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Wash, dry, fold and make over

TV shows are big on "makeovers" — sprucing up what was dull or neglected. Cosmetic makeovers. Wardrobe makeovers. Interior design makeovers. Entire house makeovers.

But a coin laundry makeover?

On St. Petersburg's busy Fourth Street, next to the St. Pete Bagel Co., husband-and-wife team Leonard and Jennifer Cooperman bought the small Northeast Laundry three years ago with a Small Business Administration loan and the dream of all new business owners. Make it bigger, better. Oh, yeah — and profitable.

Leonard saw a national small-business makeover solicitation by Your Business —a cable TV show on MSNBC. "What the heck," he said to himself and filled out an online application.

The result? A financial, marketing and management makeover — plus five minutes of fame in a segment airing this morning. The MSNBC show starts at 7:30 a.m. It's repeated next Saturday at (gulp) 5:30 a.m. It will be archived on the "Your Business" page at www.msnbc.com.

Show host J.J. Ramberg teamed up with Albuquerque, N.M., consultant Greg Brue, who wanted to show how a business management system called Six Sigma — developed at Motorola and traditionally a tool used by big companies to minimize manufacturing defects — was just as effective in improving small businesses.

Ramberg and Brue descended on Northeast Laundry with a TV crew in June for two days of filming. Leonard, north of 6 feet tall, appears next to Ramberg, maybe 5 feet tall in big heels. In one scene, Ramberg stands on a box to appear taller.

Leonard finished up the final interviews for the show on Thursday at the local WEDU TV station.

Brue himself spent months, in between consulting gigs, using Six Sigma techniques to mine the Coopermans' day-to-day business data. Pounds of laundry per week and per hour. Labor scheduling and labor costs. Brue told the Coopermans to — please — save all their laundry tickets so he could track the flow of customers and show when best to have employees on hand.

"Wednesday?" said Brue. "Forget it." It's a slow day.

The Coopermans are hardly slackers. While they both hold down full-time jobs, they are not absentee owners. And they already had lots of ideas to improve the business before the makeover.

Leonard, 46, works for an air-conditioning company, has an economics degree from the University of Florida and has some demonstrated sales skills. Jennifer, 37 and also a UF grad, majored in psychology and works in social welfare services for Camelot Community Care. They live in Treasure Island.

Leonard handles sales and the machines, Jennifer says. She handles employees and the books — a business skill she had to master from scratch.

The two spruced up the laundry exterior with bright yellow paint. It may be one of the few in town to offer air conditioning and a working TV. They plan to share an outdoor LED sign with the next-door bagel shop. They sprinkle orange-and-blue (they are Gators, remember) painted quarters in change machines to reward lucky customers with extra laundry services. They have their own Web site — northeastlaundry.com — and offer coupons on it.

All good, but not enough, Brue says, to make a profit. And today's economy makes it tougher. The laundry washes between 6,000 and 7,000 pounds of laundry per week. A profitable goal: 10,000 pounds weekly.

The Six Sigma consultant urged the Coopermans, after three years with no price changes, to raise some prices by 18 cents. Brue showed how, with enough data, they could predict the light and heavy times of the week for customers. He told them to reserve their biggest washers — $6,500 machines that can wash 40 pounds at a time — for their own in-house wash-dry-fold employees instead of wasting such machines on coin-operated walk-in traffic.

And he urged the couple to become more mobile — literally go out and get the business — by offering potential customers the ability to drop off laundry at, say, day care centers, and pick it up in the same place later in the day.

Leonard wants to take that idea further. He wants to pitch bigger area companies like a Raymond James or a Jabil Circuit on letting his business in to serve the laundry needs of time-challenged employees.

Think of it as wash-dry-fold-expand.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

A new business blog to launch

On Monday, the St. Petersburg Times launches a blog called Venture, peppered with daily news, views and updates relevant to the Tampa Bay business community. Anchored by early morning missives from Times business columnist Robert Trigaux and daily input from other business writers, Venture will be a mixture of on-the-scene reports and news from afar that has bay area ties. Check it out with a cup of coffee — we invite you to add your own comments — at blogs.tampabay.com/venture.

Wash, dry, fold and make over 09/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 12:54pm]
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