BATES of London

Our tones are hushed as we tiptoe through one of the few quieter corners of Bates of London, the UK’s largest family-owned laundry. In my case this is easily explainable as I’m mesmerised by the focus of the dozen or so staff at work here as they carefully handle other people’s ‘treasure’ – stunning beaded evening gowns, top end label dress shirts and designer suits, and delicate items I’d be too scared to buy in the first place, let alone launder and iron.

The garments have arrived at the laundry in Leyton, East London from some of the capital’s most salubrious hotels and will be swiftly returned to grateful guests who will no doubt chalk down their newly restored immaculate condition to the glittering five star address they wisely chose to stay in, unaware of their precious clothing’s return trip across the city.

But as for Bates’s director and owner David Pantlin, my guide for this tour, well this is a scene he must surely have seen day after day for many years. And yet it’s clear he too could stand here mesmerised for some time, watching shimmer restored to silk or immaculate creases appearing in dress trousers. The experts operating the ironers and other equipment occasionally pause in their intensity, offering perhaps a shy smile, but it’s clear that this gawping woman brought round on a tour by the proud boss is of little interest – these high priests and priestesses of the laundry have more important things on which to concentrate.

Before we leave them to their devotions, Pantlin, Senior Warden of The Worshipful Company of Launderers (apt motto, Cleanliness is next to Godliness) reverentially whispers: “This is highly skilled work and they have years of experience…” and then as we head off round a corner towards another processing section his obvious appreciation of their efforts is quickly replaced by the twinkle in his eye that has marked out much of our tour so far: “…But don’t you dare go telling them that!”

In a more serious moment it’s obvious that the Bates team are well aware that they are the ‘secret’ in assisting some of the world’s finest hotel names to provide a first class ‘same day’ drycleaning and laundering service for their guests.

And by now I’ve realised that all the high tech machinery, RFID and mind-boggling numbers (around 100,000 pieces a day passing through the main site and another 70,000 in a specialist adjoining operation) is just a necessary half of the equation – at least as important is the family feel of Bates which extends beyond Pantlin and son Matt, the MD, to across the operation. Many staff have been with them for years and when vacancies come up they tend to be filled quickly by word of mouth.

Away from the laundry floor the Pantlin father and son are full of praise for what they describe as ‘a nice bunch of guys’ and say they are very fortunate to have team leaders and senior managers who spread the family spirit through all sections.

And while you can take the boy out of the East End, you can’t take the East End out of the boy – either of the Pantlins, or the United Nations of laundry staff which reflects the area in which it operates. For a start, our visit is just before the festive season and Pantlin has decided to wear his ‘Christmas tie’ for the occasion. It keeps playing tinny carols during the tour until he decides we’ve heard the full repertoire and finds a switch which temporarily disconnects it.

Then there’s the only truly miserable ‘member of staff’, an African grey parrot which would give Victor Meldrew a run for his money in the misery stakes, not because he dislikes living in a laundry (his huge cage and toys now share a very quiet office with a lovely lady) but simply as a result of the bird’s decision years ago to apparently take a dislike to all other parrots and most humans. I didn’t get to meet the resident German Shepherd, simply because he likes to look important by jumping into the van of the local estate security guard, which probably suits them both down to the ground as they check on their East End empire.

The history of the Bates operation is woven into the threads of this commercial laundry and you can’t help but think that while those ancestors who started the business back in 1886 would be impressed by the sheer scale of what now takes place on a daily basis, and the £15m or so turnover each year, they would instantly recognise the spirit behind its success.

Pantlin’s no-nonsense East End greatgrandmother Martha Bates started taking in washing when her docker husband could not find work. The business grew and grew, with larger family homes and more relatives joining in, although the two World Wars stalled progress somewhat as family members went off to serve in the armed forces.

But by the late 1950s it was thriving so well that a factory was needed. Pantlin joined what was then called South House & Elmhurst Laundry some 44 years ago, having completed a lengthy apprenticeship with the business now known as Berensden. Within a few years, with growth continuing and another generation (including his father and uncle) retiring, he bought the business and merged it with Enfield’s Purity Sweet Clean Laundry. As Royal Jersey, Enfield it too outgrew the premises and in 1999 the circle was completed when a return to Leyton brought it back to East London.

The business has always moved with the times while cherishing its heritage and in this century the shift of emphasis from contract work to more textile rental saw them rebrand as Bates of London, in honour of gritty great-gran’s determination to make a go of laundry life.

Not that all of Bates’s customers use the rental service. Those that prefer to use only their own linen, including some five star exclusive operations, have been served for more than 25 years.

Right from the start Pantlin delights and surprises. As we watch some batch washers dealing with the latest loads to arrive, he asks: “Do you know what laundries like this are really good at?” As I start to concoct a half decent response about quality and turnaround times, he declares: “It’s cleaning things that are not really dirty by normal standards, but it has to be done.”

He’s right, of course. While hotels and leisure clubs do their best to impress on guests the eco reasons for using towels more than just the once, a huge amount of linen has to be turned round simply because guests rightly expect pristine linen and regularly arriving new items such as towels during their stay, however short. We wouldn’t change the sheets, pillowcases and duvet covers after one use at home, but in the hospitality sector it happens all the time as overnight guests check out and new ones arrive.

Look for secrets to the Bates’s success and the biggest clue is that they are clearly ready for any eventuality. Running two shifts, the laundry starts at 6am. “We’re scheduled to finish by midnight but everyone understands those times when we have to run a bit later because the job must get done – that’s how we keep and grow business,” explains Pantlin.

“And when it comes to equipment we have at least two of everything, so if something goes down we can switch in minutes and then find out how much of a problem we need to deal with, without losing time on the work going through. It might look a bit like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at times, but the system ensures we can operate at full speed round the clock. You can’t turn round and say ‘Sorry, this or that went a bit wrong today’. The hotels expect us to deliver and that’s what we will always do.”

The ‘two of everything’ rule extends to gas, electricity and water supplies. Nothing will stand in the way of Bates getting the task done. It’s clear that some equipment is on ‘stand by’, even on the busiest days, and more is being installed all the time, as was the case during our visit. Top end machines from the likes of Girbau, Lavatec, Renzacci, Union through Parrisianne, Biko and equipment from Cherry Tree (used for special washes and chefs wear) are found at every turn.

Bates have invested an average of £350,000 per annum in new equipment and energy saving projects over the last decade, with emphasis going beyond the actual laundry machinery to water and heat projects, emergency electricity generators and fuelefficient vehicles.

And working conditions are very different to those laundry operatives would have experienced in earlier times. Great-gran might consider them a bunch of softies, but whether it’s feeding towels, eagle-eyed experts inspecting linen or those operating the sheet/duvet cover feeders, the ergonomic and technical aspects of the modern equipment ensure staff spending hours on their feet are no more physically stretched than perhaps a hairdresser dealing with clients in a salon.

While the ironing section is one of quiet intensity, amongst all this hubbub we come across a silent section where no one is currently working. This area is given over to linen for numerous West End and city hotels, all marked by name, but not necessarily leaving the Bates operation any time soon. It’s the equivalent of library shelves, but here we have immaculately folded, pristine sheets, duvet covers and pillow cases.

“Some of our clients simply don’t have the space to store all the linen they’d like, because space is at such a premium in their premises right in the West End. I’m happy to provide that space for them,” says David. “If they do need it urgently it’s ready to go as soon as they call.”

It’s all part of the service from a business that is known for never saying ‘No’ to clients’ requests.

That £15m turnover is obviously impressive, but margins rely on handling a lot of work as swiftly as possible, to the highest possible standards. And it is here that Bates have excelled, always adopting technology that can save time and money. The business was among the first laundries in the world to start tagging all their linen with RFID and are undoubtedly experts in this field. This is particularly apparent in the newest section of their site, dedicated purely to handling the linen from the London area’s Premier Inn hotels.

An obvious question is whether Premier Inns demanded such a bespoke and ‘private’ operation when bids for the work went in. Pantlin says: “No… it just seemed to us to be a good thing to offer, since we could, and they liked it, so everyone was happy.”

The separate unit, just across the way from the main laundry, opened at the end of April last year with suitable fanfare in a ceremony attended by 60 guests including local councillors and representatives of Whitbread (owners of the Premier Inn chain). Also there were Datamars, LM Computers and Girbau UK, partners in the technical side of the project.

And it is here that anyone even slightly dubious about RFID should be taken, simply to witness the speed and accuracy of the Datamars reading centre. Large mixed bags of soiled linen from the Premier Inn hotels are placed in the metal cupboard, the size of a small shed, and seconds later a read-out appears on a screen feet away. The particular premises is identified by name and a comprehensive – and correct – list of what the bag contains, perhaps 16 sheets, 12 duvet covers and other items such as bathmats, is displayed. No further need for timeconsuming sorting and tracking; everyone knows what they are dealing with and to where it must be returned after the laundering process is complete.

It would be easy to become bogged down with admiring the numbers in a business which processes some 50 million pieces a year or marvel at the technology that ensures it is all possible, but at Bates of London it’s actually the people who make the difference, whether that’s swiftly clipping linen on its way to the sheet and duvet folders… or trying to cheer up that sad parrot.

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