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  • Cary Lipman

Back In 1983 I remember being pretty miserable selling insurance for a large company. I was a district manager with a small crew that I was responsible for and, sure, I was doing well and making money. But something was missing. As with many other would-be entrepreneurs, I knew I needed to wake up every morning with something more to look forward to than just selling insurance.

A friend of mine who owned a coin laundromat in New Jersey, told me he was in the “water business”...customers put money in his machines, press a button and water would start running. It was that simple. I was hooked!

During the months leading up to building and opening my first store on December 1st, 1984 I took that opportunity to learn as much about the coin laundry business as possible. I discovered there was more to owning and operating a laundromat than just “putting coins in a machine and the water starts running”. Obviously, it’s not that simple.

After spending the better part of a year searching in several New Jersey cities and towns for a good location close to home and also going to business seminars and visiting local equipment distributors, I finally found what seemed to be the “perfect spot” for a brand new coin laundry...directly across from the station where commuters got on the train to New York City in the morning and came home every evening after work.

Fast forward to today and the questions I was asking years ago are exactly the same ones many entrepreneurs are asking me now...and, not surprisingly, the answers are still pretty much the same, starting with “why should I invest in a laundromat rather than any other retail business?”

Top of the list and for as long as I can remember, is the fact that clean laundry has always been known in our industry to be a “necessity of life”. During good times and bad times, everyone needs clean clothes.

Recently, because of COVID-19 our federal and state governments have officially recognized that fact and classified laundromat businesses to be “essential”, making them exempt from total closure.

One major appeal to laundromat ownership has always been you don’t need a formal business or professional background to be a successful owner/operator. From the very beginning of the history of laundromats, going back more than seventy years, people from all walks of life and socio-economic stripes have owned successful coin laundry businesses and prospered.

Now, I’m confident that if you’ve done some comparison research with other brick and mortar retail businesses you are ready to delve deeper into all the reasons why owning and operating a vended laundry business is the perfect fit for you.

I believe, first and foremost, a healthy cash flow and return on your investment (ROI) is critically important. In our industry it’s not unusual for the owner of a well-managed store in a good location to recoup his/her entire capital investment and become “whole” in less than three years.

Although you are setting yourself up for initial success and, at the same time, planning for the future which may ultimately include the sale of your business, I see job one as hitting your “break-even” point and going into profitability as quickly as possible so you no longer have to dip into your reserves. I, and others I’ve spoken to, have accomplished this in three or four months after grand opening.

If you will not be putting up all the cash needed for your washers, dryers and ancillary equipment up front and there is financing involved, the finance company may allow you to make monthly interest-only payments for a period of time to help you get on your feet. Your first mission will be to build enough revenue to make the full principal and interest payment when it becomes due...then you are “home free” to focus entirely on growing your business, going forward.

Unlike most other retail businesses, getting into a vended laundry can be accomplished in several different can purchase an established laundromat already producing cash flow or you can buy a “turnkey” store built for you by a distributor or other third party. You can design and build a brand new laundromat on your own when you lease or buy a free standing building or rent space in a large shopping center, a small strip mall or a storefront on the street level of an apartment building on the corner or in the middle of a city block.

Be mindful of the fact that it’s always best to have ample parking and easy access to your store for people carrying bags of laundry and have several compatible businesses such as a Dollar Store, grocery store, sandwich or coffee shop close by for your customers to visit while their clothes are washing and drying.

Your laundromat can be operated unattended, partially attended or fully staffed everyday from open to close. An attended store will afford you the opportunity to offer other garment-care services like wash-dry-fold, dry cleaning drop off, alterations and pick up and delivery. The additional revenue produced from these services will go a long way toward offsetting attendant wages and other related expenses.

Your days and hours can be whatever you wish and, depending on your particular neighborhood, you may choose to stay open 24 hours a day and, unlike other retail operations, self service customers visiting your laundromat will be doing all the work themselves and you get paid immediately.

However, due in most part to the introduction in recent years of state of the art machine technology, payment choices and sophisticated Point of Sale (POS) systems, more so now than I have ever seen before, the laundromat franchise and licensed branded laundry concepts have come into their own and are gaining in popularity in many regions throughout the country. Investors are willing to pay an up-front fee and a monthly percent of revenue for the comfort and security of a successful business model and ongoing access to store management experts.

If you already have a full-time job or other commitments elsewhere you can operate your laundromat on a semi-absentee basis. Some entrepreneurs take advantage of this feature to become multi-store owners by tapping spouses and other family members to operate more stores. However, always keep in mind that if you completely leave your business, your business may have a tendency to leave you.

People who have worked all their lives and finally retired from jobs or careers in other industries, yet are not ready to completely hang up their cleats, find owning a relatively simple laundromat business to be exactly what they need to create their own days and hours and continue to stay busy.

I’ve also worked with folks whose life plan was to own one or more unattended coin laundries making enough money to allow them to leave their current jobs and become independent business owners.

The resources you will be using to provide your services will be shipped directly to your store, rain or shine, everyday by the utility companies through pipes and wires and payment will not be due for thirty days. Some water bills are paid quarterly.

There is virtually no inventory or food to store and keep track of as with sandwich shops or restaurants. However, if you do decide to sell laundry soap products, snacks and drinks through vending machines you pretty much have a captive audience.

If you do it right, a clean, well-run vended laundry can become an important part of the community which can afford you many opportunities to do good for your customers such as offering a “free wash day”, becoming a clothing donation depot, free gifts and prizes for loyal customers and carving out a Family Read, Play and Learn space for customers’ kids to spend time in while mom is doing the laundry.

Finally, the growing renter population, the back-bone of the self-service part of our business, coupled with more people increasingly using wash-dry-fold drop-off and app based home laundry pick up and delivery services, (which makes anyone with a phone a potential customer) I see the future of the vended laundry industry, as a whole, brighter than I’ve ever seen it before and a great reason why you should invest in a vended laundry business.

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  • Cary Lipman

Updated: Nov 8, 2019

I visited the Wall the other day, October 7, 2019. Not the one in Washington D.C. but the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, which was brought to Blue Ridge, Ga., about an hour’s drive from my home in Woodstock.

I had been to the Wall in D.C., although it took more than 10 years for me to finally get there. Honestly, I was afraid of who I might find up there.

But something was different about this traveling wall. Someone reminded me that – since I would be turning 75 the following day, October 8 – my name could very easily have been up there on Panel 10 E, Line 118, alongside Captain John M. Harrington.

I had long since forgotten most of the names of the guys… my buddies who were stationed with me at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division, when President Johnson sent them away to a place no one had ever heard of or even knew was there.

Although we’ve all known for a long time that, by any definition, Vietnam was definitely a war, I never understood why, after more than 58,000 American men and women were killed, it was still characterized as a “conflict” or “police action” by those within our government.

From the beginning, there have always been questions and controversy about how we went from combat advisors to full-blown combat troops in the first place. There were plausible stories and explanations floating around but many of us at the time didn’t understand or just didn’t care. It was a tiny, far-away spot on the map, and the enemy was running around in black pajamas. It should be over before we know it… or so we thought.

One cold day in November 1965 orders came down from the top, and overnight it seemed like 10,000 men were processed and flown off the base in C-130s, the planes we always jumped out of. In exactly 24 hours, everyone was gone with their new helmets, boots, uniforms, duffel bags, weapons and ammo – except me.

The next morning, after having been left behind, I was standing by myself in the middle of a field on the base, saluting the flag during the playing of Reveille over the loud speakers. Afterward, I walked into the barracks’ mess hall for breakfast, and there was one guy standing there with a cook’s hat on looking at me. Neither of us said a word for a long time, both sensing that something “real” was happening and that we may never see those guys again.

The reason I was left on the post was because the Vietnam War was not a war. I was told it was considered an overseas assignment. Those of us too “short” to go on an overseas tour of duty could not be shipped out. The rule was that you had to have at least 12 months left in the service to be sent anywhere outside the U.S. – I had 10.

In November 1965, all of the stars lined up and shined down on me, and at 21 years old, I had no idea how lucky I was at that moment in my life.

I’ll never forget some month’s later, glancing at the cars still parked out back in the lot behind the barracks and remembering on that fateful day back in November, asking “Porky,” a young kid from California, who was all packed and ready to go, what he wanted me to do with his car.

“Just leave it,” he said. “I’ll get it when I come back.”

He never did.

I know that November 11 is the official day we remember and respect and thank our veterans who gave their unimaginable everything for us who were left behind to live out our own lives.

For me, however, it has always been New Year’s Day, as it reminds me that I’m here another year instead of on that wall with thousands of other guys who weren’t as fortunate as me. It hits harder as I get older every year – that nagging question I’ve never been able to get out of my head… “Why was I left behind?”

Months before, on one freezing cold night while lying in my tent during some winter maneuvers in the backwoods of Kentucky, I decided I had to learn how to type so that I could become a clerk and sit behind a desk in an office, rather than running around in the dead of night shooting blanks at an imaginary “enemy.”

While I was still typing 20 words a minute on a borrowed Royal typewriter at the USO, I landed a job as Third Battalion Legal Clerk. This is where I met 2nd Lt. John M. Harrington, an impressive young man, fresh out of West Point and not much older than me. He was as “gung ho” as any paratrooper I knew, and he was extremely serious about being a soldier, far more than I was.

He was my boss and the adjutant to the Third Battalion Commander. When I first met him, I sensed he had come from money and privilege growing up in Durham, N.C., and graduating from West Point. I barely graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. We couldn’t have been more different. Yet, I like him right away. As it turned out, he was the toughest, smartest, most focused guy I had ever met.

Lt. Harrington made me work harder in a first class way on everything I did. He would constantly remind me to finish my sentence with “sir,” as I would always forget that part. He allowed no slack, and some days I hated him for pushing me so hard, while at the same time thinking he was the best friend I ever had – and, if I had to go into combat, I would want him to be my commander.

When he was promoted to 1st Lt. and became a Company Commander, I was, in turn, moved up to Brigade Legal Clerk. We didn’t see much of each other after that, except on legal proceedings or when I would occasionally look out my office window and see him leading his company on a six-mile morning run. But the strong work ethic and drive for nothing less than excellence in everything I would do stayed with me long after leaving the service and into my adult life. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

Some months later, in August 1966, I was released from the Army and left the 101st Airborne Division. I went home to start a new life with my young wife and two sons, both of whom were born in a military hospital at Fort Campbell.

Exactly one month later, I had heard that on September 19, 1966, Captain John M. Harrington was killed in action outside some place called Tay Ninh City, Vietnam, by a “friendly forces” artillery round.

The war in Vietnam had come home. I was so sorry I never got the chance to say goodbye to him and to let him know what an enormous impact he had on my life.

He was just 26 years old.

For years after that, I was convinced that Capt. Harrington was killed by “friendly fire” that he called in on his own outnumbered and surrounded position. I knew he would want to take out as many of the enemy as he could, even if it cost him his life. That was the depth of his courage and the strength of his character.

I went on believing that story in my own mind for many years until the movie, “We Were Soldiers,” was released in 2002. It was based on the true story of all of my guys sent to fight in Vietnam. There was a part in the movie where the company commander, surrounded by enemy forces, was killed after calling in friendly fire on his own pod. When I saw that scene, I knew in my heart it was my friend – Capt. John M. Harrington, Panel 10 E, Line 118.

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  • Cary Lipman

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

I know of two ways of becoming a laundromat owner: You can design and build a brand new store from scratch with all new equipment.  Or, you can buy an established laundry business primarily based on its current cash flow.

Check out my article below (originally published in the August 2018 Planet Laundry Magazine) where I talk about finding a new site and developing it into a successful vended laundry. My next blog, originally published in the June, 2019 issue of Planet Laundry will help you navigate through the process of buying an established laundromat. By the way if you are not a current member, consider joining the Coin Laundry Association..CLA.. They will be a tremendous resource for you in your quest to become a successful laundromat operator.