatly.
“We converted quite a bit,” he said. “Last year we had a pretty good bounce. The difference in electrical energy over the course of the year — even though we did more dollar volume — we cut almost $9,600 off of our electric bill. Now, I buy the lamps in quantities of 30 so that gives me a price break. We pay $22 a piece, so you realize how many lamps that purchases. We are actually getting payback on these in about 11 months.”
Long before he saw the more energy efficient light, Tom grew up in Lansing and spent the first three years of his life learning the ropes of business from his parents who ran a Dairy Queen franchise.
“I was up in the front with them, first in the playpen, then eventually on a hobby horse entertaining the guests. I was into marketing all that time,” he laughed. “Those child labor laws just don’t kick in for family.”
His parents didn’t stay with the Dairy Queen too long; Tom’s father moved on to a maintenance job for the Northern Indiana Public Services Company. Growing up, Tom was taught a variety of disciplines ranging from refrigeration to equipment repair to plumbing and wiring.
He also gained experience working part-time in a clothing store and in an installation position with an alarm company where Lansing Cleaners, a business started by Frank McNary in 1946, was one of his local accounts.
After fixing their alarm one day, he stuck around to fix equipment around the plant on his own time.
Clearly, he did an excellent job. Not only did Tom come aboard full-time with the company in the early 1980s, he also married Frank’s daughter, Sandy.
Under the guidance of Tom and Sandy, Lansing Cleaners has always found a way to successfully differentiate itself from the competition. During Tom’s early years with the business, restoration quickly became a saving grace.
“Restoration work is definitely the largest part of our business,” Tom noted. “It’s still drycleaning, but it’s unique in that each situation is so different. A lot of times, it becomes personal.”
Other times, it can become downright strange. One particularly memorable job came on the heels of the Chicago flood of 1992.
“A semi truck pulled up and they started dropping these pallet boxes off. We had four-and-a-half tons of Maidenform slippers and four tons of socks,” he said. “We didn’t clean them. We just had to dry them.”
Lansing Cleaners was given instructions to dry and pack everything up into boxes and stack them five high precisely in position and shrink wrap everything.
“They were shipped to South America,” Tom said. “It was the most bizarre thing we ever did.”
To this day, he laughs when he sees Maidenform slippers in a store. Of course, most restoration jobs are anything but a laughing matter. At times, the job can be emotionally challenging.
Once, after a devastating house fire, Tom toured the wreckage with the family who owned it. As he explained why some items could not be cleaned, the mother of the household suddenly stopped responding.
“We walked up to the nursery and she was just looking into it,” he said. “We called the paramedics and they took her to the hospital. She had basically went into shock right there.”
The thought of almost losing her child was too much to take. Fortunately, she recovered after a week, but the family never moved back in, even after the house was rebuilt.
Being there for customers is a part of the job Tom takes seriously, as is finding ways to be more responsible. In his quest to be a more earth-friendly cleaner, Tom has visited other industry trade shows for ideas. Oftentimes, exhibitors are perplexed at seeing a drycleaner show interest in conserving energy or reducing their carbon footprint.
“As far as many of them are concerned, we [drycleaners] beat clothes with rocks. Of course, we use free-range, low-sodium, low-fat rocks,” he quipped.
Perhaps one of the most impressive earth-friendly initiatives that Lansing Cleaners incorporates is that they run nine delivery vehicles powered by compressed natural gas (CNG). Tom has been using the technology since 1993 and still saves money with it today. The average cost of CNG per gallon is about $2.09, considerably cheaper than petroleum prices.
On the other hand, stations are still harder to find. While there are at least 120,000 filling stations that provide gas or diesel, there are only a little over 1,000 CNG stations in the country. However, those numbers are growing.
“In the continental U.S., by the end of June, there will not be a single state that does not have at least one refuel pump,” he said. “Five years ago, 18 states had no CNG at all.”
Convenient or not, there is no doubt in Tom’s mind that he’s made the sound choice. When a filling compressor was offline for over 50 days, he had his biofuel trucks run on gasoline until repairs could be completed. For a full month the trucks ran on gasoline and the overall bill was $9,600, a difference of over $5,000 from the typical $3,800 to $4,100 CNG bill.
In order to save even more money, Tom is now in the process of setting up his own compressor on site to fill up the vehicles overnight. Initially, it’s an expensive option and not one he recommends for those with only a few CNG delivery vehicles, but he believes it will pay off in the long run. He estimates the cost to run and maintain it will be about $1.09 a gallon.
Lansing Cleaner’s list of earth-friendly practices grows each year. The company was not simply content to switch to hydrocarbon and carbon dioxide cleaning, they also continued to insulate everywhere as well as implement heat recovery methods and install timers on equipment to cut back on wasted energy.
It actually takes a lot of energy to save so much energy, but as Tom sees it, every change is a permanent benefit.
“That’s savings I no longer have to think about because it’s going to do it by itself. Now, you move on to something else,” he said.
In addition to helping his company win awards and save money, all of the efforts to be greener have been an excellent source of advertising to help his business stand out.
“To advertise yourself, you’re saying you’re better than other people. I’m different, which means the other guys aren’t,” he explained.
Instead of attacking other cleaners, Tom prefers to promote the positive aspects of his own business. After all, consumers respond well to legitimately green businesses, at least according to the results of an annual survey from Cone Communications that measures consumer interest in companies’ environmental claims.
In 2012, 80 percent of those polled believed companies are not addressing all of their environmental impacts and 77 percent would boycott a company if it was discovered they made misleading claims of being green.
If Tom has anything to say about it, no customer will ever believe Lansing Cleaners’ environmental claims are either misleading or insufficient.
On top of that, he will continue searching for ways to make the halo shine brighter.
“Once we started, we then progressed because… we saw how much it worked. We saw how much we saved,” he said. “After a while, you are no longer just trying to save the money. It happens just by chance and it creeps up on you. You become a... [gasp] conservationist!”