What’s important
National Clothesline
National Clothesline
As president of MW Cleaners, a large drycleaning chain that employs several hundreds of people at over 40
locations in Houston and Austin, Mike Nesbit knows it is important to focus on the big picture.
The company, which is a subdivision of the clothes retailer Men’s Wearhouse, processes about six million
garments annually at a 24,000-sq.-ft. facility along with nine package plants.
Yet, Nesbit’s overall business philosophy hasn’t changed much from when he was 21 and attempted to start his
own drycleaning plant on a much smaller scale.
He still had a lot to learn when he and a partner opened up Nesbit’s Cleaners in 1976, but he was sure of one
thing: the first rule of business
should be to put the business
“We were good stewards in
taking care of the business…
keeping our debt down and
using the cash flow that the
business was generating to grow
the business,” he recalled.
“There was a lot of equity in the
Too often he sees many small
business owners fail to ascribe
to that same discipline and he
believes it costs them heavily in
the long run.
“What particularly happens in small business is we rob the business so we can live a better lifestyle rather than
taking care of the business and making it grow and getting the better lifestyle at a later date. So, we want that
instant gratification. Instead of spending money on marketing, we reduce our marketing budget so we can have a
better car or a bigger house,” he explained. “What I see when I’m looking at the industry is that people don’t take
care of their business so I don’t see how they can expect the business will take care of them.”
Even at a young age, Mike was capable of lofty vision. He started a parking lot cleaning service when he was
only 16.
By the time he was a high school senior, he managed a group of people after school to clean 200 properties in
Later, while attending college, he was called back home to help his mother at the family plant after his
stepfather suffered a heart attack. He loved the industry and decided to use $30,000 he had saved from the
property cleaning business to invest in a Martinizing plant. It eventually became Nesbit’s Cleaners.
It wasn’t enough, so they put him in contact with a shrewd financial wizard named Ed Ellis to help with the
investment and the two formed a partnership that would last over 25 years.
Mike still recalls when he attended his first drycleaning convention. Essentially, he had a blank check to buy all
of the equipment he needed, but there was a problem.
“I’ll never forget, nobody wanted to speak to me. I couldn’t have been 21 years old. They did not take me
seriously at all,” he said.
Eventually, he purchased equipment and the business took off immediately thanks to a prime location. Nesbit’s
Cleaners was cash-flow positive within three months, so the two partners decided to keep pumping profits back
into improving the business and reducing debt.
By 2003, the company had grown to include 22 locations with three pickup and delivery routes. At the time,
Men’s Wearhouse was looking for a good cleaners in the Houston market to purchase and they approached Mike
several times. He declined each offer.
“I could not separate the emotional part of the decision from the business side of the decision,” he said.
After expanding Nesbit’s Cleaners for the better part of three decades, Mike wasn’t ready to sell. It was his life’s
work. His attitude changed, though, during a trip to Las Vegas. He went to meet a future business partner while
his wife, Sheri, who had never really gambled before, played $10 in a slot machine. By the time Mike returned,
she had won $80.
“She hit the cash out button. I looked at her and said, ‘Why did you do that?’ She said, ‘Because I didn’t want
to lose what I made.’ Those words about knocked me off my feet,” he recalled.
Not long after, he sold his business to Men’s Wearhouse and took the position as president of the MW Cleaners
“I really looked at it and thought, ‘What a great opportunity to be able to cash in on that equity value that we
had worked so hard for.’ I didn’t live in the big house and drive the Mercedes Benz, but the company’s value was
there and here was a way to extract that value out of the company,” he said.
Since the decision, Mike has no regrets. Last year, Men’s Wearhouse was ranked #50 in the Fortune “100 Best
Companies to Work For” list and he now has plenty of monetary and intellectual resources at his disposal.
After all, he works for a company that now makes, sells and cleans garments in synergistic fashion and is
estimated to be responsible for about 70 percent of tuxedo rentals in the country, all of which need drycleaning.
With so many locations and employees, it can be daunting to keep track of the big picture. Mike does that by
paying attention to the little details.
“I think this business is all about execution,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of new ideas in the
marketplace. I think it’s about block-and-tackling every day. It’s staying on top of what your business is doing.”
According to Mike, the key to staying on top of company-wide consistency is an incentivized metrics system.
“I think the reason we’ve had the success that we’ve had is that we measure everything and we tie up all of our
compensation packages from those measurement systems. Everybody in MW Cleaners is on some sort of bonus
plan,” he said.
“In production, we track efficiency and quality. On the front end of business, we track sales and claims and
customer service. We actually have a customer service auditing system in our facilities. We use video and audio
to look at the customers’ experience inside our store. Our people are responsible for looking at those videos
themselves. Think about it as a self-evaluation tool on a weekly basis, and the management oversees them
grading themselves.”
Under Mike’s leadership, MW Cleaners has been able to differentiate itself from competition. The company is
often touted for its environmental efforts, from recycling a million hangers annually to utilizing GreenEarth
cleaning technology.
It’s also known for making extra efforts to be convenient to customers, having 22 delivery routes in Houston
and drive-thrus at the majority of its locations.
“I think when consumers are making a choice why they want to do business with a company, first and foremost
it’s convenience. Then, I think it’s the service on the front end of the business,” he explained. “I’m a firm believer
that how the customer service is on the front end of business overcomes some of the pain we create on the back
side of the business.”
One way the chain is trying to improve customer service is by offering its clientele something that it can’t get
anywhere else. About two years ago, it started a rewards program. In it, customers who have had the same shirt
cleaned 20 times with them are given a $50 credit at Men’s Wearhouse so they can buy a new shirt.
“It’s been a really big deal,” Mike said, estimating that MW Cleaners has handed out thousands of credits so far.
“When we first started, we actually went back retroactively. Think about it, you start a program and if you start it
from the beginning, it’s going to take your customers 20 times, which could take them two years or more to get
something cleaned that many times. I wanted to do something with instant gratification.”
In terms of his personal business philosophy, Mike still believes in putting off short-term gratification for long-
term business success, but he is also an advocate for putting the community needs up front, as well.
MW Cleaners supports dozens of charities ranging from Dress for Success to the Salvation Army. More recently,
the company partnered with Undies for Everyone which seeks to provide economically disadvantaged school kids
in Houston with the basic need of having new underwear throughout the year.
Perhaps the cause that is closest to Mike’s own heart is Hearts for Honduras. It started as a church outreach to
help people of the Honduras in Central America become healthier with cleaner water and better medical, dental
and vision care.
The church has also expanded its efforts to Africa where Mike has traveled five times in recent years for various
vision clinics.
“We actually hire eye doctors in Kenya from the Kenyan government who works with us. We supply all of the
costs, all of the medicine, all of the glasses,” he noted.
In terms of philanthropic enterprises, it’s certainly the one that Mike feels the most passion about.
“What I learned is that you go over there with a concept of helping others when the reality is just the opposite.
You end up helping yourself because it gives you the ability to reflect, to understand what is important,” he said.
“At the end of the day, the drycleaning business isn’t important. Whether somebody eats or not is important
and whether or not they’ve got clean water to drink. Having the ability to see to be able to thread a needle so
they can sew their clothes that’s falling off back together. That’s important.”