This story is featured in National Clothesline. It is the largest trade magazine for our industry throughout the United States.
About 14 years ago, Dave Coyle found himself at a “character building” stage of life whether he wanted to be there or not.
He was a single dad at 24, raising a young daughter while working 70 hours a week for little pay. To top it off, he had moved from Kansas City to Wichita to manage over a dozen Best Cleaners stores in an area he knew nothing about.
“I was scared at the time,” he recalled, “but it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I’m one of those the glass-is-half-full or all-the-way-full guys. I just told myself to make the best of it.”
That he did. In a short span of time, Dave managed to make his group of stores the second-most profitable, in terms of percentage, for the DCI Management group. Then, he woke up one day with an epiphany. He had been working hard so that somebody else’s bottom line could be more profitable. In 2000, he decided to take the plunge for himself. He bought a local plant named Lee’s Cleaners.
“I walked in this place and I was like, ‘These people have terrible attitudes.’ Everyone was disgruntled,” he remembered. “Within two weeks, I fired every single person in it. At the time, there were 70-plus cleaning stores in our metro area. It was probably one of the bottom three in terms of revenue coming in.”
Long before he invested in his first plant, Dave had a flair for business. He grew up in Cleveland, OH, but his family spent summers at Lake Chautauqua in western New York. When he was 13, Dave sold newspapers on street corners. A year later, he moved up to the circulation manager position.
“This place, either through mail or hawking or delivery had about 30,000 papers a day, so it wasn’t chump change,” he noted. “I did that for three summers. Even at the age of 14, I managed a crew of almost 25 and was accountable for all the money and all of the out-of-state delivery.”
After high school, he continued on an entrepreneurial path. First he attended Depauw University in Greencastle, IN; then, he moved out west and earned an economics degree from Arizona State University.
In order to earn “book money” for college, he worked minimum wage jobs at a pair of drycleaning plants.
“It was extremely hot there in the summertime, especially in a drycleaners,” he laughed.
He used that little bit of experience to obtain a management job for Pride Cleaners in Kansas City after college. Before being hired, Dave asked for a good store to manage, promising he would make the most of it.
Instead, he was given one of the worst locations imaginable. He knew immediately something was up when he saw the bars on the windows.
“It was just in a terrible part of town. There was a pawn shop in front of it,” he said. “I remember the pawn shop owner brought us one of his tuxedo blazers when he just got back from Vegas. In one pocket, there was $5,000 in cash. In the other pocket, there was a bag of heroin. I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’”
Instead of giving up, Dave again requested a better store. When he was given one with a double-lane drive-thru in a better part of town, he made the most of the opportunity.
“In about a year, I took that store to be the number two highest-volume store,” he said. “We made it really successful.”
That lead to the opportunity to be the district manager of the Best Cleaners stores in Wichita, which fell under the same parent name as Pride. However, in 2000, he found himself with his back to the wall again with one of the worst plants in the area. Fortunately, he saw potential, too.
“It had the right mix of equipment at the time. It had the shirt press, the boiler, the drycleaning machine, some presses,” he explained. “It was a small store in what I thought was a good part of town, but it just wasn’t making crap for money.”
One of the first changes Dave instigated was to rename the plant to In the Bag Cleaners to go along with the convertible garment bag he offered to customers.
“I kind of thought it gave the impression to people that once you put your clothes in the bag, it’s in the bag. We’re going to take care of it and it’s going to look great when you take it off the hanger,” he noted.
After the employees with bad attitudes were fired, a wall was framed up with a sliding glass door so the front could be air conditioned and separated from production. Then, pickup and delivery service was promoted. The business was now up and running.
Though the plant was still in its infancy, Dave still wanted to expand aggressively. His initial growth plans happened to coincide with the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, but that didn’t deter him, either.
“We started right after 9/11, probably the worst time to start a business,” he said. “But one of my philosophies has always been that when times are tough, you always hit the accelerator and push your business. The reason I believe that is because competitors never see it coming.”
With a new store opening every year, it wasn’t long until Dave realized he needed to follow a hub-and-spoke model to be more efficient.
“I finally decided to take a big step with things and go ahead and find a 10,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, completely empty, and put equipment in there,” he noted.
To help utilize the empty space of his new warehouse, Dave purchased 13 Best Cleaners stores from DCI Management. In fact, they were the ones he used to manage. He picked up about $2.4 million in sales overnight. Once again, he felt a bit overwhelmed.
Yet, once again, Dave made sure things were in the bag. Scores of outdated computers systems and equipment were updated. Employees with bad attitudes were replaced. It was 18 months of torture altogether
“It was unbelievable,” he recalled. “It was very stressful, but it was very rewarding once it all was converted.”
Nowadays, In the Bag Cleaners is about to open its 15th location. Dave has 84 “team members” working for him including 34 in production who have over 400 years of combined industry experience.
All employees are offered financial incentives to keep the numbers up and it makes for a more positive atmosphere within the company.
“It really creates a feeling of ownership,” Dave emphasized. “It’s a big family. My door is always open to talk. I openly ask for complaints.”
In an attempt to keep employees happier, In the Bag’s production facility only runs Monday through Friday and the retail stores are open for shorter hours on Saturdays. The idea is for everybody to be at home with their families as much as possible, something Dave himself enjoys and wants to extend to his employees.
After all, in addition to raising a daughter, Brie, he also adopted his son, Ethan, from Guatemala.
“It was very challenging. Adopting from essentially a third-world country is just like trying to reconcile two cultures. I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said. “I found a beautiful son who is now five and just fantastic.”
Being a father is its own adventure, to be sure, but then, so is being a drycleaner. You simply never know what might pop up.
One of Dave’s favorite stories happened back when In the Bag accepted hotel/valet work.
One day he received a really nice custom shirt covered in blue dye with a note to please do whatever he could to fix it. It was a difficult job so Dave needed more time. He called the contact number and the lady on the phone asked him to send the shirt to Malibu when he finished.
Fortunately, the shirt came out perfectly and he mailed it to California without much thought. A week later he got a package in the mail.
“There’s a picture of Harrison Ford from Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. On it, Harrison Ford wrote, ‘David, Many thanks! All best wishes!’” noted Dave. “And, he’s wearing a shirt with the sleeves torn off, holding a big machete, and he added with an arrow pointing to the shirt: ‘This is how they usually come back from the cleaners.’”
Apparently, Ford had been in Wichita to update his pilot credentials. Dave was quite surprised by the gift and framed the picture for his wall. “That kind of stuff happens to me when I don’t go looking for it,” he laughed.
Receiving gifts is always nice, but Dave prefers to give back whenever possible, whether it’s building a 40-person underground tornado shelter at his production warehouse to make his team members feel safer or participating in community support programs, such as Warm Hearts or Operation Holiday.
“For me and the team members, this is not all just about making money. There’s a lot more to life than that… the ability to help other people, to lend a hand when someone needs it, to give someone a smile when they’re having a bad day,” he said.
Of course, he still has to make sure there is enough work to finance everything, as well. Dave is proud that he has never had to lay off an employee due to lack of work.
Recently, he joined CRDN and now owns a second 10,000-sq.-ft. warehouse next to his drycleaning production facility and is one of the group’s fastest growing franchises.
“That’s what I consider my biggest job — to create opportunities and create security for the team members that work for me,” he said.
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