National Clothesline
Cleaning house
About two years ago, Maggie Fox faced a tough choice. At the time, she owned 25 percent of Fox Cleaners in
Tulsa, OK, a business started by her late husband Tim in 1984.
She was convinced it was a good time to sell to her business partner outright; after all, she had zero
experience in the drycleaning industry and most of her work experience came from the non-profit sector. On
paper, she didn’t look like a good match to be an entrepreneur, let alone a drycleaning business owner.
Her business partner had
started to manage the day-
to-day operations in 2007
when Tim passed away from
pancreatic cancer after he
and Maggie celebrated the
birth of their second
daughter only three-and-a-
half months before.
“So, fast forward ten years
later. My kids are in school.
I’m remarried and I’m
noticing the business isn’t
being given a whole lot of
love,” she noted. “It was the
company that my husband
built literally with his own two hands. Put in the plants himself. Slept in the buildings overnight when they were
being constructed. He lived, breathed and ate the business when he was in it, like he did everything.”
Fox Cleaners had shifted its focus and was on the decline. Selling seemed like the only logical solution. Then
Maggie’s current husband, Dean Smith, convinced her to reconsider.
“He said, ‘Maggie, I think you’ve got something to give to this business. You care about it. You continually talk
about it. You’ve got some great ideas. Why don’t you give it a shot?’” she recalled.
The more she thought about buying the business, the more tempted she became. Besides, she had a lot of
ideas on how to improve it.
“Everything in my bones told me it was the right thing to do for me and my family,” she said. “Fox Cleaners has
phenomenal employees with decades of experience. They have graciously welcomed me and are patiently
working with me to understand all aspects of the business.”
Perhaps it was appropriate that Maggie had no real experience in the drycleaning industry; after all, her late
husband Tim could say the same thing when he started Fox Cleaners 34 years ago.
He had grown up working on a family farm in Western Kansas and learned to fly airplanes at a young age. He
moved to Tulsa in order to attend the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology.
“He was amazing. He could fix anything. He was just one of those guys,” Maggie recalled. “When he moved
here and went to Spartan and started flying, he got a job as a freight pilot and then as a charter pilot. He flew
freight. He flew people. He ended up working for an oil and gas company where he flew Leer jets.”
He started a family with his first wife, Renee, and soon grew tired of being away from her and their children for
long periods of time. He started Fox Cleaners with the help of his in-laws who were already in the industry.
“They opened and ran the first one and eventually bought the in-laws out. They ran it successfully for a couple
of years and, unfortunately, the marriage ended not long after that,” Maggie explained. “But, one of their first
cars was a delivery van. That was their family car.”
After the divorce, Tim took full ownership of the company. Then, he and Maggie met in 1997.
“His kids were grown and he’d been in the business a long time,” she noted. “He’d always kept his pilot’s
license current and decided to get a broker’s license so he could buy and sell the kind of planes he wanted to fly
and work on.”
As Tim started a business called Fox Flite to do just that, a family friend invested in 50 percent of Fox Cleaners
that had grown to include five stores and 40 employees and he took over the day-to-day management.
The partnership worked well and Tim proved to be quite successful with Fox Flite with Maggie chipping in to
keep the finances balanced. However, things changed dramatically when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer
the day before the couple’s second daughter was born.
Fox Cleaners had been a good business for the family for a long time, but Maggie just couldn’t see taking it
over two years ago until her second husband pitched a strong case to keep it.
“I thought he was absolutely crazy,” she laughed. “I loved the service. I obviously had a lot of opinions about
how it could be, but as far as actually implementing something to make things work better and be profitable, I
had no idea.”
Having been a lifelong Tulsan since the age of nine, Maggie knew the city well and it was booming. She
engaged in research and took a hard look at the financials. She felt it was a perfect time to be a part of a
business that was fresh and different.
The only problem was Fox had been on the decline for some time.
“We’d been fortunate enough that we put out a good product and that people didn’t mind so much that the
stores weren’t all that fancy. None of them were even air conditioned in the front.”
Ultimately, she couldn’t help but wonder what Tim would be doing with the business if he were still alive. She
decided if she was going to take the plunge, she would need to clean house, literally.
“They were trying to keep up with the volume but nothing else,” she remembered. “The stores weren’t clean.
The floors in the back weren’t clean. It was disorganized. It was messy. The books were messy. The management
style was messy. Everything was messy.”
One of the first big changes that Maggie instigated was a new tagline: “Life is better when it’s clean.”
“If we can’t live that internally in our business, there’s no way we can provide that to our customers,” she
emphasized. “We’ve remodeled three out of five of our stores. We replaced all of our fleet of delivery vehicles. It’s
the same name, but a different look. The logo we created, I feel, is a little more feminine. It represents women in
business. We’ve got a lot of strong females in our company who are just amazing people… a lot of amazing
people, period.”
The long tenured staff was certainly the backbone of the business and Maggie had no intention of cleaning
house that way, but there was a bit of a problem with some key management personnel.
“In the last year, we replaced our office manager and general manager, both of whom have been there 11 and
18 years. During the whole time after my husband passed away, these two really have been running the show.
They did a great job with what they had,” she said. “They kept the doors open, but not a lot else.”
To fill the general manager spot, Maggie opted for what many might consider an unorthodox approach.
“Our general manager was just released from jail about a year ago,” she said. “He worked for the company,
except for a few years, on and off for the past ten. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up
spending three years in jail. When he was released, two days later came back to work for us. He just had some
really great ideas. He had been really studying and working on himself. He’s an amazing guy.”
The recent upgrades at Fox Cleaners have been more than aesthetic ones, to be sure. Maggie is trying to
appeal to her customers in other ways, as well.
“We really want to appeal to a younger demographic,” she noted. “How do you do that? Well, you have to make
it easy, right? So, to me that was an absolute no-brainer. All of that kind of went on in the marketing and
branding. Then, on the back side, we weren’t on the mark-in system so our clothes weren’t getting flagged. We
started using heat seal labels. Implementing that in and of itself was a huge task.”
Then, of course, there was fine tuning the company’s online strategy. Around Memorial Day weekend, they
completely revamped their website, developed an app and amped up their visibility on the Internet with search
engine optimization.
“For many years, we weren’t collecting emails. We weren’t on Google,” she said. “Now, we’re not begging
customers to give us reviews and not paying to put us up at the top of the ranks on searches. I want that to
happen organically. In fact, I insist on it.”
Looking back, it’s been a hard couple of years, especially the first one when Maggie thought she’d reached the
end of her rope.
“That first year was a nightmare,” she sighed. “There were many times when I really questioned what I was
doing. I was very unsure. Without the love and support of my family and friends, including my employees, I don’t
know that I would have gotten through it.”
These days, though, she thinks the hard work will soon reap rewards.
“It’s all starting to come to fruition now. I see the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s all paying off,” she said,
before reconsidering. “It will. It’s not there yet.”
Still, the real challenge is to keep her sanity through it all. It helps that she still feels Tim’s presence at Fox
Cleaners every day.
“He’s still so present in the business for me. I have his picture on my desk. I look at it every day. Sometimes I
see him rolling his eyes,” she laughed. “Believe me, he’s rolled in that grave a few times. This was never his
intention for the business, either. It’s funny how things work out sometimes, isn’t it?”