Rise like a phoenix

For owners and staff of laundries, drycleaners, chemical and equipment suppliers there is little more devastating than a fire causing not only thousands of pounds worth of damage, but the threat of lost livelihoods.

While still in shock they must immediately start dealing with what seems like a mountain of questions – what they can do for treasured customers and staff, how to replace loss stock and ultimately whether it’s possible to rebuild the business itself, let alone the building.

And yet, many rise ‘like a phoenix from the flames’ and some owners have even developed and transformed their businesses by diversifying, reviewing the customer base or making the move to larger premises which allow for expansion. Taking stock has turned out to be more than simply re-ordering chemicals and equipment.

As Raik Ahmet, managing director of Clean Supply, discovered, the strangest things can unexpectedly come into play when a blaze destroys your operation. Their North London premises went up in flames in May last year. As a supplier of consumables it was full of the likes of polythene and chemicals, but it wasn’t this that caused the night-time blaze – it started in the factory of their next-door neighbours, leapt a four metre gap and entered Clean Supply through the roof.

Ahmet recalls: “There’s all this shock but you must jump into contingency mode and try to figure out the next moves, one after another. It’s very stressful and you have to face: ‘Is this the point that is going to make or break this business?’

“The first positive thing was that within three days we could see the business being salvaged and it was down to Brexit, of all things. Suppliers were holding far more extra stock than usual in depots around the country because no one was sure what the implications of Brexit would be. So we were able to regroup and set up in our sister company in Aylesbury.” There were also plenty of ‘if-onlys’. Prior to the fire they’d set the wheels in motion to move a lot of equipment to Aylesbury but instead it went up in the Tottenham flames. He says that Kreussler made every effort to support his business’s survival and it’s unlikely Ahmet will ever stop singing the praises of Clean Supply staff who rallied and travelled round the clock to make it all happen: “We simply wouldn’t be here without them,” he says.

Customers, too, were sympathetic and patient, but Ahmet realised this could only last so long as they had their own businesses to run. He was determined to offer maximum support to wetcleaning operations which Clean Supply had set up in recent years.

He was impressed by how the industry rallied round: “We are a friendly bunch when it comes down to it, and rather than rivalry I found competitors putting that aside as they asked if there was anything they could do to help.”

As recovery began, Ahmet and the management team began a series of brainstorming sessions, almost as if the point of the fire had been to force them to re-evaluate the purpose of Clean Supply. The result is that they decided to focus on value rather than volume and a core customer base seeking quality products, particularly those produced in Britain.

They also reviewed their location and in February will move to a smaller site in Hertford, Herts, which is ideal for their many M25 journeys.

Sitting down with a blank sheet of paper when rebuilding the business worked well for Clean Supply, as it did for Jeffrey Yap of Midland Linen when a devastating fire wiped out his business in 1998. He actually suffered two fires, neither caused by laundry equipment, but the big blaze, the result of a parked Ford Transit burning out, was the worst kind of surprise on what was April Fool’s Day. Even more than two decades on, he recalls how that shock had to be swiftly put aside if the operation was to be rescued: “You are going to have to fight, and that starts with the insurance company, regardless of however long and however much you have been paying them.

“I can remember telling them that I’d put my house up if necessary, but that this business is coming back as soon as possible. It was essential for not just my livelihood but the staff as well.”

His own determination was also backed by members of the Midlands Laundry & Cleaners Club, with Julian Carr (then Berendsen) offering temporary space at Wednesbury so Midland Linen could continue. Yap also employed a loss assessor to fight on his behalf (they receive a percentage of the sum recovered from the insurers).

In his case he knew the assessor as a friend through Lions Clubs International and so received a very decent rate. His advice is to talk to people in the industry who have been in similar circumstances, as well as the TSA, if considering the services of a loss assessor, as this must be worth your while before proceeding.

Today Midland Linen is not just one of our ‘phoenixes from the flames’ but a highly successful operation. Indeed, they’re currently expanding having just taken on another 3,000sq ft.

Similarly, at Carnoustie in Scotland a major blaze ended up providing new opportunities for Bill Bowles and the team at Perfect Laundry. We caught up with Bowles on the seventh anniversary of the Friday night blaze which at first seemed to have destroyed his business.

Bowles and his wife Gwen operated a vital service for local people and visitors to the high street there – a laundry and drycleaners and the next-door deli and greengrocers. “In 20 minutes it was all gone,” he recalls. “It was an old Victorian building with lots of wood and bitumen in the roofspace so it wasn’t long before hot tar was falling onto everything below.”

Bowles thought the cause of the fire would probably lead back to a dryer but investigators eventually concluded that it was most likely down to a rodent chewing through wiring.

A former Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, Bowles was able to draw on that experience to cope with the initial shock and to quickly put plans into action: “I was a contingency planning officer at Faslane naval base so had a good understanding of resilience when facing a challenge. I lay awake all night, but by half past six in the morning was moving on from ‘It’s gone’ to ‘Nobody died, get positive and do it again’.

“The one thing I would warn anyone is that you will never be over-insured, whatever you think you’re paying for. It’s going to cost a fortune. They are very good at selling you insurance but be prepared for difficulties when making a claim.”

Like others, he found the support of the industry invaluable, particularly from similar family-owned businesses, and singles out On-line Laundry in Dundee for picking up the work while he got back on his feet. Very swiftly Perfect Laundry found a vacant shop and then the empty site of a former microbrewery which provided larger premises than they’d previously had.

Today Perfect serves some of the most exclusive hotel, holiday and golfing break offerings in this beautiful part of Scotland, having expanded in 2014 as well as partnering with drop-off shops across Angus. You might think that industry stalwart Ron Davidson, the current president of the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers, had seen and heard it all, but the sheer scale of the devastation after a blaze at Cottage Linen in Watford took his breath away.

It was a July ‘Friday the 13th’ horror show on the hottest day of 2018 with some 70 firefighters battling the flames from around midnight at the premises operated by the exclusive Maybourne Hotel Group.

The fire broke out at the rear of the factory site so had a good hold by the time it was spotted. Davidson, the general manager, remembers: “It was a nightmarish situation as the place was totalled. Nothing was salvageable as the temperature melted everything. CCTV later revealed it had started in the packing area, a tiny fire just smouldering on a table for three hours before it took hold.”

There was a ‘best practice’ fire protection system including a nightly 36-point checklist at Cottage Linen and the lesson here is that a ‘spontaneous combustion’ type incident could happen to anyone says Davidson.

They were able to tick all the boxes and provide extensive documentation for the insurer’s forensic scientist but still felt the full force of scrutiny. The fire was also a traumatic blow for staff, who gathered outside the premises the next morning. It was clear redundancies would have to happen and the management ensured everyone let go received an extra month’s money. The only reasonably happy one was a man who had started on the Monday before the fire and was suddenly out of work again but with five weeks’ pay. But everyone understood the significance of the event and 10 of the 60 original staff were helped to find jobs elsewhere within the industry.

Alongside all this, the senior team had to cope with the logistics of what had been the daily operation and managed to get their own group hotels covered for linen supplies within 12 hours.

The Cottage Linen management found themselves entangled in issues over the possible purchase of the freehold when it came to options such as complete demolition and rebuilding of the premises – it’s turned out to be a complicated process. A new build is subject to a myriad of the latest regulations, from extensive disability requirements to vehicle turning space allocation and parking provision, which may not apply to an existing building.

Davidson favours the use of a good loss assessor and checking insurance policies for the length of time ‘business interruption’ will be paid for. Some offer a year to two years, he recommends the safety net of three years.

He’s also keen to press home the message that businesses should insist on full ‘new for old’ clauses in equipment insurance as the value of a destroyed 15 years old piece of machinery might come nowhere near even a deposit on today’s equivalent.

It wasn’t just the flames of a small fire but smoke damage which created business turmoil for Julia Willkins and her Home and Dry team in Chichester, Sussex in April last year.

The exact cause was never determined but the consequences were all too clear – damage to machinery, fixtures and fittings as well as contract linen and customer garments.

First task was to put into action a disaster recovery plan and once again other industry members came forward to help. Pressing Needs of Southampton took on laundry work alongside local launderettes, which allowed Home and Dry some semblance of being operational within three days.

Impressively, all staff were retained and redeployed to other parts of the business including home cleaning services and even doing some pressing at home. Willkins approached the insurance issues as a learning curve: “It’s not just the financial side, but the procedural bits and became something you think ‘Well, we’d have done that differently if we’d known this was going to happen.”

This honest hindsight includes checking the real cover you have for customers’ goods held at your premises, the length of business interruption which will be supported, and coverage for keeping staff on as well as loss of earnings. When we interviewed Willkins also on site was Tabish Aiman of TEX ID, one of the businesses which ‘rode to the rescue’ after Home and Dry suffered its fire.

Aiman says: “Julia’s first thought was that she didn’t want her loyal staff to lose out. But then you come down to detail like business interruption insurance and making sure the policy actually contains things like replacing a till system. If that’s going to cost, say, £4,000, but the cover is just £2,000, things like that soon mount up.”

Installing dryers with built-in fire extinguishers definitely increases the initial set-up bill, he admits, but once you’ve had a fire seem like a necessary expense.

At Home and Dry they’ve also put in a safety cut-out system so that if even one small button is accidentally left on by a member of staff there is no chance of this causing further problems. Willkins has also implemented new working practice whereby towels cannot be processed after certain times of day so that they are fully cool before the last staff member has left the premises. There are now fire alarms in every room but Willkins says that after the fire the process of getting re-insured was ‘climbing through hoops and the premiums are hideous’.

Even so she will always be grateful to numerous businesses, small and large and from contractors to machinery suppliers, who did their utmost to get her operation up and running.

For owners and staff of laundries, drycleaners, chemical and equipment suppliers there is little more devastating than a fire causing not only thousands of pounds worth of damage, but the threat of lost livelihoods.

While still in shock they must immediately start dealing with what seems like a mountain of questions – what they can do for treasured customers and staff, how to replace loss stock and ultimately whether it’s possible to rebuild the business itself, let alone the building.

And yet, many rise ‘like a phoenix from the flames’ and some owners have even developed and transformed their businesses by diversifying, reviewing the customer base or making the move to larger premises which allow for expansion. Taking stock has turned out to be more than simply re-ordering chemicals and equipment.

As Raik Ahmet, managing director of Clean Supply, discovered, the strangest things can unexpectedly come into play when a blaze destroys your operation. Their North London premises went up in flames in May last year. As a supplier of consumables it was full of the likes of polythene and chemicals, but it wasn’t this that caused the night-time blaze – it started in the factory of their next-door neighbours, leapt a four metre gap and entered Clean Supply through the roof.

Ahmet recalls: “There’s all this shock but you must jump into contingency mode and try to figure out the next moves, one after another. It’s very stressful and you have to face: ‘Is this the point that is going to make or break this business?’

“The first positive thing was that within three days we could see the business being salvaged and it was down to Brexit, of all things. Suppliers were holding far more extra stock than usual in depots around the country because no one was sure what the implications of Brexit would be. So we were able to regroup and set up in our sister company in Aylesbury.” There were also plenty of ‘if-onlys’. Prior to the fire they’d set the wheels in motion to move a lot of equipment to Aylesbury but instead it went up in the Tottenham flames. He says that Kreussler made every effort to support his business’s survival and it’s unlikely Ahmet will ever stop singing the praises of Clean Supply staff who rallied and travelled round the clock to make it all happen: “We simply wouldn’t be here without them,” he says.

Customers, too, were sympathetic and patient, but Ahmet realised this could only last so long as they had their own businesses to run. He was determined to offer maximum support to wetcleaning operations which Clean Supply had set up in recent years.

He was impressed by how the industry rallied round: “We are a friendly bunch when it comes down to it, and rather than rivalry I found competitors putting that aside as they asked if there was anything they could do to help.”

As recovery began, Ahmet and the management team began a series of brainstorming sessions, almost as if the point of the fire had been to force them to re-evaluate the purpose of Clean Supply. The result is that they decided to focus on value rather than volume and a core customer base seeking quality products, particularly those produced in Britain.

They also reviewed their location and in February will move to a smaller site in Hertford, Herts, which is ideal for their many M25 journeys.

Sitting down with a blank sheet of paper when rebuilding the business worked well for Clean Supply, as it did for Jeffrey Yap of Midland Linen when a devastating fire wiped out his business in 1998. He actually suffered two fires, neither caused by laundry equipment, but the big blaze, the result of a parked Ford Transit burning out, was the worst kind of surprise on what was April Fool’s Day. Even more than two decades on, he recalls how that shock had to be swiftly put aside if the operation was to be rescued: “You are going to have to fight, and that starts with the insurance company, regardless of however long and however much you have been paying them.

“I can remember telling them that I’d put my house up if necessary, but that this business is coming back as soon as possible. It was essential for not just my livelihood but the staff as well.”

His own determination was also backed by members of the Midlands Laundry & Cleaners Club, with Julian Carr (then Berendsen) offering temporary space at Wednesbury so Midland Linen could continue. Yap also employed a loss assessor to fight on his behalf (they receive a percentage of the sum recovered from the insurers).

In his case he knew the assessor as a friend through Lions Clubs International and so received a very decent rate. His advice is to talk to people in the industry who have been in similar circumstances, as well as the TSA, if considering the services of a loss assessor, as this must be worth your while before proceeding.

Today Midland Linen is not just one of our ‘phoenixes from the flames’ but a highly successful operation. Indeed, they’re currently expanding having just taken on another 3,000sq ft.

Similarly, at Carnoustie in Scotland a major blaze ended up providing new opportunities for Bill Bowles and the team at Perfect Laundry. We caught up with Bowles on the seventh anniversary of the Friday night blaze which at first seemed to have destroyed his business.

Bowles and his wife Gwen operated a vital service for local people and visitors to the high street there – a laundry and drycleaners and the next-door deli and greengrocers. “In 20 minutes it was all gone,” he recalls. “It was an old Victorian building with lots of wood and bitumen in the roofspace so it wasn’t long before hot tar was falling onto everything below.”

Bowles thought the cause of the fire would probably lead back to a dryer but investigators eventually concluded that it was most likely down to a rodent chewing through wiring.

A former Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, Bowles was able to draw on that experience to cope with the initial shock and to quickly put plans into action: “I was a contingency planning officer at Faslane naval base so had a good understanding of resilience when facing a challenge. I lay awake all night, but by half past six in the morning was moving on from ‘It’s gone’ to ‘Nobody died, get positive and do it again’.

“The one thing I would warn anyone is that you will never be over-insured, whatever you think you’re paying for. It’s going to cost a fortune. They are very good at selling you insurance but be prepared for difficulties when making a claim.”

Like others, he found the support of the industry invaluable, particularly from similar family-owned businesses, and singles out On-line Laundry in Dundee for picking up the work while he got back on his feet. Very swiftly Perfect Laundry found a vacant shop and then the empty site of a former microbrewery which provided larger premises than they’d previously had.

Today Perfect serves some of the most exclusive hotel, holiday and golfing break offerings in this beautiful part of Scotland, having expanded in 2014 as well as partnering with drop-off shops across Angus. You might think that industry stalwart Ron Davidson, the current president of the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers, had seen and heard it all, but the sheer scale of the devastation after a blaze at Cottage Linen in Watford took his breath away.

It was a July ‘Friday the 13th’ horror show on the hottest day of 2018 with some 70 firefighters battling the flames from around midnight at the premises operated by the exclusive Maybourne Hotel Group.

The fire broke out at the rear of the factory site so had a good hold by the time it was spotted. Davidson, the general manager, remembers: “It was a nightmarish situation as the place was totalled. Nothing was salvageable as the temperature melted everything. CCTV later revealed it had started in the packing area, a tiny fire just smouldering on a table for three hours before it took hold.”

There was a ‘best practice’ fire protection system including a nightly 36-point checklist at Cottage Linen and the lesson here is that a ‘spontaneous combustion’ type incident could happen to anyone says Davidson.

They were able to tick all the boxes and provide extensive documentation for the insurer’s forensic scientist but still felt the full force of scrutiny. The fire was also a traumatic blow for staff, who gathered outside the premises the next morning. It was clear redundancies would have to happen and the management ensured everyone let go received an extra month’s money. The only reasonably happy one was a man who had started on the Monday before the fire and was suddenly out of work again but with five weeks’ pay. But everyone understood the significance of the event and 10 of the 60 original staff were helped to find jobs elsewhere within the industry.

Alongside all this, the senior team had to cope with the logistics of what had been the daily operation and managed to get their own group hotels covered for linen supplies within 12 hours.

The Cottage Linen management found themselves entangled in issues over the possible purchase of the freehold when it came to options such as complete demolition and rebuilding of the premises – it’s turned out to be a complicated process. A new build is subject to a myriad of the latest regulations, from extensive disability requirements to vehicle turning space allocation and parking provision, which may not apply to an existing building.

Davidson favours the use of a good loss assessor and checking insurance policies for the length of time ‘business interruption’ will be paid for. Some offer a year to two years, he recommends the safety net of three years.

He’s also keen to press home the message that businesses should insist on full ‘new for old’ clauses in equipment insurance as the value of a destroyed 15 years old piece of machinery might come nowhere near even a deposit on today’s equivalent.

It wasn’t just the flames of a small fire but smoke damage which created business turmoil for Julia Willkins and her Home and Dry team in Chichester, Sussex in April last year.

The exact cause was never determined but the consequences were all too clear – damage to machinery, fixtures and fittings as well as contract linen and customer garments.

First task was to put into action a disaster recovery plan and once again other industry members came forward to help. Pressing Needs of Southampton took on laundry work alongside local launderettes, which allowed Home and Dry some semblance of being operational within three days.

Impressively, all staff were retained and redeployed to other parts of the business including home cleaning services and even doing some pressing at home. Willkins approached the insurance issues as a learning curve: “It’s not just the financial side, but the procedural bits and became something you think ‘Well, we’d have done that differently if we’d known this was going to happen.”

This honest hindsight includes checking the real cover you have for customers’ goods held at your premises, the length of business interruption which will be supported, and coverage for keeping staff on as well as loss of earnings. When we interviewed Willkins also on site was Tabish Aiman of TEX ID, one of the businesses which ‘rode to the rescue’ after Home and Dry suffered its fire.

Aiman says: “Julia’s first thought was that she didn’t want her loyal staff to lose out. But then you come down to detail like business interruption insurance and making sure the policy actually contains things like replacing a till system. If that’s going to cost, say, £4,000, but the cover is just £2,000, things like that soon mount up.”

Installing dryers with built-in fire extinguishers definitely increases the initial set-up bill, he admits, but once you’ve had a fire seem like a necessary expense.

At Home and Dry they’ve also put in a safety cut-out system so that if even one small button is accidentally left on by a member of staff there is no chance of this causing further problems. Willkins has also implemented new working practice whereby towels cannot be processed after certain times of day so that they are fully cool before the last staff member has left the premises. There are now fire alarms in every room but Willkins says that after the fire the process of getting re-insured was ‘climbing through hoops and the premiums are hideous’.

Even so she will always be grateful to numerous businesses, small and large and from contractors to machinery suppliers, who did their utmost to get her operation up and running.

All news articles

Want to read more?

There are lots of ways to view articles from Laundry & Cleaning Today

Prefer to subscribe and receive a printed copy of Laundry & Cleaning Today? Click here

If you have a story to share or a general enquiry, call 0118 901 4471 or email info@laundryandcleaningtoday.co.uk

Sponsored