By Bob Nieman | Aug 28, 2009
For more than 20 years, Rob Maes was, by his own admission, the maverick in his family.
“My father was an entrepreneur who owned several different businesses of all types,” explained Maes, who jokingly added that his dad involved him and his siblings in many of his business ventures. “I think he broke every child labor law that ever existed. I can specifically remember being in second grade, and he had me driving a pickup truck on one of his land development properties. I was scrubbing toilets when I was 7 years old, and driving tractors and bulldozers at a very early age. I got exposed to a lot.”
However, after college, Maes made a beeline for corporate America and spent the next two decades working his way diligently up the ladder in a number of button-down sales and marketing positions. In fact, in his most recent corporate position – with international oil and gas giant Total – Maes was responsible for purchasing all of the company’s freight in North America.
“After 20-plus years in corporate America, I was actually the black sheep in the family who decided to go the corporate route instead of going into business for myself.”
As time went by, Maes – who lives in the Houston area with his wife, Shelly, and three children, Emil, Erin and Elliot – was finding the corporate world less and less appealing.
“In my last job, I was the logistics purchasing manager for Total, so I was negotiating with the railroads and trucking companies,” he said. “During that time, rail freight just skyrocketed in terms of activity, and the railroads significantly increased their rates in a very short period. Believe me, I’m a creative guy; I tried every way I could to negotiate with these railroads. It just wasn’t a lot of fun.
“So, after 20 years of doing the corporate thing, I thought it was time to try to go into business for myself.”
Maes went online, visiting various Web sites that broker businesses. Among the most commonly found small-business possibilities online were sandwich/pizza franchises, automotive repair shops and self-service laundries.
For a number of reasons, Maes kept coming back to the laundry business as his best option.
“The capital investment is relatively low, compared to a lot of other businesses I looked at,” he noted. “I knew I could do it myself without getting a bunch of partners. Also, I could manage it myself, and with today’s technology, I knew I could manage it remotely.
“There is a lot of competition in Houston, but the quality was such that I felt there was definitely an opportunity to offer something better,” he added.
Once Maes began doing his homework on the laundry industry, he quickly came across the Coin Laundry Association Web site and promptly signed up for the association’s upcoming management conference in Orlando, Fla., in February 2007.
“I left the corporate world in January 2007, so the timing was impeccable,” Maes said. “I decided to go to that CLA conference, and that’s when it all started. The smartest decision I ever made before I got into this business was joining the CLA. At the conference, I met [CLA Chairman] Mike Floyd, and that’s what excited me about getting into the business. Mike did a presentation in Orlando, and it just hit home with me.”
After the Orlando meeting, Maes went home and personally visited more than 100 self-service laundries in his area, washing clothes in each store, taking copious notes and planning his new self-service laundry business.
In the summer of 2008, Maes discovered the perfect location for his new business venture in the north Houston metro area. In fact, he liked the location so much that he leased two sites at once. Approximately 11 miles apart, both locations were remodels of existing retail space in strip malls – one a former bank and the other an office for a staffing agency – and both are owned by the same landlord.
One strip center is in Houston, while the other is in nearby Spring, Texas – although neither is technically within the city limits of either city.
“By doing two stores rather than one, we were able to leverage a better deal, whether it was in our construction costs, our leases, legal fees and so on,” Maes said. “And now we have a lot more leverage with the landlord. By having two locations, we have a bigger say in the things that we do with him. We have a very good relationship. Plus, we’re creating the brand, and two stores make a more significant brand than one.”
Maes is certainly looking to the future.
“Part of the strategy behind creating the two stores is so that when we go to build future ones, we’ll invite other landlords to see the two we currently have, and they’ll know that we’re in this for the long haul and that we have a business model that works and can actually help them with their retail centers,” he explained.
Both leases were signed August 31 of last year. Unfortunately, within two weeks, Hurricane Ike struck the area – and all renovation work came to a standstill.
“We had just started construction on both of these laundries, and the hurricane hit,” Maes said. “The entire city was knocked on its butt for over a week. Nobody had power. People were just trying to figure out how to survive. We lost two weeks in the process because of the hurricane, and then we also lost two additional weeks because of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.”
The double-remodel faced some added obstacles as well.
“In general, we underestimated what it would cost to do these build-outs, and the fact that the hurricane hit didn’t help,” Maes explained. “Every contractor in the state of Texas immediately had five times the normal amount of work. Getting things as simple as a dumpster became a real challenge – every dumpster in town was spoken for.”
What’s more, with the price of gasoline hovering around the $4-per-gallon mark last year, the cost of raw materials for the two self-service laundries was sky high.
The project hit another speed bump when asbestos was discovered in the buildings.
“Because the buildings are 30 years old, before we even started the process, we had identified some asbestos,” Maes said. “And once we started the demolition, we found more of it. If you’re dealing with a building that’s more than 20 years old, I would definitely have something in the lease about asbestos. We did, and I’m glad we did – because found it, time and time again as we did the remodeling. Fortunately, the landlord agreed to cover the cost of the cleanup.”
And when the dust (and asbestos) had settled, the Houston store, which is 5,500 square feet, opened last March, while the 3,500-square-foot laundry in Spring opened a few weeks later in mid-April.
What Maes originally thought was going to take only four months ended up becoming a seven-month rehab project. However, the results – two brand new Express Laundry Centers – were worth the wait.
The Express Laundry Center logo is featured prominently throughout each store – on the walls, doors, floor mats and even in the restrooms.
Maes used simulated cherry wood Formica panels on the walls to match the bulkheads and create a rich, uniformed look, similar to how wall paneling in a dining room would typically match the furniture.
“We used two-inch PEX, or cross-linked polyethylene plastic, water pipes below grade to create a clean open look,” he said. “You will not find any plumbing soffits or other obstructions hanging from the ceilings in our stores. My idea was to ‘sleeve’ the PEX piping, much like how underground wiring is sleeved with PVC pipe. By sleeving the PEX, we protect the pipe from any potential of being crushed, and should the PEX pipe ever fail, it could easily be removed and replaced inside the sleeve without ever disrupting the floor.”
All aisles at the Express Laundry Centers are at least eight feet wide to allow customers ample room to maneuver around the stores with their laundry carts. Also, Maes cut ramps into the sidewalks to allow for easy laundry cart access from the stores to customers’ vehicles. In addition, both laundries feature automatic sliding doors for convenience.
Although both of Maes’ Express Laundry Centers are similar in equipment and décor, they each cater to two separate markets. The larger, Houston-based store features more “traditional” coin laundry demographics, with a lot of low-income renters; however, it’s also “very close to country clubs and million-dollar homes,” according to Maes.
The second, smaller location in Spring is in a more affluent area. “The income levels are higher [at the Spring store], but yet there are still a lot of traditional customers,” he noted. “We’re getting a lot more drop-off business at this smaller store.”
In addition to their drop-off laundry services, both stores boast a wide array of ancillary profit centers, from big-screen TVs and free Internet for customers to a number of arcade and vending options.
“At our larger store, we sold 800 cans of soda last month. It blew me away,” marveled Maes, who found used vending machines on Craig’s List. “I’m debating getting a second soda machine. It’s a cash cow. I love it! I personally buy all of the soda and stock the machine because it’s so much fun.
“It’s like going to Denny’s and buying the Grand Slam Breakfast for $5, but then they charge you $2 for the cup of coffee,” he added. “That’s what we’re doing. Some people are price-conscious about the washers, yet they’ll term around and spend $4 on drinks, snacks and arcade games, and not think twice about it. All laundry owners should be getting a nice healthy premium for all of their ancillary businesses.”
Not that Maes is against getting a premium on his washers and dryers as well.
“Our goal is to be the price leader,” he stated. “At the smaller store, which is in a more affluent location, it’s been easy; we’ve had no resistance to our pricing there at all. However, at the bigger store, the customers are definitely voting with their pocketbooks. We are seeing a significant number of turns on the 20-pound washers, versus the bigger machines.
“The irony is that, on a price-per-pound basis, it’s no cheaper. But because the cost of the wash is cheaper, everyone is gravitating to the smaller washers. But, long term, we want to be a price leader.”
And make no mistake – Rob Maes is definitely thinking long term.
“I’m a big picture guy. I’m trying to build laundromats that will be nice enough and different enough so that I’ll be able to attract a different investor pool to want to buy them,” explained Maes, who currently employs 10 part-time attendants between the two laundries. “Many people have this problem with their perceptions of this industry, and they’re unwilling to overcome them.
“Although the economy is not helping, my business is growing consistently every month. The plan is to optimize the two stores. Then, we’ll go out and build more – hopefully, a lot more.