Summer isn’t even over and yet it’s already been a pretty full year of accolades and pleasant surprises for Jeff
Sitz and his City Cleaners business in Akron, OH.
At the Clean Show in Las Vegas in early June, he was the first person to be
inducted into the Route Pros Hall of
Fame and his business received the YES! Award for excellent customer service for
2016 from the Drycleaning and
Laundry Institute based on the overall results of their secret shopping program
If that weren’t enough, Jeff already had enjoyed winning a different kind of prize, this time
for an employee.
Back in February he had bought $20 raffle tickets for all of his staff at a
Chili Open event sponsored by the local
Rotary Club (which he was
president of last year). The
proceeds would help send
children with special needs to
a Rotary camp.
“Lo and behold, one of my
employees won a new car. It
was crazy. It was great,” he
recalled. “She didn’t have a
car. That was the coolest
It’s no accident that City
Cleaners has earned much
recognition. Jeff makes a
concerted effort to keep his
business profitable and
sustainable by making sure his employees are happy and his customers are much
more than satisfied. Even
though the business itself is close to 130 years old, the goal is to always keep
up with the times and ahead of the
competition. In that regards, City Cleaners feels brand new.
As it says on the company’s website: “We believe being the oldest doesn’t make you the best, being the best
makes you the oldest.”
If you were to climb into a time machine and jump back to 1889, the year City
Laundry and Drycleaning (its
name back then) opened its doors, you might also witness the birth of Adolf
Hitler (April 20), the death of poet
Robert Browning (December 12) or the very first edition of The Wall Street
Journal in New York City (July 8).
Originally, the Sitz family weren’t involved in the drycleaning operation. That happened a little later.
“My great grandfather, Merrill, started working for the company around 1908,
1909, that time frame,” Jeff
After he left the company for a while, Merrill agreed to come back provided he
could be a shareholder in the
company. So, in the mid-1920s, the Sitz family began their ownership. For most
of City Cleaners’ history, they
have held majority control and eventually bought it outright in the 1970s.
One of the early aspects of the business that helped it stand out and be
successful was its pickup and delivery
“We have a very large home delivery business back in the 1940s and 1950s,” Jeff noted. “We have a photo in
our lobby with 19 delivery trucks lined up.”
City Cleaners also largely benefited from the fact that Akron housed busy
Firestone and Goodyear rubber
production plants during World Wars I and II.
“We did a lot of work for the rubber shops. I’m sure there was a lot of uniform work, rags… all that sort of
thing,” Jeff added. “Working for the rubber shops, we were kind of forced into the Union which became
a big part
of our history. It was probably in the late 1930s, we joined the Union.”
Unfortunately, Merrill died suddenly around the time the end of the 1970s met
the start of the 1980s, leaving
things a bit in disarray when his son (and Jeff’s grandfather) Kenneth took over the leadership role. In turn,
Kenneth would hand the business over to his sons Richard (Jeff’s father) and Phil (his uncle).
Then, another sudden death — this time Phil was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within four weeks
— prompted Richard to ask Jeff to come aboard and help him.
“I really had no desire to get into the business,” Jeff recalled. “I didn’t grow up saying, ‘I want to be a
drycleaner.’ Let’s put it that way.”
Jeff may not have wanted to be a drycleaner, but he always wanted to be an
entrepreneur. In high school, he
started Jeff’s Lawn Care as soon as he got his driver’s license.
“I had a mower. I’d throw it in the back of my truck and mow grass to make money. I quickly
realized I needed
a bigger mower,” he said. “When I wanted money, my mom and dad bought me a trailer and a 48" walk-behind
mower and said: ‘There you go. There’s your money. Go earn it.’”
He certainly did earn his share of money — about $15,000 a summer. He sold that business while he attended
the University of Akron, but his collegiate career ended soon after his uncle
passed away. He returned to City
Cleaners to aide his father in 2001, mostly working the delivery routes.
“It was an interesting dance because I kind of got brought into the business,” he said. “I never was really given
anything. It was more like just kind of slowly taking control.”
A few years into the venture, he often traveled to various industry events and
was struck by what he heard
from the likes of Rex Carrigan, Dennis McCrory and Jason Loeb. He was present at
James Peuster’s first delivery
routes seminar ever and immediately signed up as the Route Pros first official
“I don’t know what it was but at that point I realized, ‘OK. I’ve got to take control of the business and I cannot
do it by driving a van four days a week’,” Jeff recalled. “I had to start working more on the business, not in the
In the past 16 years since he has been with the business full time, City
Cleaners has almost tripled its
revenues, greatly increased its delivery presence and nearly doubled in terms of
number of employees (25 then
to 40 now). The business also recently opened its fifth location.
“Not only have our routes grown, but most of our drop stores are up like 100
percent practically — they’ve over
doubled in same store sales,” he explained. “If I had to take it all the way down to one thing, it would probably
be customer service. We really do put a lot of effort on quality of work, but
customer service, for me, is where it
all begins and ends.”
It wasn’t easy and it certainly didn’t happen overnight, but the customer service culture at City Cleaners
eventually became much slicker; some might even say downright amazing.
Jeff had heard of other cleaners giving out $5 gift cards for Starbucks randomly
to customers and thought it
was a great idea, but he wanted to do something more unforgettable.
“We wanted it to be really personal and that’s where we kind of grew over time,” he noted. “Finally, I just put
my hands up in the air and said, ‘Listen, if you can blow someone’s mind and make their day and it cost you up to
$100 to do it, then do it.’ Don’t even think about it because that marketing opportunity, to me, is so much more
important than $100. Ninety percent of the time they don’t even come close to spending the $100.
“But, just to give them the opportunity to do that, I want them to know that they
are empowered. And, in the
same regards, they’re empowered that way to handle claims, to handle any issue there is.”
Jeff keeps a journal of ways his CSRs have used that empowerment so new
employees can get a firsthand
glimpse of the company’s culture.
Ideas have ranged from treating a couple with a wedding anniversary for a
memorable night out with a
restaurant gift card and movie tickets to sending an edible arrangement to a
customer who was recovering from
surgery (something her own co-workers didn’t do).
Other cleaners who talk to Jeff about his employee empowerment policy often
express fears that it will be
abused by either employees or customers. However, so far there have been very
few problems (he estimates that
98 percent of the time it’s marketing dollars well spent).
Regardless, Jeff feels that if you want to make a big impact, you have to take a
risk. His family certainly wasn’t
afraid to make big changes throughout City Cleaners’ long history. Sure. Sometimes attempts fail, like when they
built a brand new linen processing plant in the early 1970s because of all the
hospital work they had back then.
“Right after we finished, all of our hospitals put in internal laundries,” he laughed.
Still, other times it proves to be worth taking the chance, like when his family
stressed over getting out of the
Union in the 1990s. It turned out to be a good cost-saving decision.
Big risks are nothing new for City Cleaners and if Jeff is right in his
assessment of the industry’s future, that
isn’t about to change for all drycleaners out there.
“I think there are a lot of question marks for our industry in the next 15 to 20
years. I really do,” he said. “I
think there is a future if we can adapt a service that caters to the customers’ lifestyle. I think that if we think
we’re going to sit here and deliver the same old product we’ve delivered in the past 100 years, I think those
people will be gone in the next 10 to 15 years.”
One quote that has really stuck with Jeff is one he shared with his employees
during a recent staff meeting:
“You are the only problem you will ever have and you are the only solution you
will ever have. That’s the good
news and the bad news.”
With that in mind, hard work is one thing that entrepreneurs can always fall
back on. On most days, Jeff’s
father Richard can be found early at the plant still providing him with
“The greatest gift my father gave me was a hard work ethic,” he said. “Seeing him, how hard he worked in the
industry and him handing that down to me... I am very thankful for that.”