National Clothesline
100 years later, the dream lives
A century ago, it began as the fledgling dream of a Polish immigrant named Joseph Gershon.
With exceptional needle-and-thread skills, the young man patched together a small, humble
business named
Arrow Fabricare Services in Kansas City. The name was suggested by a
cousin, who was a haberdasher, borrowing from the name of the popular shirt maker.
It has been a staple of the city ever since.
The cleaning company, currently overseen by third-generation owner Bruce Gershon,
employees 80 people on its staff and divides its resources between two buildings totaling over
48,000 square feet. Such growth did not come easy, nor did it happen overnight.
After working hard and gathering a loyal following of customers in the 1920s and 1930s, Joe
Gershon was joined by his sons, Melvin and Bob, who helped propel Arrow upwards for
decades to come.
“My uncle Mel actually
invented two things in the
time he was here in this
plant,” Bruce explained.
“One of those things was
the foam press pad, which
is still used by many
drycleaners even today,
and after a 17-year run
with the patent, Qualitex
bought it out.
“The other thing he had
invented — that they
really didn’t patent but
was adopted and made
widely popular by Cissell
— was the electric thumb
switch on a steam iron. It
was an idea that Bob had
from his time in the
service working on
airplanes. Back in those days, they had pedals on the floor to make the steam come out of the
iron. My dad said to my uncle, ‘Why couldn’t we have a switch right on the iron that you could
operate with your thumb?’ They rigged it up.”
Mel’s impact was big even if his time with the company was short. He soon opted to pursue
a career in engineering. Meanwhile, Bob (who, at 88 years old, still comes to work after 67
years with the company) chose to stay aboard to run the day-to-day operations and look for
new business opportunities to make Arrow stronger.
In the 1940s he bought a hat company and made men’s hats that were sold in fine
department stores. Then, in the 1950s, the company offered leather cleaning and became a
pioneer for that industry.
In the following decade, Bruce began working around the plant at a young age, which was
fortuitous because it enabled him to spend quality time with both of the elder Gershons.
“Grandpa died in 1963. I was eight years old. I remember him very well. I remember
helping him thread his needle as he was getting older,” he recalled. “When I think about where
we are today and what we’ve accomplished, he’d be unbelievably proud.”
The memories at the plant have not been forgotten and neither have the lessons.
“My dad instilled in me that fact that you need to do quality work. You need to give people
what they’re paying for,” he noted. “Quality and caring keeps customers coming back.”
When Bruce began working full time at Arrow in 1974, the business had little more than a
half dozen employees, and about half of those were family. He didn’t want the company to
remain a small mom-and-pop operation, however, so he set his sights on wider horizons.
He joined with an industry cost management group headed by Sid Tuchman and learned
valuable lessons that helped make Arrow a more professionally run organization. He also was
able to visualize the importance of offering more and more diversified services. The plan
certainly worked.
Today, the company offers a little of everything: drycleaning, alterations and reweaving,
leather and fur cleaning, storage, fire and water restoration, drapery and blinds, bridal gown
preservation, luxury bed and table linens and even a nationwide mail order cleaning service.
Yet, it’s all held together by one common thread.
“We’re constantly studying different ways to improve our quality and training, investing in
our greatest resource — our people,” he explained.
In fact, the third-generation owner plans to recognize the important contribution of his
former and current employees during a 100th year celebration party in December.
To mark the occasion, there will be a commemorative book created that will detail the long
history of the company, which has no shortage of material to draw from.
One of the most notable moments in the past took place when Arrow was thrust into the
national spotlight on the Live! with Regis and Kelly television show.
It all started when Joy Philbin accidentally stained an expensive leather jacket while filling in
on her husband’s show. When researching the best leather cleaners in the country, one name
continued to pop up.
“They Fed Ex’d the leather jacket to us. My father called and spoke to Joy and while he was
speaking to her about the jacket, Regis got on. My dad engaged Regis in conversation and he
just got a kick out of my dad, who is a schmoozer,” Bruce said. “The next day on the show,
Regis started talking about the leather jacket and his conversation with my dad.”
Later, after Arrow returned the garment, Regis opened the package live on air, saying “This
better be good, Arrow Cleaners!”
The garment was in perfect condition and soon the company’s phones were ringing
constantly with prospective customers from all over the country who needed leather and
cleaning restoration services.
As nice as that national coverage was, though, Bruce still thinks Arrow’s proudest moment in
the past century was also its most difficult challenge.
In the early 1990s, Ralph Lauren enlisted the skills and expertise of the business to help
create a vintage clothing line known as Double RL. Instead of restoring leather garments,
Arrow worked to try and destroy them a little... just enough to provide them with the right
rustic, old feeling.
“We found some rock that was indigenous to this area. It looked like it was volcanic rock
that had pieces of granite in it,” Bruce recalled. “We put the rock in old laundry tumblers with
these leather garments and skinned them up and roughed them up. We had softballs covered
with sweatsocks soaked in a waxy material and put those in the tumblers with the leather
jackets to burnish them.”
Overall, they produced a dozen styles of vintage leather garments and more than 20,000
individual items from boots to belts to jackets. Then, Ralph Lauren asked the company to
figure out how to produce more than 450,000 pairs of special stone-washed, antiquated jeans
on the premises.
“We came up with the idea to put Minwax walnut wood stain in the petroleum solvent and
dryclean the stonewashed jeans and make them look dingy and dry them really hot in the
Petromisers and suck out that color,” he said. “We ran our plant 24-7 for a year. We never
turned the boiler off for a year. It was just absolutely crazy. We ruined some machinery, but it
was machinery we had bought just for that project.”
After rising to meet such a challenge, it doesn’t seem likely Bruce won’t be able to handle
any obstacles that lie ahead for Arrow. He’s seen a lot of cleaners come and go during his
tenure, but he isn’t ready to hang it up just yet.
“I’ve got an incredible management team and I enjoy working with them. When you own
your own business, there’s plenty of aggravation, but I also get a lot of satisfaction coming to
work,” he said. “I have no plans to quit or retire. I love coming in to work every day. I love
what the business has to offer and I’m busy as heck.”