When some people find themselves caught in the throes of a midlife crisis, they often try to offset their malaise by purchasing a new sports car or wardrobe. Eldridge Cannon did something a little more unusual: he bought a drycleaning plant in St. Simon’s Island, GA.
Prior to that, Eldridge had grown quite comfortable being up in the air, literally, after working for about two decades as an airplane mechanic and pilot.
He spent most of that aviation career — about 16 years — as a corporate pilot for Kershaw Manufacturing out of Montgomery, AL.
“I just loved it. I enjoyed everything I did,” he recalled. “My wife used to say, ‘I have to go to work, but you get to go to work.’”
However, if gravity has taught us anything, what goes up must come down. Unfortunately, Eldridge suddenly found himself plummeting back down to Earth.
“My career ended with a company layoff,” he said. “That’s what I call my midlife crisis. I was 40 years old. I was without a job.”
His entire future was up in the air and this time it wasn’t a good feeling. For the next several months, in between the occasional paying opportunity to fly, Eldridge decided it was time to go back to his roots.
“My father started a drycleaning business in 1956 and all of us kids worked in the business,” he explained.
Before the elder William Eldridge Cannon started Cannon’s Cleaners in Bainbridge, GA, he had worked many years for another cleaner, first delivering clothes on a bicycle and eventually with a truck.
“He wanted to be in business for himself. I think he was in his mid-twenties,” he said. “By being on the routes, he knew all of the people in town and he got a lot of support from them.”
The oldest of five siblings, Eldridge had toiled away plenty in his father’s “hot box” plant, but he always dreamed of being in the sky instead. During high school, he even saved up enough money to pay for an airplane ride. From that point on, he was hooked.
He first attempted to obtain his pilot’s license during high school, but couldn’t continue when his instructor fell ill. However, after graduation, he attended the Alabama Aviation Technical College in Ozark where he earned both a mechanic’s and pilot’s license by the age of 19.
“As far as I know, I still hold the lowest time that it took to get a solo. I soloed in like 6.4 hours,” he laughed. “It usually takes anywhere from 8 to 10 flight hours to get your first solo. I felt like I had a natural flying ability.”
His passion for aviation was clear for anyone to see. After working only two months at his first job as a plane mechanic, he quickly stood out.
“When I would work on an airplane, I would put my tools down on my cart just like they were surgical instruments,” he noted. “I did everything very neatly, very orderly, very thoroughly. There were two pilots who saw that I was a little bit different from the other mechanics, that I took pride in what I was doing. They hired me to become their private mechanic.”
By the time Eldridge was 23, he earned the position of operations manager for Epps Aircraft in Montgomery. He attributes his early success to a simple formula.
“It was because I was dependable. I was committed and the main thing is I always did what I said I was going to,” he pointed out.
That dedication eventually earned him the job at Kershaw as a corporate pilot while he was only in his mid-twenties. Most other corporate pilots were in their forties or fifties.
“At that point in time back in the late 1970s, the hot deal was to have a pilot who was also a mechanic because he could oversee the maintenance,” Eldridge noted. “I became the copilot on a Cessna Citation Jet down in Troy, AL. I flew all over the United States and Canada and Mexico.
It was a fun and satisfying job, to be sure, but it was not without its tense moments. Though Eldridge could oversee the maintenance of the aircraft and its instruments, he could not exercise control of the weather. Thus, he has a few interesting stories.
“The scariest of all was when we had a King Air 200, a large TurboProp airplane. We left out of Montgomery one day and it was raining,” he recalled. “As we passed through at about 28,000 feet, the controls froze. We couldn’t move them. I actually put my knees up on the yoke and was trying to push forward.”
The original intent was to climb to about 32,000 feet, but to start leveling off at 28,000. The frozen controls prevented Eldridge and his copilot from doing just that, so the plane continued to climb with no end in sight.
“So, imagine this. If you pull the power off, you’re going to stall out because you do not have enough forward air speed,” he added. “We managed to come up with a combination of a little bit of power reduction to where we stopped the altitude climb. It was a very slow, gradual descent, like 500 feet a minute. We declared an emergency. We were all terrified.”
As they approached the nearest landing location, fire trucks were already lined up on the runway waiting for them. Because they were descending at such a slow rate, they had to circle the field a few times to make it even possible to land.
Finally, the controls recovered and the plane landed safely. When Eldridge opened up the plane’s panel to investigate the problem, he discovered that a chunk of ice “about the size of a big watermelon” had frozen around some cables. A manufacturer’s defect (since corrected) was the culprit.
“Some rivet pieces had gotten in there and were lodged in there,” he explained. “From sitting outside, it had accumulated water from all the rain. When we climbed out, it was in the winter time and it froze around the cables. The freezing level was about 14,000 feet, so it started melting once we got below that.”
Having grace under pressure was a necessity as a pilot, but it was also a skill that translated well when Eldridge attempted to wipe out his midlife crisis by buying the drycleaning business (now known as Cannon’s Coastal Cleaners) back in 1993. In the early days, he needed all of that fearlessness to succeed with the venture.
“Originally, it was a very small location in a shopping center, 20' wide by 100' long, including the boiler room,” he said. “There were five employees. Two weeks later, there were no employees. They all walked out. It was something about my rules of no smoking at the presses, picking up at the front counter, you can’t do all of your own clothes here, you can’t steal from me… you can’t do all of that.”
To keep it going, the plant was operated by Eldridge, his wife Bobbie, and his three children, Jonathan, Michael and Melissa.
“They were 8, 10 and 12 at the time and we were down there to midnight so many nights,” he recalled. “I didn’t even remember what day of the week it was, but we had tremendous support from the community.”
In January of 2000, Eldridge relocated the plant to Brunswick requiring 6,000 square feet to operate.
Nowadays, Cannon’s Coastal Cleaners has one main plant, three drop stores and two delivery routes. He also likes to equip locations with drive-thrus to maximize customer convenience.
“Eighty to eighty-five percent of our business is through that drive-thru. It’s a real pay-off,” he emphasized.
The best advice he can give other cleaners, however, is to never stop putting money back into the business. It’s something that he learned from his father and he has passed down to his two sons who now work with him.
“I feel like we invested our business into success. We study and analyze our business. We keep a pulse on our business. We know what the production numbers are. We know what the financial numbers are. We utilize all avenues of savings that we can,” he said. “By investing in new technology and working it efficiently, we can turn out a better product at a fair price.”
It’s certainly much easier to keep a pulse on your business if you have a passion for it. The Cannons certainly do.
“We love our business,” he said. “You’ve got to fall in love with your business to make it work.”
While he may not love drycleaning quite as much as he loves aviation, the former has certainly paved the way for him to afford pursuing the latter.
“Today we own two airplanes and we use them for business and pleasure,” he said. “I have a twin engine in Brunswick and my son flies a single engine Cherokee 6 in Huntsville. We use these airplanes to pick up equipment parts. We transport maintenance people. It keeps things down to a minimum of downtime.”
The planes are an efficient means for traveling from plant to plant, or to industry events like the Clean Show or SEFA board meetings. Eldridge still puts in about 100 hours of flight time a year, often in an effort to try to make the business better by traveling to visit other drycleaning operations.
“Listen and soak up all the information you can from people who know what they’re talking about,” he recommended. “Look at their success record. No one knows it all. I know that I don’t know it all.”