By Bob Nieman | Apr 15, 2009
Kim Ng knows all about breaking through the “old boys’ network.” She recently completed her seventh season as vice president and assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Talk about your male-dominated industries. Ng is one of only two female executives in Major League Baseball to hold such a position in baseball operations, and her name is often tossed into the mix when general manager positions open up.
The opportunity to run a baseball team doesn't occur often – GM vacancies are rare. But when the next one occurs, or perhaps the one after that, Ng is in the best position to become the first female GM in a major U.S. sport.
"What impresses me about Kim is she's able to work in an environment where she's basically the only one," Omar Minaya, general manager of the New York Mets, and the game's first Hispanic GM, told Newsweek magazine. "She's as tough as anybody."
No one is suggesting that running a Major League franchise is even remotely similar to owning a laundry distributorship or operating a coin laundry. However, many of the obstacles women face while working in these traditionally male bastions are.
Challenges for women begin in childhood. Young girls may be brought up to believe that they are only suited for certain professions or, in some cases, only to serve as wives and mothers. Gender lines are drawn early, and exclusions for women continue throughout adulthood. These constant messages may lead to a false belief that women do not belong in the business world.
After childhood, young women are often encouraged, or even pressured, into pursuing education in more stereotypical “female-oriented” professions, such as teaching, nursing, care-giving, retail and office administration.
“Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has its challenges,” explained Lisa White, the owner of Absolute Laundry Systems in Eugene, Ore. “Mostly, it involves convincing the old-timers that I know a capacitor from a timer – overcoming the assumptions that I am not knowledgeable about the industry because I am a woman. I must be more confident, more accurate and more relentless than any man.”
Fortunately, there are a lot of confident, relentless women out there. And, heading into 2009, their numbers are growing.
There are exciting things happening inside world of women entrepreneurs. Women are now the dominant force in small-business ownership overall, and succeeding in industries that were once taboo for women.
And women are not only starting businesses, they’re succeeding in business. Between 1997 and 2006, businesses fully women-owned, or majority-owned by women, grew at nearly twice the rate of all U.S. firms (42.3 percent vs. 23.3 percent). During this same time period, employment among women-owned firms grew 0.4 percent, and annual sales grew 4.4 percent.
Although men still outnumber women at most self-service laundry meetings, service schools and trade shows, the face of today’s store owners and even distributors is changing, as more and more women gravitate to this business as an investment and a livelihood.
There weren’t a lot of women owning and operating self-service laundries 30 years ago. But that didn’t stop Sally Collins, who is clearly one of the pioneers when discussing women in this industry.
Collins and her husband, Joe, got into the business through their real estate ventures in New Jersey.
“We owned apartments,” she explained, “and also were the landlords for a laundromat. So, when the tenant left, we just stepped in and got involved that way.”
At the height of her laundry involvement, Collins operated three self-service laundries. However, today, “with one foot into retirement,” Collins hangs onto just one of them.
Over the years, she has led the way for men and women alike to succeed in the business, as a founding member and the first female president of the New Jersey Coin Laundry Association, as well as serving as a chairman of the Coin Laundry Association.
In addition, in 2006, she authored the popular book “Happiness is Owning a Laundromat,” which is an introduction to the self-service laundry business that’s geared toward potential investors.
Collins has seen women gain increased acceptance within the industry.
“Most definitely,” she said. “Look on the CLA Board of Directors. Today, we have two women represented, with store owner Bette Holland and manufacturer Amy Gitlin. And, next year, store owner Beverly Blank will be coming on board. When I was on the Board, it was just me. Women store owners are not that much of a rarity anymore. And, more and more, women are doing their own repairs, too.
“Diversity is always a good thing,” she added. “I believe that 50 percent of the population is women, so it’s a good thing for women to be represented as owners, distributors and on boards of directors.”
Collins admitted that her biggest challenges, especially in the early days, were dealing with vendors who always asked to speak to her husband first.
“It was like I couldn’t handle anything,” she laughed. “But the good part about that was, when I wanted to get out of something, I would say, ‘I have to speak to my husband.’ So it worked both ways.”
Equipment repairs were another obstacle for Collins, who was glad to see computers gain increased acceptance in the industry.
“I couldn’t do repairs,” she conceded. “But, now, almost everything is done with computers. They diagnose what’s wrong with the machine, and you just call up your distributor and get the parts. Computers have been very good for women when it comes to repairs.”
While being a woman in this business had – and in some ways still has – its drawbacks, Collins is quick to note the advantages of being a female laundry owner.
“Of course, a lot of business programs in towns and states cater to minorities – and a woman is a minority,” she said. “For instance, if you go for a small-business loan, a woman has a good chance of getting one because she is a minority. In my area, I’m in an Urban Enterprise Zone, and I get special consideration as a minority. So there are advantages.”
Another advantage is the fact that, in many markets, the end-users of the laundries are predominantly women.
“Almost all of your customers are women washing clothes,” Collins said. “I think it’s definitely a help when women are having trouble washing and you can pass along your experience with stains or with getting clothes clean. They take it woman to woman. They take it to heart.
“Plus, it’s easier to tell a man if he’s doing something wrong, like putting the colors in with the whites. Since you’re a woman, they assume you know something about washing clothes.”
For the last three years, the CLA has held its annual America’s Most Progressive Laundry contest. And the co-owner of the association’s current Most Progressive Laundry winner is (how very progressive!) a woman.
Laury Rosario – who owns Spin Cycle Café Laundromat in Newington, Conn., along with her cousin Jesus Ortiz – was breaking down gender barriers long before she decided to get into the laundry business.
Rosario is an arthropathic physician, who boasts a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a doctorate from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
Perhaps the biggest challenges she faced as a female entrepreneur came during the buildout of her award-winning laundromat.
“That’s when stereotypes kick in,” said Rosario, who faced the same type of stigma Collins experienced. “Most of the contractors that we dealt with would rather have spoken to my business partner than me because they thought I would know less about the subject, whether it was the plumbing or the electrical.
“Amusingly, nothing could have been further from the truth, because I have a science background and am very analytical in the way I think. Plumbing has been a side hobby of mine, so I understand the technicalities behind what loads we needed or what types of water demands were required.”
Eventually, co-owner Ortiz told the contractors that they would have better luck speaking with his cousin because she had a stronger background in those areas than he did.
“I had to earn the respect of the contractors I was dealing with, even though I was the paying customer,” said Rosario, who has been in the coin laundry business for about a year and a half. “For them to give me the opportunity to prove myself to them was a challenge and a half. I did that by narrowing down the ideas and expressing myself as articulately as I could – explaining exactly what I was looking for and not bowing down to what they thought we needed. It took some time and work, but eventually we all got on the same page.
“Just because women tend not to be dominant in commercial industry types of businesses, it’s not something we should shy away from,” she added. “We have the mental capabilities, and we do have the desire and passion to follow through with any type of business, even the coin laundry business.”
Wayne Finley, a regional business manager for Wascomat, has been in the industry for nearly 40 years. And he’s no doubt observed the increased proliferation of women in the industry.
In response to this relatively recent shift, he has formed a networking group of successful women distributors in his territory, which mainly covers the Southeast, the Southwest and some of the Midwestern states. The women share contact information and correspond with each other, offering assistance and business tips.
“It was just a thought I had, Finley explained. “I’ve been progressive in this business for 38 years. I was thinking about how I could make my job easier and help people. This is one way.
“I asked the women what they thought about it,” he added. “Would they be willing to give of themselves to others who call, and would they want to meet with each other on a regular basis? The way they do business and the way they look at business are a little bit different, but they’re successful. I wanted them to be available to the women who are coming into the marketplace.
“It’s a problem-solving group. If one of them has a situation or a problem, she can share it with the others. As more women come on board, it will help a lot of people.”
Finley’s group, which eventually will include women store owners as well, will meet in person on a more or less regular basis to discuss business issues in common. The women certainly will get together at the Clean Show next summer, according to Finley. However, with cell phones, e-mail and text messaging, the women can certainly communicate as quickly and as often as necessary.
“The good ol’ boys network, like everywhere else, has kept women out of this business, to some extent,” Finley noted. “It’s still alive in some isolated areas, but it’s slowly falling by the wayside. I know I’ve tried to kill it everywhere I could.”
One member of Finley’s new group is Debra Clark, the president of Arrow Machinery in Oklahoma. Clark grew up in the business with her father – industry pioneer Bill Cunningham – and has overseen the company for more than a decade.
“My father started the business 50 years ago,” Clark said. “It’s when coin laundries were first starting to be developed. He started with commercial equipment and drycleaning, and then became more interested in the coin laundry end of it. He was on the ground floor of the development of that industry in Oklahoma.
“I was 5 years old at the time. He had his distributorship for Oklahoma, as well as several coin laundries. I grew up in the business, counting quarters on Sunday afternoon watching football.”
Due to the heavy commercial equipment involved, Clark sees the self-service laundry industry as one where men and women can work in harmony.
“It’s a business where you have a perfect balance, using the best skills of both genders,” said Clark, who holds degrees in psychology and business. “I can look at a laundry from a woman’s perspective and think about what I would want if I were going to a laundry. For instance, I would want a clean laundry, brightly lit with a lot of windows. I would want to feel safe and be able to get in and out as quickly as possible.”
Of course, Clark, despite being practically born into the laundry business, recalled several times in the 1970s, when male customers would call Arrow for parts information and demand to talk to a man.
Today, according to Clark, the company’s female office manager has more technical information than its president and, as a result, customers will call up and specifically ask for her.
“That never would have happened 30 years ago,” said Clark, adding that there are now more women – and more diversification in general – in all fields. “We have a lot of Asians in the business now. We have family-owned business. It’s changed… for the better.”
Authority Always Wins
Helen Feinsod recalled a passage from a book she read by the late American author Peg Bracken.
“It talked about the fact that, if a woman needs something done, some sort of service, something repaired, “Feinsod said, “she should find a man to make that phone call, even if she has to drag in the paperboy – as long as he has a marginally deep voice. The point being that a man is going to get service faster.”
Feinsod noted that the book in question was probably 30 years old, but she added there is still some truth to that.
“To get things done, you need to have some kind of weight, some kind of authority,” said Feinsod, who co-owns Wash Happenin’, a self-service laundry in Snyder, Texas, along with her daughter Celia Mosales.
Feinsod developed her authoritative presence in the 1970s, as the co-owner of the Purple Sage Motel, also in Snyder. And she recalled feeling “extremely intimidated” while working the front desk, if a situation arose that she had never handled before. What’s more, similar to many other women in all businesses, she remembered an instance where she called an electrician to the hotel and, upon arriving, he promptly asked, “Where’s your husband?”
“Since I’ve had the laundromat, that hasn’t happened,” she said. “I have more experience, and I’m older. I think you develop a sort of authority.”
Like Sally Collins, Feinsod also pointed to card systems and today’s computerized technology as ways of leveling the playing field for women, for whom the nuts and bolts of equipment repairs might not be a strong suit.
A Woman’s Touch
Carol Leake and her husband own L&M Laundry Services, as well as two self-service laundries in Memphis, Tenn. Although she’s only been in the industry for the last 10 years, she’s noticed a few more women distributors and store owners in her marketplace.
“Not a ton, but some,” she said
And she feels that a woman’s touch is very noticeable in two distinct areas of coin laundry management and operations.
“At times, customers can get irate in laundries about something that happened to their clothes or with the equipment,” Leake said. “If you speak to them nicely, they are probably not going to get in your face as they would with a man. They’re not going to challenge you to the same degree. There is a feminine advantage working for you in those terms. Typically, women are just naturally good a smoothing things over with customers.”
Women also know what other women want in a laundromat.
“I had a lot of influence in the design of our stores, because I wanted them to be comfortable, well-lit places where people would feel happy bringing their children,” she noted. “In our larger store, we installed in a big-screen TV and a carpeted area with leather sofas, along with an Internet kiosk. I also added some nice decorative touches, such as a mosaic tile wall that’s very pretty. We get a lot of compliments. And those touches have helped make our laundries a huge success.”
Like Debra Clark, Lisa White was practically born into the family laundry business, Absolute Laundry Systems in Eugene, Ore. Her father founded the business 30 years ago, and White remembers going out on service calls with him as a teenager.
Unfortunately, her father became disabled 15 years ago, and the rest of the family, including Lisa, had to step in and take over.
“I realized very early that it was a male-dominated industry,” White said. “The first few meetings that I had I was completely disregarded. They would go to my brother or my husband. I was really frustrated. I went home to my Dad, and he said, ‘Honey, if you’re going to be able to do this, you’re going to have to be a lot stronger and tougher.’
“I’m the one who was carrying those feeling about being inadequate and not knowing how to get through to some of those people, particularly older men, which is usually who we dealt with. I was confident in what I knew. I had to learn how to assert that, so they understood I was confident. I had to be better than the men. I had to be more assertive and know my facts better.
“After a little while, you create this person who wouldn’t necessarily be a person you’d recognize outside of the business, because you have to be more assertive and more aggressive.”
White admits that occasionally she runs into people who, for whatever reason, just won’t deal with a woman when it comes to business.
“At the end of the day, there is not going to be a challenge I can’t overcome,” she said. “There is not going to be a customer that doesn’t want to deal with me – 99 percent of the time I earn their respect.
“In fact, we just went into the Portland market, where every single solitary person anyone has ever dealt with since time began was a male. I walk in and they’re like, ‘Well, where’s your boss? Where’s your partner? Who are you? You’re young and you’re a woman. You can’t possibly know what you need to know to be here.’ The difference is that it takes me a lot longer to open the door. Guys can just start talking and the door is open. For me, they keep me at arm’s length for a lot longer.”
However, in the last three to four years, White has noticed a lot of new investors who are interested in the coin laundry business – younger professionals who are more accepting of women in the business. She also has seen – and encourages – more wives and female partners getting involved in the meetings and business decisions.
During those meetings, White admitted to having somewhat of a built-in advantage as a woman.
“Sometimes people are not as threatened by me,” she explained. “Where someone has come to a coin laundry investment seminar, I have had people say I’m very approachable. Perhaps if they don’t know much about the industry, they don’t want to look stupid asking questions. I think there is a tendency for men to want to feel confident with the facts. So, I have heard people say that they feel comfortable coming to me and admitting, ‘Hey, I don’t know anything about this. I’m not mechanically inclined. I don’t know how to fix this equipment.’ And I think they’ll automatically assume that I don’t either.”
Is the “old boys’ network” in the coin laundry business dead?
Of course not.
“Unfortunately, it has been my experience that most of the men in this industry feel that this is the way they’ve done it, this is the way they do it and they’re not changing,” explained one woman laundry owner. “And if you come up with a new idea or have a problem, ‘You don’t know anything,’ It’s made me retreat from the group aspect of this industry, and just go do my own thing.”
Slowly, hopefully, that mentality is changing.
“At the last Clean Show, I saw more women, and I saw all of the different manufacturers talking a lot more to the women, not leaving them out of the conversation,” White said. “I would never complain about it. The truth of the matter is that, yes, you have to work a little bit harder as a woman in this business. But this industry isn’t any different than a lot of the other industries in which women participate today.
“Try being a female firefighter or police officer or construction worker or plumber. This is not exclusive to the coin laundry business.”
No, it certainly isn’t.
Just ask Kim Ng, who recently interviewed for – and lost out on – the Seattle Mariners’ general manager position.