Robinson’s Cleaners – Columbia & Jefferson City
What’s a little laundry between friends?
So reads the website of Robinson’s Cleaners, a third-generation business owned and run by Kit Price and Casey Smith. With five locations in the Columbia-Jefferson City metro area, including an automated, 24/7 location in Columbia for the time-squeezed professional; government contracts; expert restoration of fire- and water-damaged items; laundromats; wholesale leather and suede cleaning; and laundry-cleaning services for insurance companies, Price and Smith try very hard to be everyone’s friend.
Price and Smith are also brother and sister. As anyone who has ever had either knows, getting along is often not part of the equation.
Doesn’t being siblings create some problems?
The pair, clad in T-shirts and shorts on a cool late September day — laundry and cleaning are a hot business, after all — don’t even glance at each other before answering.
“No,” says Smith. “Well, any partnership creates issues. But we solved that long ago. We clearly defined our roles in the business.”
Price operates the business’ finances, personnel and other management issues; Smith leans toward the mechanical side of things.
And what machines they are. In the whirring, buzzing, snorting interior of the main operation in Columbia, one machine creates bar codes indicating client address, costs and other details while another presses shirts and pants. A large red machine rotates upward to air fluff shirts before rotating down to press them. There are industrial washers easily as large as a Fiat and an overhead track that spins finished items into a machine that wraps them in plastic, ready for pickup or delivery. A handful of employees carefully watch, adjust and calibrate everything; altogether the firm employs 25 workers, including drivers.
But the machinery, busy workers and blizzard of cleanable items of every color and description represent just the surface of this multi-million dollar business.
“All this, everything you see, it’s a conduit. Everything comes in, flows through then leaves,” says Price, who estimates the business handles at least 2,000 items each day.
Over the years, these have included washable and cleanable items from Scott and Whiteman Air Force bases and Forts Sill, Riley and Leonard Wood. The siblings learned to secure these often lucrative government contracts with the aid and advice of the Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (MO PTAC). Often overlooked by small businesses, federal, state and local government contracts can be a good revenue source, and PTAC’s mandate is to help the small businesses of Missouri secure these contracts.
“Government contracts are nothing new for us,” says Price. “Mom and dad (who ran St. George Dry Cleaning and Uniform Service, Jefferson City) had the Whiteman contract before we got it. Then they got Fort Leonard Wood in the 1980s.” She adds that this familial experience has helped the business enormously.
So have the help and sometimes daily consultations with Bill Stuby, procurement specialist with the MO PTAC in Columbia. Government contracts are not intuitive, Price learned, and being the lowest bidder does not always guarantee a contract.
“You have to know what you’re doing — there are many factors involved. You need a quality control plan, a safety control plan, a good business plan. We know we are a good business that does quality work, but the government doesn’t know that. It’s not just about being competitive price-wise. You need more.”
The siblings are quick to point out, however, that federal government contracts comprise just one facet of their operations.
“Right now, business is soft,” Price says. “Our industry is flat.” Of six cleaners in Columbia before the recession, there are now only four. “We have been able to hang on because we emphasize diversity. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. At any given time, any segment of your business could go soft.”
That’s why Robinson’s Cleaners has also secured contracts with the city of Columbia, Hickman High School, the Jefferson City Transit Division and the Boone County Sheriff, Jefferson and Columbia Police Departments.
Price says her bidding criteria are simple: “I look at it and I think, can I make money off this? We only bid where we can make money. We don’t need to underbid just to get the business.”
She adds that it can take more than five days to put together a winning bid.
“Yes, it’s a lot of work, but if I had to recommend or not, I’d say bid. Even if you fail, you can ask for a review on the back side. I always ask for a review when a bid fails because I want to know why it was rejected, what the issues are.”
“Kit is smart,” says Stuby. “Every time she bids she gets better at it. She learns quickly and never has stupid questions.”
“I couldn’t do it without Bill,” Price responds. “He understands the process so thoroughly and never minds taking the time to explain something new or something I don’t get. I can’t tell you what it’s like to have a resource like that. What MO PTAC charges us (there is a modest fee associated with MO PTAC’s services) has been worth many, many times that. You can’t put a price on it.”
Robinson’s Cleaners has five five locations in Columbia and Jefferson City.
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