By Bob Nieman | May 30, 2012
After more than 30 years in the financial industry, Connie Ihrke finally knows what she wants to be when she grows up.
A coin laundry owner.
“In the banking business, my professional responsibilities kept me on the road quite often,” said Ihrke, who owns Belmont Eco Laundry in Portland, Ore. “And after 30-some years, I looked around, and I wasn’t having fun anymore. I have a wonderful husband, a wonderful family and great friends – so what’s wrong?”
Clearly, Ihrke needed a career change. So, when she saw an opportunity to exit corporate America, she jumped at it.
“I spent the next nine months doing some due diligence,” she explained. “What did I want to do with my life? I completed some self-analysis and discovered that I have an entrepreneurial personality, even though I hadn’t owned a business before. Now was the time.”
Her journey led her to study a number of different small-business opportunities. And, in the end, the coin laundry business seemed to be the best fit.
“I think the biggest factor was the flexibility in my day that a coin laundry could provide me,” noted Ihrke, who estimates that she spends about 35 to 40 hours a week working in her store. “I can be a workaholic, but I need to have flexibility to be able to come and go, and maybe pursue other interests as well. So, that was the main advantage.
“My next step was to develop a good business plan, look at the equipment choices and start thinking about store locations,” she added. “In order to choose the right location, I visited every store in Portland and its surrounding areas.”
Ihrke found the ideal location in the Belmont neighborhood of Portland, a busy retail and residential area known for its coffee shops, restaurants, pubs and food carts.
“I did a lot of analysis on the community itself,” she said. “It’s in the inner city, but it has that small-community feel. The demographics are very good for a laundromat – a lot of apartments and a lot of rentals. And it also fit my criteria of being no more than 30 minutes from my home.”
The store itself was an existing, 2,800-square-foot laundromat that shares a common wall with a mini-mart next door. And the previous owner ran the business right up until the day Ihrke took over.
“We gutted the site back to the bare studs, giving the building a fresh look and feel,” said Ihrke, of the two-and-a-half-month renovation project. “We recycled doors, wood, lights, heaters and anything that was accepted at a recycle site. We installed eco-friendly T-12 lights, energy-efficient heating and air conditioning units, and energy-efficient hot water tanks. ‘Think green’ was our project theme.
“My husband, Jay, and I are both do-it-yourselfers, so we handled much of the remodel ourselves – anything that didn’t require a licensed contractor. We worked 12 hours a day on the store. And, toward the end, it was more like 18 hours a day to get it up and running.”
In February 2011, the hard work paid off, and Belmont Eco Laundry opened for business.
Ihrke kicked off her grand opening with a free-wash special. And, since then, she has advertised in several local newspapers and also uses a sidewalk sandwich board to catch the attention of commuters.
However, word of mouth remains her best form of advertising.
“I spend a lot of time going into all of the local businesses,” she explained. “This particular street is famous in the city for its quaint, little restaurants, and I frequent all of the businesses.
“I joined the Belmont area business association right away, and I sit on its board. I’m active in the community. I provide a lot of donations to schools and local teams, and that in itself has been very helpful.”
Her environmentally friendly business practices have also drawn a loyal following to her new venture.
“This particular community is very earth-friendly,” said Ihrke, whose store is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. “Eco is very important to me. I want to help protect the earth’s resources. Therefore, it was important for me to purchase laundry equipment that would allow me to be earth-friendly, and to save on water and natural gas.”
In addition, Ihrke’s janitorial team uses only environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, and the store recycles all of its used detergent containers.
“My recycle pile is larger than the garbage that is taken out of here,” she noted.
But, according to Ihrke, the biggest thing that differentiates Belmont Eco Laundry from the other laundries in the marketplace is its cleanliness.
“That’s number one,” said Ihrke, who has one part-time attendant. “I have my floors waxed on a routine basis. I spend time there every day, cleaning and wiping down the machines. I have chrome chairs that are always polished, and the windows are kept spotless.”
Since opening, Belmont Eco Laundry has been growing steadily and is now earning 300 percent what the previous laundry was making per month. And, to grow her business even further, Ihrke is also considering adding a wash-dry-fold service and some commercial accounts to the mix.
“Now that we have a year under our belt, I am starting to look at the feasibility of other ancillary type services that would complement a coin laundry,” she said.
Ihrke and her husband also are considering a second location.
“We definitely have been talking about a second store,” she admitted. “We’re looking at the financial aspects now and looking for locations. We’re working on a business plan for that.”
And for anyone who – like her – may be considering opening a self-service laundry, Ihrke offers these words of wisdom:
“Do your homework, gain knowledge of the industry, work with a qualified distributor and have a good understanding of what you expect from the business. A solid business plan and guidance from industry experts are critical to success. It’s also essential for business owners to stay committed to their business plan. You must have a passion for what you are doing and stay focused. The biggest success factor is having a good time along the way. If you lose sight of the present moment, the joys cannot be experienced.”
As a successful new store owner, Ihrke has come a long way in her journey from banking to Belmont Eco Laundry.
“The idea of owning a laundry business was uncharted waters and raised a lot of eyebrows from my family and friends,” she said. “However, I learned a long time ago that, if you keep your focus and do not let others distract you, you will succeed.”