50 YEARS; SAME SPOT
Reprinted with permission from NATIONAL CLOTHESLINE
When Five Corners Cleaners of Glen Ellyn, IL, first opened its doors in 1959, the drycleaning store charged 28 cents for shirts and $1.50 for suits.
Those prices have gone up just a bit in the past 52 years. These days, customers can expect to pay $1.95 for shirts and $9.65 for suits.
In addition to inflation, a lot of other things have changed at the plant… everything from technology to production methods to ownership, but a few things have remained the same.
For one, the company has stayed in the same family for three generations; for another, the emphasis has always been on two things: production quality and stellar customer service.
According to Jean Turley, who represents the second generation of the family to own Five Corners, the principles are not too complicated.
“Always treat the customer like you would want to be treated,” she said. “This is something I have always taught every one of my counter people to do. If a customer walks in or comes through the drive thru window and you are busy with another customer, you acknowledge them. Wave to them and say, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute.’ They need to know that you know they are there.”
According to Lee Turley, the third generation of the family to take over the reins, acknowledging customers is every bit as important as finding ways for them to acknowledge you.
“Differentiating yourself from others is always good,” he explained. “Just stuffing sleeves or putting your names on your hangers or poly, or handing out piggybacks on our garments with our monthly offers and specials… just by doing that, I’ve seen business go up. Nobody else is doing that.”
The first generation of the family that started the business was Jean’s parents and Lee’s grandparents: Herb and Corrine Menke. Herb, in particular, was quite an entrepreneur and there seemed to be no end of creative business ideas springing from his fertile mind.
When Herb first moved to Glen Ellyn in 1937, he needed a way to make money so he turned to man’s best friend, even though he wasn’t really much of a dog person.
“He decided he would make dog meals for rich people in a very ritzy town,” Jean said.
The small business evolved into a dog kennel and pet service that lasted for about a decade. Many other business ideas followed over the years, including owning a resort and a realty firm. It was the latter venture where he sat in his office counting passing cars one day and realized he was located on a great corner.
“So, he bought the property next door with absolutely no idea what he was going to do with it,” Jean said. “He started looking around.”
Eventually, he liked the pitch of a salesman who was offering One Hour Martinizing franchise opportunities. Naturally, he knew nothing about the industry, but that didn’t stop him from building a plant completely from scratch.
“First thing he designed was a drive thru window, and in 1959, that was unheard of,” Jean added.
What Herb lacked in cleaning knowledge, he more than made up for with friendly customer service skills. He hired experts to handle the production while he focussed on making clients happy.
The business boomed and daughter Jean began working the counter when she was 14. Overall, the first eight years were quite successful, but Herb’s interest soon waned.
“In 1967, he was more excited about opening up the Big Banjo, which was a sing-along pizza restaurant,” Jean recalled. “Of course, he knew nothing about making pizzas.”
He did know a lot about music, however, as did the whole family who performed as the Herb Menke Family Orchestra playing for weddings and anniversaries on the weekends.
Unfortunately, Five Corners Cleaners began tumbling downhill at that point as Herb concentrated on the new business.
Meanwhile, Jean had gone to college, graduated and began teaching 3rd and 5th graders. Not long after she married Tom Turley, the couple opted to buy the cleaners in 1974 and try to revive it. They decided to drop the One Hour Martinizing franchise and call the plant Five Corners.
In all, Jean and her husband ran the company for a total of 35 years, but the first two were perhaps the most important.
“I was very lucky,” Jean noted. “I pulled the store around very quickly. I got all new employees. We were back up and as busy as can be.”
Early on, Tom quit a prestigious job with Sears Roebuck to help Jean full time as she had become overwhelmed running the business and raising two kids, including Lee, who could often be found in a playpen in the office.
“I was pretty much born here,” Lee laughed. “I actually started working here full time when I was 13 or 14.”
Even while he was earning a B.A. in Mass Communications from Illinois State, joining the family business was never far from his mind. He started full time in 2002.
Almost every business struggles, especially when management transfers, but it helps when you have family members in the industry.
Many cleaners might be familiar with Jean’s nephews — and Lee’s cousins — Scot and Eric Severson, owners of Geneva Cleaners in Geneva, IL, which originally branched off from Herb Menke’s One Hour Martinizing franchise. Profiled in September of 2010 in National Clothesline, they made headlines for their work with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
They also made a big impression on Lee by providing assistance when he took the helm of Five Corners.
“They started their plant after ours, but they really took off with it,” he said. “As soon as I got out of college, I really followed their footsteps. I really owe a lot to them in being mentored.”
During her stint in charge, Jean had already accomplished her job to take the business to another level.
She enrolled in cleaning courses, joined various industry and business associations and became more hands-on with her involvement.
Lee did his best to bring in some more changes of his own. He upgraded the equipment, including a drastic change in cleaning technology.
“We switched from perc to hydrocarbon simply because of the perks and the EPA issues with perc,” Lee said. “We wanted to get away from that and promote our businesses as eco-friendly, which has done very well for us.”
The next important addition was putting in computer systems to track information and improve marketing. It was a stark contrast from a business that relied on a good-natured “idiot box” for about 40 decades.
“We used to have a box for when people would forget their claim tickets,” Jean laughed. “We did it for everybody. We kept them alphabetically.”
The system worked for a long run, but it did have some problems.
“I remember we had two customers with the same name,” Jean added. “We were always getting those two mixed up so I told the one customer I was going to change his name to ‘Robert Redford.’ He was happy as a camper. He’s still a customer today and he’s in the computer under ‘Robert Redford.’”
Another crucial upgrade in more recent years included implementing the Tailwind Shirt System, which helped them gain control of production quality.
“The people who were doing our shirts… the quality was just terrible,” Lee recalled. “I walked in on the guy doing our shirts and he was taking half the soap out of a 15-gallon drum and putting water in it. We were literally getting multiple redo shirts back every day from customers. They day I caught him doing that, I left him.”
Having better control of quality, labor costs and efficiency has been a big boost, as has been hiring The Route Pro to add a pickup and delivery route.
“The route has really boosted sales,” Lee noted. “I’m so grateful that we did that when we did. Our retail sales dropped off, but I was able to maintain — and, actually, even grow.”
Naturally, the modernization of the business has helped it to remain successful, so much so that the plant won a coveted Illinois State Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention for its environmentally friendly methods in 2003.
It also helped the company stay strong so it could be honored for its 50th anniversary a couple of years back. Five Corners received quite a bit of attention at that time and the business even took a part of the town’s Forth of July Parade that year.
“The best sign we had was: ‘We’ve been working on the same spot for 50 years,’” Jean recalled.
Perhaps the biggest key to such longevity and success, however, can be dated back to a couple of advantages the company had from day one. The prize location that Herb Menke eyed over 50 years ago has proved to be a huge advantage even still.
“It’s probably busier now,” Lee laughed. “They redid the intersection about five years ago to flow traffic better. Now, it’s very, very good.”
Of course, a great location matters little when the weather proves to be inhospitable. So, Herb’s foresight to install a drive-thru window continues to pay dividends today.
“The drive-thru is big, big, big for convenience. We get a lot of drive-thru business when the weather is bad,” Lee added. “Also, mothers with kids in the car don’t have to unstrap their kids to bring them in.