Sometime in his high school years, reinforced by his experience as a counter hand in a bagel shop and a gift store, Mike Waintraub began dreaming of running his own business. Later, as he pursued careers in television, banking, and insurance, he revisited that dream.
“It took a few years,” Waintraub says, “to realize that I had been working way too hard for companies I had no direct stake in.” After much investigation, he saw a good prospect in laundry. The cleaning industry was huge, and Waintraub saw an opportunity to differentiate his from many others by instituting environmentally sound methods in his operation. “We wanted to go green ahead of the curve,” he says. Waintraub opened his first Captain Dry Clean in 2008, knocked on doors of potential customers to get the business off the ground, and then soon saw an even greater potential: franchising the concept to other entrepreneurs with eco-conscious customers (U.S. 1, January 28, 2009).
But Waintraub eventually realized that there was an even better path to growth. He would expand not through franchising but rather by adding a new dimension to his existing operation. So in the past year Waintraub expanded to 11F Princess Road and opened Princeton Linen Supply, aimed at providing services to institutional customers.
“My time in corporate sales made me consider bringing in new customers with larger volume, more from businesses than individuals,” he says. Again he turned to knocking on doors, but this time he went to hotels such as the Chauncey Conference Center, the Marriott, and the Nassau Inn, and to restaurants like Triumph Brewery, Acacia in Lawrenceville, and the Witherspoon Grill. Now he says he serves “all the hotels on Route 1 between the Westin in South Brunswick down to three smaller hotels in Ewing.”
Waintraub was raised in Hamilton Township. His father, an electrical engineering professor at Middlesex County College, sent him off to William Patterson University, where he earned a degree in communications in 1995 and followed it with an internship at the Geraldo Rivera television show in New York. Tired of making no money he moved on to a 10-year career at UBS bank and then moved back to his hometown in Hamilton and went to work in sales at Rue Insurance.
When the dream re-emerged, Waintraub began looking into ways he could run things for himself, sifting through a number of franchises (Subway, 1800Igotjunk, and the like) and other business possibilities. He researched how they worked, as well as how rewarding they could be.
Waintraub decided early that his laundry enterprise would distinguish itself through the personal touch. What would set him apart from others was added service and a closer relationship with his customers. His venture would offer twice-a-week collection of the family laundry and dry cleaning, and a fast turnaround (guaranteed within 48 hours).
The dry cleaning business, Captain Dry Clean, was an organic service. At the time, most dry cleaners were using, the environmentally hazardous solvent perchloroethelyne, known in the business as “perc.” We all know its familiar and annoying smell. But it can make you, and those who work with it, sick. Some years back, California took the lead by reducing its use over a period of years so that by 2023 it will be illegal. Since then New Jersey and Illinois have also ordered it be phased out.
Waintraub kicked off his operation with a safer, more effective alternative, the GEN-X solvent. While there are many more firms now using safer, cleaner alternatives, perc is still very much in use by other cleaning services. “Some dry cleaners are more organic than others.” he says.
Waintraub jokes about his beginnings. “I would pick up laundry from customers and drop off the dry cleaning at a local store. Then I’d take the rest to the nearest laundromat to clean it myself.” Soon he was visiting the laundromat three or four times a week. “As more business came our way, I had to drag my wife, Stephanie, along to help. I washed and she folded.”
Princeton Linen Supply is a family business which has grown to 13 employees. His wife runs the front office, taking care of accounts receivable and payables among other things. The CEO is a hands-on guy and, when needed, he takes a turn washing and folding in the high-ceilinged laundry space. Are his children were old enough to be involved? Since they are 14, 12, and 10, he says “not yet” and smiles.
Now in addition to the shirts and ties, blouses and linens of local families, PLC brings in even more tablecloths, napkins from restaurants, sheets, and pillow cases from hotels and workplace clothing from both. As he concentrated on more corporate customers, Waintraub decided to stay with the dry cleaning service, but to sell the residential delivery routes to another dry cleaning company. “It was with some reluctance,” he says. “I felt a strong emotional pull over the loss of connection with so many residential customers.”
The heart of the linen supply business is a contract to furnish freshly laundered items to service enterprises. With restaurants the business is essentially a rental agreement. They are happy for PLS to own the linens so long as a fresh and clean supply is available. On the other hand, hotels tend to keep their own, especially bed linens. Some even have in-house laundries.
Asked what advice he would offer people who are considering jumping from the corporate ladder to a business of their own, Waintraub first says not to overplan. His initial business plan was tweaked so much that he eventually took the plunge, even though a few more i’s still could have been dotted.
His second piece advice: “Be nice. If you want to grow your business organically for the long haul, be nice,” he says. “It does no good to put a barrier between your customer and their happiness.”
On a tour of his operation, Waintraub takes a visitor behind the front office to the laundry floor, neatly packed with employees and the essential equipment of keeping things clean. The 30-foot ceiling makes it feel open. Tiny tufts of lint can be seen clinging to the uprights here and there. “Employee safety is important and lint in the air could be a problem,” he says, “but we’re OK.” He pointed upwards where two giant filtering fans, humming quietly, are suspended from the ceiling.
Keeping track of which linens come from which client is less complicated than one might think. Each dry cleaning item is tagged when collected as it would be at any store front. But with wet wash, which item comes from which restaurant is mostly of little importance. Three hundred 42 x 42 white tablecloths come in from a customer, three hundred 42 x 42 white tablecloths are returned. It’s different with hotels that own their linens — that laundry must be kept together so that precisely what comes in goes back to its owner.
Amid the swirling machines, the washers, the dry cleaning drum, flat presses, flatwork iron, pants poppers, and racks of hanging skirts and pants, one things is missing: the ghastly smell of perc in the air.
Of the difficulties of running his business, Waintraub observes that “some days I feel like pulling out whatever hair I have left on my head. But I work hard, I like my customers, I like my employees, and I do all I can to make it fun.”
Princeton Linen Supply, 11 Princess Road, Suite F, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-896-2100. Michael Waintraub, president. www.princetonlinensupply.com.