Smiles all round: Visiting Royal Jersey laundry

None of us who knows the industry well has any doubt that while technology and modern engineering has changed much of how we operate in recent years, it is the remarkable combination of both resilience and adaptability of the people involved that has ensured the best family laundry businesses can still survive and thrive alongside the ‘big boys’.

No more is this obvious than during a visit to the Royal Jersey laundry in Dagenham, now serving some of the finest hotels and luxury spas in the capital and adjoining Home Counties. We are sitting in the office of director Wendy Westcott (husband Chris is the owner) and she is remarkably frank about the day-to-day – or rather season to season – challenges they face, alongside managing a premises move in recent years, changing working practices, balancing investment for the future against current turnover and ensuring you keep the most prestigious clients.

royal jersey laundry dagenham

The seasonal bit has a particularly acute effect for Royal Jersey because of the nature of much of their client base (top end rather than ‘touristy’), and it’s a peculiar mix as well. Ramadan means a sharp slow-down of incoming work from establishments with a significant Middle Eastern clientele, followed by a rapid uplift when it ends, while the high society summer season, perhaps the likes of Wimbledon, the polo and Henley, creates little peaks of its own.

This means it’s not just Westcott, managing director James Lincoln (her nephew) and the small office team who are aware of these ups and downs and making calculations – on the laundry floor staff now have to be exceptionally flexible and work shift patterns which can change quite often. And they do – the employee base of 110 on the payroll, mostly full-time and many Anglo Indian, some third generation both in this country and with the business, and exceptionally loyal to Royal Jersey, cope admirably alongside some Brits and Eastern European incomers.

“This is not a high pay industry, there’s a lot of minimum wage roles, so I’m humbled by the way they work and adapt to shifts and the needs of the laundry.” Royal Jersey marked its centenary in 2015, all that time a family business as Chris is the grandson of the founder, Walter. The previous 100 years have their own story told in evocative photographs and memorabilia around the premises, from jolly works outings to past staff operating cumbersome laundry equipment requiring a huge amount of manual labour, the sight of which always brings a glint to the eyes of ‘old hands’.

But it is the last decade that has really seen massive change, operational decisions taken, a move in 2009 to the current premises and a £3 million machinery investment which created its own disruption and anxiety alongside the eventual benefits, and the introduction of RFID.

“Director Wendy Westcott says ‘it’s happy, smiling faces’ that’s most important in keeping Royal Jersey going.”

Together with installation of a water recovery plant allowing the laundry to recycle 80 per cent of water and so reduce carbon footprint by 600 tonnes per year, these developments only tell part of the story. Westcott reveals much more: “By 2016, and this will sound odd, we actually had too much work, going round the clock, but we really weren’t making a decent profit because so much of it was high volume, low-price. We didn’t want to just hike the prices, that would just look greedy, but needed to adjust the balance of what we were doing, and why.”

Royal Jersey was operating like the proverbial hamster in a wheel, pedalling faster and faster but getting nowhere. Indeed, as Westcott says: “In 2017 the wheels nearly came off – it was a difficult year.”

The decision was taken to move to a different client structure, mostly concentrating on the virtually bespoke needs of fastidious top end clients who wanted the same level of ultimate, personal service as they themselves offered and were less likely to haggle over a few pence on the in-house care given to a highest quality pillowcase.

In effect, to offer a five-star service to those who themselves specialised in exactly that. It’s worth noting too that, by chance, the name of the business, chosen way back before brand management became a thing, was perfect for this new high-end image.

By 2018 the profitability of Royal Jersey was secure and although looking at this year so far Westcott says, “It’s sometimes quieter than we would like”, overall things are on a much more even keel.

We head down to the office of MD Lincoln and as fascinating as he is, having come into the industry some 10 years ago, he’s happy to leave centre stage to his extraordinary workspace.

The walls, cabinets and corners are full of celebratory treasure, mostly sporting, particularly boxing. There’s a framed and signed Sugar Ray Leonard shirt alongside iconic posters of the likes of Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather, but much more to discover in this office-cum-museum, including golf clubs and, perhaps best of all, a neatly parked full replica Royal Enfield motorbike of Second World War heritage. Lincoln explains: “There is a theme to all this – of ‘fortune favours the brave’, but on top of that the sporting ones include some of the greatest upsets of all times. It’s good for me to be reminded that anything is possible if you put your mind to it when facing a challenge.”

The Westcotts are confident that when Chris does retire fully from the business they have someone who “lives and breathes Royal Jersey; he’s how Chris was at that age, so driven” as Westcott says, to make the most of the ‘family empire’.

In turn, Lincoln is full of admiration for the way in which Chris has not only passed on a wealth of invaluable industry knowledge but shown that by always re-investing in the business you secure its future.

He too is aware of how those on the laundry floor hate it when it’s quiet, so makes sure they know about new clients coming in to help fill any gaps.

Down on the laundry floor and in the section handling guestwear from the hotels, we meet staff keen to proudly demonstrate both their handling skills and the equipment they operate. The RFID system from Invengo works a treat alongside machinery supplied by the likes of Renzacci in the dry cleaning area, Kannegiesser in the main laundry, Lavatec dryers, and a HJ Weir Vacfeed low line multi-station spreader/feeder.

But beyond all that, ask Westcott what’s most important in keeping Royal Jersey going and she has an answer swifter than any feeder to a flatwork ironer: “It’s happy, smiling faces.”

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