Evolving business

GLOVERSVILLE – Even for local people, the name Robison & Smith was sometimes difficult.

Frequently mispronounced or misspelled “Robinson” & Smith, the 100-year-old laundry company has decided to change its name to Century Linen & Uniform, a move aimed at greater clarity and reflective of the growing business’ evolution from primarily a dry cleaner, laundry service for people in Gloversville into a major player in the commercial laundry and linen rental industries.

“The name has bugged me for a long time actually,” company owner Richard Smith said of his decision to rebrand the company. “Basically, the name Robison & Smith doesn’t say anything about what we do; it could be a law firm or an accounting firm or any number of businesses. The Robison family hasn’t been associated with the business since the early 1950s and we just thought it was time to change in our hundredth year to a modern, more relevant name, somewhat describing what we do.”

What Smith’s company does is not always apparent from the outside of its facility at 335 N. Main St., which is still fronted by one of the company’s two retail dry cleaning and laundry operations. Smith said about 50 percent of his firm’s revenues come from linen rented to the healthcare industry – which includes hospital bed sheets, surgical scrubs, uniforms and other items, 45 percent of revenues come from linens rented to the hospitality industry in the form of restaurant and hotel uniforms, tablecloths, napkins and floormats and only about 5 percent comes from the retail dry cleaning and laundry operations.

“When we are courting a new customer we have them come to this facility. They always arrive here with this horror stricken look on their faces because all they see is the coin-op laundry and the small dry cleaning counter, but we are actually one of the largest most efficient, productive, healthcare laundries in the Northeast,” Smith said.

Matt Smith, Century Linen & Uniform’s vice president of sales, said the rebranding should enhance the company’s?Internet presence, making it easier for customers seeking a commercial linen company to find them. Matt is the fourth generation of Smiths to work for the company after his great-grandfather, Willard Smith, co-founder with Frank Robison in 1915, his grandfather, Arnold Smith and his father, Richard. Matt said even though the name and logo have changed the business is essentially the same.

“It’s not a new corporation, it’s just a change of name corporation. There has been no new corporation. It’s the same ownership. There has been no transfer of stock or anything. We want our name to say what we do,” he said.

In addition to the changed name, the company has adopted a lion logo in place of its old R&S. Fitting the lion motif, the firm has adopted a ferocious growth strategy that may or may not allow them to remain in the local area.

Appetite for growth

For a company that started as a horse and buggy laundry service, Century Linen & Uniform has gone through explosive growth since adopting a commercial linen strategy in the mid-1980s. Richard said under the family’s original business model peak employment was about 250, but today the company has 296 employees and sometimes more than 300 during the summer season when demand for fresh linens at hotels in Saratoga Springs is high. The Smiths say the company’s payroll is approximately $9.5 million and worked 602,981 labor hours. With that workforce the company processed about 32 million pounds of linens for the healthcare and hospitality industries over the past 12 months and drove about 30,000 miles to service its clients, which are located as far west as the Syracuse area, as far north as Plattsburgh and as far south as Kingston, Richard Smith said.

Matt said the company opened up a second processing plant, which he oversees at 542 N. Perry St., in Johnstown, about 10 years ago. He said when the company expanded to two plants it had about 180 employees, but over time employment grew thanks to the expanded production space.

Richard said over the past decade his company has managed to grow revenues by between 7 and 10 percent every year, but now he fears he won’t be able to do it without a new, larger facility.

“Right now, we are between a rock and a hard place in terms of growing. We always need to grow, but right now we can’t because we’ve grown too much,” he said.

Matt said in order to grow revenues, the company would need to hire a 3rd shift of employees at its plants, adding to the two shifts of workers they have now at both, essentially making them a 24-hour a day operation. He said that’s not a direction he or his father want to go because currently the company’s technicians perform maintenance and repair of its machines during the short window each day when they aren’t processing laundry.

“Nothing good would come from it,” Matt said.

Richard said with a new facility he knows his company could increase production while reducing costs .

“Our plants are physically too small, they are physically too restrictive in accommodating new efficient equipment that could decrease our labor costs,” he said. “We know we can grow now and we know we can be more efficient, not just with labor, but we’re talking about utilities, chemicals, logistics of getting 10 tractor trailers in and out of Gloversville everyday through these small streets that were never designed for that.”

Possible move

Richard said last year his company began leasing a facility in Albany and for awhile considered moving his production there. He said his experience in Albany convinced him he would prefer to remain in Fulton County.

“The building had some problems, some ownership problems – the guy hadn’t paid his taxes in five years -we didn’t know that,” he said. “Honestly, the demographics for employment weren’t comparable to what we have here, which is really a great workforce here. We have an awful lot of great people that I don’t think we would find down there. I know we wouldn’t.”

He said he’s now working with the Fulton County Center for Regional Growth to help secure a New York state Consolidated Funding Application grant to help him purchase or lease a building in the Johnstown Industrial Park. He said he needs about $10 million to build a new production facility in Johnstown, of which about $8 million would go towards new equipment.

Matt said if the company could move all of its production under one roof it could reduce its staff down to one shift of workers, while creating the capacity to increase employment to two shifts.

Richard said he’s been talking to Massachusetts-based Stag corporation about two buildings it owns in the park.

“[Stag has been] surprisingly cooperative. We originally put an offer in to buy the building and I was kind of surprised that they responded and we actually negotiated a little bit, but it’s the classic – they really don’t want to sell it, they want to lease it – which is actually, probably, better for us,” Richard said. “They’ve given us a competitive, attractive lease package so far. It hasn’t been finalized, but we’re getting there.”

Instrumental to its ability to stay local will be whether the state awards them a CFA grant.

CRG President Ron Peters said he believes the Century Linen & Uniform grant application is in the upper tier in terms of likelihood of approval of the 21 applications for grant funding the CRG has made to New York state this year, but he acknowledged it is a difficult path for a company to get grant funding for “job retention projects” instead of “job creation projects.” He said, although the Smith’s consolidation plan might result in a short-term reduction in jobs or work hours at the company, he has made the argument to state officials that in the long-term the move could result in job growth as the company ramps up capacity to serve more customers. Peters said he has told state officials it is possible the company could move to a town in Massachusetts near Albany if they can’t get grant funding to stay in Fulton County.

“The state has been made very aware of that,” he said.

Richard Smith said he’s only in preliminary talks with the municipality in Massachusetts. He said moving there would be a major change for his operation.

“The dry cleaning and coin-op laundries might stay, but the commercial laundries [in Johnstown and Gloversville] would have to go. It would be huge; I’d have to move,” he said. “We’re just in the talking stages. They are supplying us with demographics.”

Peters said the state will announce the results of Century Linen & Uniform’s grant application probably by mid-December at the latest. He said if the state denies the grant application the CRG will attempt to assist the Smiths in applying for loans from the federal government and will likely reapply for state grant funding next year.