In traditional westerns, the good guys are usually easy to tell from the bad
ones: after all, the heroes always seem
to be the ones donning the white cowboy hats.
A white hat is a powerful image with a recognizably positive connotation for the
public at large, which is precisely
why Yale Cleaners decided to start using one as its brand logo near the start of the 1980s.
At the time, Bill Rothrock had recently left a career as a chemical engineer to
help his father-in-law James
Stevenson run his drycleaning plant. Stevenson soon asked a friend of his to
change the image of the company and
build it around Bill.
“She told me that, whenever I
was in public, she wanted me to
wear a suit and never wear boots.
She wanted me to wear dress
shoes and she wanted me to wear
a white hat as often as I could
wear it,” Bill recalled. “She wanted
to tout me as important, and that
I wear a white hat and I’m
dressed up in dress clothes
because we’re wanting to do dress
clothes. We weren’t going after
the cowboy market; we were
going after the dress market.”
At first, however, he usually
only had the hat on his possession while he filmed TV commercials for the
company where he often noted that Yale
Cleaners were the guys with the white hats, never adding the word “good” because, inevitably, it was automatically
inferred by the audience.
“Then one night we were invited to the Miss Oklahoma pageant,” he recalled. “My wife and I dressed up to go and
I decided I would wear the white hat. The lobby was kind of full up and I walked
in with Judy on my arm and the
white hat on my head. All of a sudden, there was a hush and every eye in that
lobby turned to me. Right then, I
knew how important and powerful the white hat was.”
Long before Yale Cleaners was known as the place with the guys in the white
hats, it was founded in 1944 by a
school administrator named James Hodges. The original location was at 11th and
Yale, hence the name. When
Hodges retired, he sold the business to Stevenson and his brother-in-law Barney
“These guys were young and were going to take over Tulsa,” Bill said.
The pair owned the business for 20 years and were quite successful with a model
that included a central plant and
various dry stores. Looking back, Bill believes their biggest mistake was not
thinking quite big enough.
When he joined the company, he brought along a unique skill set: the mental
acuity of a chemical engineer
combined with the trade experience that comes from being the son of a welder and
Stevenson and Rothrock made a good team. It wasn’t long before they changed the direction of the company
drastically. They began the process of dropping the drop store philosophy and
putting together smaller, self-
contained locations that could handle all of the production on-site. The switch
would give them more quality control
and same-day turnaround time.
“We polished our company. We didn’t just do it all over night. We did it like Johnny Cash did… one piece at a
time,” Bill explained.
One impetus for the business model change was to force the company and its
employees to have a greater degree
of accountability and to reduce the attitude that problems are always “somebody else’s fault.”
“That makes the customer lose confidence in you as a company,” he added. “The problem is you cannot press
anyone in a corner on liability or why something is not happening right that the
customer expects. If you put a plant
behind them and they have a spotting board and a press, they can actually do
something for a customer right now.
That’s what impresses the customer.”
The 1980s may historically be remembered as the “me” decade, but Yale Cleaners spent that time asking what
else it could do for its customers so it could refine its blueprint for success.
Technology was upgraded and production systems were improved. Efficiency was the
key, as well as cutting down
One mistake they didn’t repeat was not thinking big enough. They allowed room to grow, according to
Rothrock, Bill’s youngest son and the company’s vice president.
“We designed each plant, when it’s staffed appropriately and in the right market, to comfortably produce between
900 and 1,300 pieces a day,” he noted. “If you have it staffed right, we can really get out 1,600 or 1,700 pieces a
day if the market really demanded it.”
To increase customer convenience, Yale implemented carhop service, though that
was a learning process in the
“We didn’t wrap it around the building, so we only had room for about four or five cars
to line up and then they’d
be stacked out on a busy road,” Bill recalled. “So, we learned really quickly: man, we’ve got to move them. It
became obvious to me that we needed to have two lanes for drop off and pickup.”
Through all the changes and the growing recognition of the white hat brand, the
company set the stage for a
cookie cutter model that would start in the early 1990s and eventually include
12 locations staffed by about 150
Prior to the mid-1980s, Yale Cleaners, as well as any other drycleaner in the
state for that matter, was severely
limited to how it could go about marketing its services thanks to the Oklahoma
Dry Cleaning Act of 1945.
“It came about before I was born,” noted Bill. “Part of the law was that you could not advertise price. They would
not allow it. Once you established price, you could not discount. You couldn’t even put up prices in the window. My
father-in-law will tell you that he thinks it held back drycleaning in Oklahoma.”
Stevenson did not like it and he was not content to accept it, either. He, along
with other determined drycleaners,
fought the law in the halls of the Capitol building for a year-and-a-half and,
for once, the law didn’t win. It was off
the books as of the early 1980s.
Yale Cleaners took full advantage of its newfound freedom. The company believes
it introduced the first
drycleaning coupon in the state in 1984 and that changed everything. Yale
Cleaners gladly advertised its prices and
occasionally offered a variety of coupons including an insanely popular $10 off
any order of $22 or more.
“We used that one for years and years and I quit using it,” Bill explained. “I couldn’t go to church. I couldn’t go to
Rotary. I couldn’t go anywhere without getting mobbed about it. People would say: ‘Why did you quit using the $10
off $22’s? That’s the one I want!’”
Ever an engineer and a pioneer, Bill began adding bar codes to his coupons in
the late 1980s to track their
“You want to use all available weapons, but not favor any one weapon,” he said.
He also calibrated all of his equipment in an effort to make production easier,
faster and better.
“It makes the training of new people really short. You don’t have to worry about safety,” Bill added.
More recently, Yale Cleaners has found another way to stay at the forefront of
“We have our own app. We’ve had it for a year-and-a-half now,” he said.
So far, over 11,000 iPhone apps and 2,500 Android apps have been downloaded and
90 percent of those are
currently active. The app informs customers when their orders are ready and how
much it’ll cost. It also offers all
current paperless coupons and a “My Closet” feature customers love.
“You can go in and see every garment that we have ever bar coded for your
telephone number, the original date
we bar coded it and we have a list of every time that you’ve had it in,” Bill explained.
While staying current in technological developments, Yale Cleaners also emanates
a feeling of homespun charm to
remind its clientele that they are still a family-owned plant at heart. The
third generation of the company currently
consists of all five of Bill’s children: John, Curtis, Jim, Kathryn and Bill Rothrock III.
“Every child I have knows how to press on any press in the building. They can do
every job from the front to the
back,” Bill emphasized.
Part of that down-home charisma comes through in Yale’s commercials and videos. Recently, the company came
up with a way to offset the slow weeks of 4th of July and Thanksgiving when days
off for the holiday typically hurt
production volume and lead to a lot of unclaimed clothes taking up precious
Yale Cleaners offers a two-day half-off sale during those times for customers
who pick up and pay for their clothes
on the designated days.
“The results of that were huge days, both mark in and sell out,” Bill said.
Making the promotion videos more fun, employees gobbled like a turkey on camera
last year and one offered the
use of her dog, Sandy, for the Dog Days of Summer spots. The canine can perform
about 50 tricks, including
“driving” a homemade tricked-out car.
“It was so successful the first year we had to call Sandy in for some additional
bark-up,” Bill deadpanned.
The efforts have definitely helped Yale Cleaners form a strong bond with
customers and such larger-than-life
antics are not anything Bill himself wouldn’t do. “If you want to stand out in a crowd, go get yourself a white Stetson
cowboy hat and you’ll see what it will do for you,” he laughed.