Replacing equipment is a key part of the Manis plan
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — There are family-run businesses, and there are family-run businesses. Jim Manis is carrying on the family coin laundry tradition, one that started in the 1950s. Manis runs eight unattended coin laundries, one in north Georgia and seven in the Chattanooga, Tenn., area. Manis, a third-generation owner, took charge of the stores around 1990.
What inspired him to continue the family tradition? “I didn’t have a choice,” Manis jokes. “I was filling coke and soap machines before I was a teenager.”
ESTABLISHING A TRADITION
Manis visits all his stores on a daily basis. The stores are fairly close, he says, adding that on some days he can make all his stops in about four hours. “Half of my stores are 24-hour stores; I do about 95 percent of the maintenance,” Manis says. “If you keep the equipment updated, it’s not bad. I’ve replaced a lot in the last three years.”
Manis learned a lot about the coin laundry industry from his family and he has put this knowledge to good use.
“My grandfather (Don Rothwell) started the business in the late 1950s. He worked for the gas company in Chattanooga, and while doing his work he went into laundries and saw that they were dark and dingy in many cases. He felt like he could do better with the laundries. This started things.”
At his peak in the early to mid-1970s, Manis’ grandfather had 18 stores. “His early stores were a prelude of things to come,” Manis explains. “He was one of the first owners to feature larger laundries in town. Cleanliness was key to him, and he ran the stores like he had competition even if he didn’t have competition.”
While Manis’ grandfather continued to run a growing business, Manis’ father, Robert, a Green Beret, was serving in Vietnam. The grandfather eventually convinced Robert to retire from the army and join him in his coin laundry venture.
Vietnam also played another role in the Manis operation. “Ron Power met my dad in Vietnam, saw a picture of my dad’s sister and started writing her letters. [Power] also came to Chattanooga and married my aunt.” Manis’ father and new uncle took over the stores in the early 1970s.
“When I think about those old stores, I think about the old machine colors — avocado and harvest gold. They even had some orange machines. My grandfather had foresight — he had big front loaders even back then. He would have as many as 10 of them in a store. That’s probably why he got a big hold on the Chattanooga business. He had what people wanted. He saw ahead, but also had a good distributor from Nashville.”
Manis’ stores are certainly a far cry from the early coin stores, but certain things he learned play a factor in how he runs his stores today. His smallest store is about 2,000 square feet while the largest store is about 5,000 square feet. Here are his prices: top loader, $2; 18-pound washer, $2.25; 25-pound washer, $3; 35/40-pound washer, $3.75; 55-pound washer, $4.75; 30-pound dryer, six minutes/25 cents; and 50-pound dryer, five minutes/25 cents.
Managing multiple stores can be challenging. “The good point is that there’s more money and more security in multiple stores. If competition arrives or you lose a lease, you aren’t devastated. We’ve lost leases for a variety of reasons, it’s a bitter pill.
“With multiple stores, you have to have a good group of people. I don’t have a huge number of workers, but there is one cleanup person for each store. Plus, the bigger you get, the more important it is to have at least one key individual that you can count on. [Power] covers calls for me on occasion.”
In the end, Manis believes the number of stores one can handle really depends on how hard one wants to work. Manis has shied away from purchasing coin laundries off his route. “My eighth store, which I recently purchased, was on my route. I got interested in it because I saw it every day on my route.”
In a sense, Manis’ stores compete against each other. “I strategically placed them for indirect competition. If we run them right, no one will come in and put [a laundry] between them.”
While all of Manis’ stores resemble one another, they are not clones of each other. The stores average about 10 large front loaders. “The largest store has 28 top loaders, six 25-pound front loaders, 11 35-pound front loaders, four 55-pound front loaders, 20 30-pound dryers, two 50-pound dryers and 10 stack dryers.”
“I try to clone them to some extent by using, for example, the same canopies over the dryers and the same color schemes because I don’t want to deal with 12 different kinds of paint. The exteriors are also the same color.
“However, certain buildings in certain areas call for different solutions. Some stores have a TV, others don’t. Some stores have more people hanging out, and we don’t want TVs in these stores.
“We are pretty much a ‘meat-and-potatoes’ operation. We don’t offer a lot of amenities. My uncle did some drop-off in the past, and it worked fairly well. An attendant ran the service. Me personally, I like to just have key cleanup people. Once you find a good person, you like to hold onto them. It’s hard to find affordable, good people in this business, so I stay away from extra services.”
THE CHATTANOOGA MARKET
“People still like top loaders in my area. I probably have more tops than what I really want,” Manis admits. “But we also have some of the same national trends here. There are more front loaders and more large front loaders. Because of this, stacked dryers are more prevalent. Although single-load dryers are still in play here, more dryer capacity is needed. The newer stores contain mainly stack dryers.”
Manis believes one of the main reasons customers patronize his stores is because of convenient locations. “I’ve found out that if you don’t have a good location, it doesn’t matter how good the store is. You also have to strive to be clean, clean at night as well as clean in the afternoon.
“Two other things are also key. Your equipment has to be always running and if there is a problem, you have to quickly send out refunds in the mail.”
The topic of vend prices always sparks a lively discussion in the coin laundry industry. “When you’ve been around in the business, you can get set in your ways. The old-timers are scared to raise prices because they might lose business. I’ve changed my thinking. I probably have the highest prices in town. Atlanta and Nashville are the highest in the area, but we are right there with them. After I raise my prices, about six months later the other stores raise them.”
While Manis believes pricing is important, he doesn’t think it’s crucial. “I don’t hear complaints when I raise prices.” He thinks pricing is about third or fourth on the customer priority list.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING AHEAD
When one has been involved in a business for a long period of time, it’s often easier to put things in perspective.
Manis says there have been many positive changes during his time. “There’s more efficient equipment, new changers, stacked dryers, surveillance systems and card systems. The locks are even different.” A lot of these changes, he adds, help him to service a store more quickly.
Manis also believes that his current strategy will be just as important in the coming years. “Replace equipment as fast as you can. It looks good and the customers feel good. Newer equipment is so much more efficient than five- or ten-year-old equipment. Utilities are not going to get any cheaper.
“I also see card systems coming into play quicker than I thought. It’s going to happen. The new washers are priced higher and higher and my elbows are killing me from carrying quarters! Tier dryer pricing will be going on. I haven’t done it yet, but I probably will.
“As for the number of stores in the future, that will probably stay the same. It depends on the population density.”
One should also never forget customers when looking ahead. “The customers have evolved as has the business. Now, we have all types of laundry customers, some even have washers and dryers at home.”
You don’t usually run a successful business for a long period of time without getting some key help. Manis is no exception.
He realizes the importance of a good distributor. “Distributors can give you so much help with equipment decisions. I have always benefitted when I put new equipment in.”
Manis says Power has also played a key role in his life.
“When my father passed away, [Power] took over all the stores. He later got out and sold them to me. He is semi-retired but still helps me, covers calls for me and provides guidance. He’s got plenty of wisdom and I rely on that.”