By Dave McMahon | Jul 26, 2010
Scotti Stephens admits she sometimes gets ahead of herself. Look before you leap? Stephens might take that adage with a grain of salt.
Take, for instance, her decision to enter the self-service laundry business by purchasing the existing Brights Laundry and Dry Cleaning in Bellingham, Wash.
“I had no knowledge of the business,” she said. “I used a laundromat in college, but I never even considered it after that. I was a licensed realtor at the time I first got interested, and I saw the store in the business listings. Cha-ching. There it was, and I wrote the offer that day.”
In hindsight, of course, her snap decision was right on the money.
Prior to getting into the laundry industry, Stephens was a licensed general contractor, as well as a realtor, who spent most of her time building and selling homes.
“I did that from 1996 to 2008,” she said. “I was married at the time, and we would design and sell homes. We did a whole development. I did everything but run the crews and order materials.”
Upon her divorce, Stephens continued to sell homes. But she saw the writing on the wall after one too many loan meetings.
“I asked myself if this was really what I wanted to be doing,” Stephens recalled. “I was uncomfortable with how lenders were giving away money to people who had no business being able to receive those kinds of loans. So I told myself I was going to get out of it.”
The next step? Using her interest in Robert Kiyosaki’s book, “Rich Dad’s Cashflow Quadrant,” to find something that suited her financial needs, a laundromat was the hands-down winner.
“It would be something new, clean, neat and affordable. And it would give me something to do as I was finishing up my divorce,” she added. “Real estate investing was my first love. Real estate and a cash-based business go hand-in-hand. When this store came up for sale, I said ‘Let’s go for it.’”
The 39-year-old Stephens grew up on Lopez Island (pop. 1,800), part of the San Juan chain of islands in far western Washington. Three months away from beginning a job as a park ranger, Shannon agreed to start Shannon Construction Inc. with her husband.
But after playing the “Cashflow Quadrant” game long enough, Stephens was ready to use her real estate background to get into the coin laundry business.
“It was a stressful time in my life,” Stephens said. “I was looking for something in my head that I thought would be easy. It’s been challenging, but it’s given me time to be with my family when I want to be. I job hunted a little bit, but with every job, it was, ‘I have to be here every day of the year except for these seven holidays?’ I’m used to working hard, but if I want to not work on Tuesday, then I don’t work on Tuesday. I’m spoiled to the nines when it comes to when I work. I can work as many hours as I want to, which is great because I have 50-50 custody of my kids. I can take a half-day to go to school events. This allows me to support my family and didn’t seem totally overwhelming to run. It’s proved to be a challenge, but it’s been very rewarding.”
Needless to say, the flexible hours that owning a laundromat offers sit well with Stephens. The ability to spend time with her children, ages 9 and 11, also ranks high, as does meeting her customers.
“I love meeting new people,” she said. “I have a close connection with my customers. I talk to people about their lives and their news. I like getting to know everybody.”
Stephens is celebrating her third year as owner of Brights Laundry in 2010, and has no regrets about taking the dive into the coin laundry industry.
“I can’t go anywhere in town without running into a customer,” she said. “My mom was in town and we went to get a pedicure. We met a customer of mine there. We went to Red Robin and there was a customer there. We ran into a customer at the mall. It has a nice, homey feel in this area. You feel connected to the community that way. It feels like where I grew up.”
Brights Laundry, which originally opened in 2001, has provided Stephens with an ideal location – one in which she leases.
“It was an location, and it’s not the most affluent area of town,” she said. “It tends to fit the demo. We have apartment complexes, transitional housing, a grocery store, a shopping center. It’s convenient, with a lot of people living and driving nearby.”
However, Stephens couldn’t exactly turn to the previous owner for much insight to the ins and outs of the operation.
“The former owner is Korean and speaks very little English, so I learned more Korean than I did about laundry in the transition,” Stephens said. “I’m self-taught. I Googled ‘how to fold sheets.’”
Never one to waste a second, Stephens immediately discovered what she didn’t know about owning a laundromat.
“The biggest surprise was that I didn’t think about fixing the machines,” she said. “It really didn’t occur to me that they would break. I’m not mechanically inclined at all. And I was almost in tears trying to replace a card reader. The card system was one of the selling points. I did not want to deal with quarters or vandalism. Bills are out of site and out of mind, and we’ve had no vandalism.”
Stephens has learned to make some less taxing repairs and replacements herself, but knows that the time will come soon enough when new equipment will be in order.
“I can change thermometers and thermostats. I learned to do that. My biggest challenge is making enough profit to be able to service the machines,” she said. “I’m in the process of shopping for some new machines.
“My repair guy, Richard – I can’t live without him. I’ll call and tell him the washer is bouncing up and down and making a shotgun noise. He patiently walks me through what I need to do.”
It should come as no surprise, however, that Stephens is thriving as a sole proprietor. Her family has a history of self-employment. Her grandparents built houses on Lopez Island, and when the time came to make a career change, they also did so on the fly. Galley Restaurant has been a staple on Lopez Island for decades, and Stephens’ father was a regular customer.
“He learned from the owner that it was going to be up for sale,” Stephens said. “He mentioned it to my dad and my dad wrote an offer over breakfast before it even went on the market. They had it for three years before my dad returned to the accounting business.”
Another appealing aspect of Stephens’ current line of work is the clientele.
“It’s all over the board,” she said. “It’s largely Caucasian, with Hispanic, Indian or Hindu, and quite a few Native Americans. We take vouchers from a homeless shelter nearby. And we have the affluent who live out on a lake but can’t use the water for washing machines because of water regulations, and they come here.”
Folks from other walks of life also come to the store. From caterers and drywall contractors to boat excursion companies, Brights Laundry has its share of local businesses helping the bottom line.
And for those who haven’t discovered her store yet, Stephens does what she can to try to invite them in. Of course, it’s nothing of the tried-and-true variety.
“I hate advertising,” she said. “I’ve tried all sorts of things – grocery carts, phone books. The best thing I’ve done is a smart-alecky ad in the free weekly newspaper. It’s a shirtless guy who says ‘When my clothes are dirty, I go to Brights Laundry.’ I get more comments on that ad than anything I’ve ever done. I’ve had guys ask if they could be the model in the ad.”
It’s those memorable touches that allow Brights Laundry to continue to flourish. With one laundromat across the street and another nearby, Stephens feels nearly no threat to her business.
“We’re the cleanest and the greenest and the friendliest,” Stephens said. “We have live plants, the floors are shiny. We have micro-fiber chairs in the lobby. And we’re fully attended. We know 60 percent to 70 percent of our customers by name. We’re very involved.”
Stephens figures that going green is the only way to go in 2010.
“We have on-demand water heaters,” she explained. “We use low-voltage lighting. We buy green power through Puget Sound Energy. And we do all of our drop-off laundry with environmentally friendly detergent.
“Somebody comes and takes the dryer lint to make candles and fire starters. We recycle daily newspapers that customers bring in. We do take-a-book, leave-a-book. I’m into green. It’s really important to take care of the environment and use as little energy as possible.”
Stephens lends a hand to the community by offering a $1.19 wash vend price on Wednesday, a discount from the usual $2 rate.
The wash-dry-fold service at Brights allows customers to get their laundry done for 85 cents a pound, with a 10-pound minimum.
“That’s been pretty well-received,” Stephens said. “We have bachelors, massage therapists, charter boat companies, caterers. It’s steadily increasing, year after year. If I was into sales, I think it could really be something. But I’m not good at pitching my products. I’m good at pitching someone else’s. But there’s the potential to get more of these accounts.”
Stephens also asks customers who appear to being doing laundry for a business if they want to use her drop-off services.
The wash-dry-fold portion of her business extends beyond the 50 percent threshold of her business, particularly during the summer. Bellingham Bay provides a variety of boat rental options, including overnight excursions.
“I’m closed on Thursdays, and one of the charter boat operators comes in on Thursdays and will do laundry for up to seven hours," she said. "That’s about $400 while the store is closed. You can’t beat it.”
Stephens has never had the desire to operate more than a top-notch laundromat, so she has shied away from providing a number of ancillary profit centers.
“We have a couple of vending machines that still take Canadian quarters,” she said. “I’m not going to compete with Subway. I’m a laundry.”
Brights Laundry, which typically employs two to three part-time attendants, opens at 8 a.m. with the last wash at 8 p.m.
“I’ve opened as early as 6 and closed as late as 11, but 8 to 8 works well for us,” Stephens said. “When I first bought it and I wasn’t involved like I am now, I had two full-time employees. But that’s changed a bit and now I’m here full time.”
Stephens counts her amicable personality as one of her strengths as a business owner.
“I also care about customer service and I want my business to be as green as possible,” she said. “I love to shop. Shopping for washers? It’s not shoes, but I can figure it out. What’s the best option? I love talking to people. Just treat people as if they’re valuable. Without them, you’re nothing.”
Some customers are clamoring for Stephens to open a second store in Ferndale, north of Bellingham.
“I would possibly open another one,” she said. “Some of my customers travel 45 minutes to get to me. Obviously they’re doing other things here, but they pass plenty of laundromats on the way. I’ve been asked to open another store, but right now there’s only one of me and my kids are little. So not at the moment, but I’m always looking. I’ll never turn down an idea.”
That’s proven to be a vital approach to her success in a variety of businesses.