In Ohio, one drycleaning company is not quite older than dirt, but it has been around for 132 years and has spent all of that time fighting to remove any and all dirt from a variety of fabrics. D.O. Summers Cleaners, named after its founder Donald Oliver Summers, first opened its doors in downtown Cleveland in 1881.
From a historical perspective, that was the same year that the Barnum and Bailey Circus first debuted, President Garfield was shot (and subsequently died from the wound eleven weeks later) and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were involved in a certain infamous gunfight at the O.K. Coral in Tombstone, Arizona.
Originally, the company utilized a horse-driven delivery carriage and dyed clothes for customers, both common practices at the time. The business adapted and expanded over the years and, in the late 1930s, it was purchased by Abraham Goldberg.
That lineage has lasted almost 75 years. After Abraham’s turn at the helm, two more generations have followed, including Brett’s father, Jerry. He was the youngest in the family by 13 years, but did not know his parents long, losing them both when he was just 12 years old.
“So, he was raised by his sister,” Brett noted. “At the time he was being raised by his sister, she and her husband had another brother that ran the business. Then, over the years, he bought them out.”
By the 1950s, the company reached an all-time high of 61 outlets: 54 stores and seven routes. It was around that time that D.O. Summers made a major move to self-contained package plants.
The change meant purchasing a lot more cleaning equipment, but it also meant more on-premises control of the final product. Although, to be fair, D.O. Summers has never had a problem with achieving high-end quality.
In 1913, the company charged $1.45 to clean a suit. That cost increased to $4 in the 1960s. Today, they charge $16 each. The company also promises to have clothes that are in by 11 a.m. ready by 5 p.m. on the same day.
“You want to exceed people’s expectations,” Brett said. “That’s why if it’s not ready at five o’clock, it’s free.”
One reason D.O. Summers has remained successful is that the company finds a way to remain relevant, willing to change its strategies whenever it makes sense to do so.
“In the 1960s, they got rid of routes and went to package plants,” Dustin explained. “That was their thought at the time, which is kind of the opposite of what we are doing now. But in the early 1970s, they got to about 40 stores, half of which were plants, half of which were regular stores.”
The company currently has nine self-contained plants and has returned to offering pickup and delivery routes once again.
“Lately, we’ve been focusing on the core of what makes us strong, which is convenience and quality,” Dustin said.
That tradition stems from when Brett first began guiding the company. He deliberately has tried to steer the business towards making things easier for the customer.
“It was about 25 years ago, in the early 1990s, when we started drive-thrus, and two years ago we went to car hops,” he noted. “We’ve had 24-hour drop boxes for about ten years.”
Convenience does not just mean saving customers time while dropping off and picking up orders. It also means taking care of problems quickly.
“We are always trying to take care of claims and handle things in the most appropriate and timely fashion,” Dustin said. “We build a relationship with the customer.”
Sometimes that begins with a trustworthy gesture, like the time about a quarter of a century ago when a customer left an extremely large amount of cash in the pocket of the clothes that he had dropped off for drycleaning.
“We found the money and called the customer. We said we were going to put it in the safe for the weekend,” Brett recalled. “On Monday morning, he came in, got his $9,500 and thanked us.”
From the standpoint of a business owner, Brett attributes one shrewd strategy in particular to D.O. Summer’s ability to sustain itself for so long.
“The biggest thing we do now is we own most of our own real estate,” he noted. “We try to buy very high end, very visible real estate.”
Real estate has been a good investment for the Goldbergs, but they also have another common and profitable interest: cars.
“About ten years ago, we started a car wash chain. It’s called Wheely Clean,” Brett said. “We all really loved cars and wanted to do something with cars.”
The three men also tried their hand at a Porsche/Audi dealership, but it never panned out. Instead, they stuck with what they knew best — cleaning.
Wheely Clean has expanded to include four locations in Ohio, each equipped with tunnel washers. Unmanned cars are conveyor-driven through the washing process and then towel dried.
“What’s interesting is it plays off the drycleaning business because it picks up in the winter. It’s weather-driven,” Brett explained. “We probably need to put on five times as many employees when Thanksgiving Day hits than what we carry in the summer. In drycleaning, we get busier in the spring more than the fall and winter.”
Whether in a slow or busy season, the Goldbergs have long understood that technology plays a vital role in their business.
In the 1990s, they began consciously implementing greener practices and cutting out the use of perc. First they switched to DF-2000 and more recently transitioned to GreenEarth.
“We stay up to date with the latest and greatest equipment,” Brett said. “We use a processed water for our laundry side… purified water. We try to be as environmentally great as we can.”
“We are also big believers in keeping up with the times with the machinery,” Dustin noted. “We continue to reinvest in our machinery and our plant designs for efficiency sake and for quality sake, as well.”
While Brett admits that today’s alternatives are not quite up to par as the old days of using perc with moisture control and Stoddard solvent, he does feel confident that switching was the right thing to do. At least one segment of his customers agree.
“I think several want you to be as environmentally conscious as possible,” he explained. “I think there are some who want you to be as efficient as possible with utilities when it comes to water and stuff like that… using soaps and having no waste. We do not use soap in our drycleaning process. We have figured out a way to do it where we are not creating any more waste than we have been.”
Such a hands-on approach is not uncommon for the Goldbergs; all three men prefer to spend time overseeing locations firsthand rather that spending all day secluded in an office.
Of course, in a family business there is always a danger of spending too much time focusing on work, even in the off hours. Brett, Dustin and Drew try not to make that mistake.
“We’re a close family and we see each other as much as possible,” Dustin said. “When it comes time for dinner or other activities, we try to leave our mind-sets company-wise at work and click into family mode.”
When they are not locked in family mode, the Goldbergs have always subscribed to a simple philosophy that helps keep their customers and employees happy.
“Don’t ask anybody to do what you wouldn’t do yourself,” Brett said.
With that attitude, it seems entirely possible that the Goldbergs will be able to continue the family legacy as long as possible. Their motivation is quite simple: Dustin, Drew and Brett all feel it is important for them to honor those in the family who came before.
A good illustration of this occurred about four years ago when D.O. Summers was chosen as the Plant Design Awards Grand Prize winner from American Drycleaner.
The difficult building process took over four years altogether including a lot of negotiating with developers, operators, contractors and distributors, but, in the end, it was worth it. Brett dedicated the award to his father.
“It was right around the time he was pretty close to passing away,” Brett said.
The Goldbergs feel a lot of pride in keeping with a 13-decade tradition and they are determined to plow ahead through the inevitable ups and downs, especially during recent tough times. In the past few years, the Goldbergs have noticed an odd new trend that has had a negative effect: a statewide smoking ban passed in 2006.
“We saw a significant decrease in sales when they banned smoking in bars and restaurants,” Brett recalled. “Before that, when you walked into a bar, you almost always had to take your clothes to a cleaner after.”
“I think smoking only has accounted for a couple of percentage points of sales, at most,” Dustin added. “But, shortly after that, the economy took a crunch. Fortunately, we’ve always relied on our standards. That always helps us.”