South Side Suds is more than a Laundromat
John Lee, owner of South Side Suds, is passionate about his business and it shows through in talking with him. Innovation, collaboration and integrity are the best words to describe John. The service he provides to his customers extends beyond the laundromat -- he has hopes of improving the Corvallis community as well.
Read below for more on John and his inspiring business, which he took over 12 years ago:
Q: In your own words, please tell me more about your laundromat, your background, your story and how you came to existence.
John : I came to Corvallis 25-some years ago to be with my fiancée, and fell in love with the place. I’d grown up in Orangevale, a suburb of Sacramento, and I really wanted to get out of California.
First thing I noticed about Corvallis were that most of the people were pretty genuine. What you saw was what you got. After getting my Associates Degree in Electrical Engineering Technology, I got a job at Hewlett Packard where I worked for 12 years and obtained my Bachelors of Science in Information Systems at Western Oregon University. I think I’m one of the last people to take advantage of a HP program that paid for college.
When the layoffs started happening, I wanted a plan ‘B’. Sara and I had been talking about laundromats for a couple of years because they were something we felt we could manage on a part-time basis while working full-time.
We purchased the 3rd St Laundry from a couple from Vancouver who’d purchased the business for the scrap value of the machines. They made a go of running the laundromat, but decided it wasn’t worth the weekly commute to fill up the change machine.
From the get-go, we decided that we were going to be different from other laundromats. While we weren’t going to sell alcohol like the now-defunct Suds and Suds, we weren’t going be the generic “3rd St Laundry” either. We took down the “Tide” posters on the walls and replaced them Dali and later prints from the XKCD comic. We added plants, tables and more comfortable seating. We added automatic door locks so we could extend business hours, then wifi. We tookout a home equity loan to finance our first set of machine upgrades. We did a paper survey asking customers what they wanted in the store and acted on it.
Five years ago we saw that the Coin-op side wasn’t growing anymore, so we started the Wash Dry Fold service. Last year we started delivery, and we keep on growing as a result of good prices and a commitment to excellent customer service.
Q: You have owned the laundromat since 2006. What has changed about the business landscape since you first started over 10 years ago?
John: Everything and nothing. There have been some “On demand” demand laundry services pop-up with mixed results. Washio is probably one of the more spectacular failures. How do you blow through $16.82 million in investor dollars, have outlets in 7 major metropolitan centers and still fail?
Wet laundry really hasn’t changed much in the last few hundred years. You’re still essentially beating your dirty clothes with a rock at the river, and drying them in a box heated by fire. Granted, it is a very fancy rock and drying box.
Q: What distinguishes your business from others?
John: My mindset for running my business it to make money without taking advantage of either my customers or my employees. Sara and I will go the extra mile for both. We listen to our customers and we own our mistakes.
Our employees are the core of our business. Like all business owners we have to balance costs vs prices. But we try to pay more than minimum wage to our employees, we support the minimum wage increases, and we support protected sick leave. We give our employees 20hrs of paid sick leave even though we are not required by law to do so. Any business that states that a minimum wage increase will make them go bankrupt needs to better understand their business model.
Q: What is your background and why did you / your family purchase this business?
John: After working for 12 years at Hewlett Packard, the company offered me money to leave. We purchased the laundromat with the proceeds of that buyout. I’d been told by HP managers that I didn’t understand business..or that I didn’t get the “big picture”. Running my own business and obtaining my MBA was my way of proving to myself that I did, in fact understand business.