They used to be ubiquitous — the One Hour Martinizing stores that seemed to be in every strip shopping center in town.
That was the 1960s, when thousands of the dry cleaning outlets dotted America’s cities.
Then came the advent of polyester fabric, and the dry cleaning industry took a nosedive. Hundreds, and eventually more than a thousand, of the Martinizing outlets shut down. Only 405 remain in the United States plus another 214 in 15 foreign countries and U.S. territories.
But the Cincinnati-based franchisor is attempting a comeback, and the East Valley is one of the markets it is targeting for growth.
The company has signed a franchise agreement with Mesa resident Chuck Turnbull, a former sales director for Kellogg’s Co., who has opened two Martinizing Dry Cleaning locations at 2905 S. Ellsworth Road and 1309 N. Greenfield Road in Mesa and plans to open another in Gilbert this fall. Turnbull, 47, hopes to open one store a year for the next several years, mostly in the East Valley, until he reaches 10, which he figures will be about the limit of what he can handle.
"I was looking to set up a business that my son could take over at some point," he said. "I wanted something that had low accounts receivable and needed few people . . . and my business broker found this."
Turnbull thinks the outlook for the dry cleaning industry is improving. He sees a trend toward more formality in dress in the workplace as well as more fabrics that need special handling. Also he said people are so busy they have less time to take care of their own cleaning and pressing.
With the industry still dominated by mom-and-pop shops, he believes his own business background and access to capital to buy the latest dry cleaning equipment will give him a competitive advantage.
Being located in the East Valley also is a plus, he said. "Where else is there more explosive growth than in this area?"
The East Valley is one of several areas chosen by Martin Franchises, the parent company, to base the expansion drive. The others —
Cincinnati, Orlando, Fla., Tampa, Fla., Pittsburgh, Nashville, Tenn., and San Diego — already support stores, have multiunit operators in place or show potential for growth, the company said.
As the backbone of its growth strategy, the chain is looking to investors like Turnbull who can open and operate multiple stores rather than just one outlet, said Jerry Laesser, vice president of marketing and franchise development.
"Our focus will be on identifying potential multiunit operators who qualify for five-, 10-or 15-unit exclusive development areas within these markets," he said. The company believes it can open 100 stores in the next three to four years using that strategy, he said.
New franchisees must have a net worth of $500,000, and the company is looking for refugees from corporate America who have strong management and marketing skills and want to run their own businesses, he said.
That’s a departure from the old days when the typical franchisee was a blue-collar worker who ran one store with his wife, said Frank Knowles, director of franchise development.
The chain was founded in 1949 in Buffalo, N.Y., by Henry Martin, a chemist who introduced the concept of onpremise dry cleaning using a new nonflammable chemical. Previously dry cleaning stores had been places to just drop off and pick up orders, and the actual dry cleaning was performed in industrial areas because of flammability of the solvent used to clean garments.
Martinizing’s early growth came after American Laundry Machinery, a manufacturer of dry cleaning equipment, bought the company.
In 1978 the company was purchased by George Strike, and in 1987 the firm introduced a new franchise agreement that offered more support services. The company moved to emphasize multiunit franchisees two years ago.
In addition to the two stores run by Turnbull, the Valley has two other Martinizing stores — one each in Fountain Hills and Tempe. The company hopes to have at least 50 stores operating in the Valley by 2008.
After about one year of operating the Greenfield store and nine months on Ellsworth, Turnbull said he has reached the break-even point financially.
"You have to work at it," he said. "It’s not like the ‘Field of Dreams’ where all you have to do is build it, and they will come."