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Beach Buddies Prefers Personal Approach

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — David Sumner modestly describes his start-up as “a small, little business we’re hoping to grow.” But since opening in April 2007, the growth of Beach Buddies Laundry Service has been anything but modest.
Starting with a pair of 60-pound washer-extractors and 75-pound tumblers (along with an old, rebuilt 50-pound washer-extractor), only a few months passed before Sumner found he needed to double his laundry’s capacity. Today, Beach Buddies boasts a 135-pound washer-extractor and four 60-pound units, a 175-pound tumbler and six 75-pound machines as well as a folder.
“It’s been beyond my wildest nightmares,” Sumner jokes of running the business. He says he didn’t take a day off from April through December. “I don’t know that everyone could have done it,” he says, crediting the patience and understanding of his wife, Carolyn, as a “godsend.”
While Beach Buddies is blossoming, Sumner is quick to point out it doesn’t have customers. For a guy dedicated to service, that term is far too impersonal. Beach Buddies has “partners,” about 20-plus and growing, mostly condominium developments and resorts.
“I’m not marketing anymore … I never thought I’d say that,” Sumner says. Referrals continue to feed the business to the point that it may need to purchase additional storage space. “We’re starting to bust at the seams a little,” he says of Beach Buddies’ leased 5,000-square-foot facility.GETTING STARTED ... FROM A DISTANCE
Sumner admits Beach Buddies is quite a departure from his previous work in the banking world. So just how does a guy living in Indiana and working in finance head to Florida and set up a laundry service?
From the moment he and his family bought into their first time-share in Panama City years ago, they were hooked on the area. Over the years, he bought and sold condominiums in the Gulf Coast city. Then he and a friend were discussing that with all the new condominiums going up, a cleaning service might provide a solid business opportunity. However, after some lengthy investigation, he determined it was a laundry service that was lacking.
Still, the obstacle that remained was setting up a business from afar. Enter Willard Clewis of A1 Appliance Service & Sales, a Huebsch distributor based in Panama City. Sumner says Clewis has been like a father to him in assisting with setting up the operation, including finding a building and getting things going.CHANGE OF PLANS
Sumner’s son was supposed to head south to run the operation, but as the business neared opening, he opted to pursue a different vocation. David Sumner decided that with a shift in the corporate culture at his employer, he needed the change.
“You prepare a little, but you’re never really prepared enough,” Sumner says of his learning curve. Again, he credits a great support system, led by Clewis and the Alliance Laundry Systems finance department, with helping in the early going. A nucleus of dedicated employees also assisted in keeping things turning as the business ramped up. “Those guys work their butts off,” he says.
Patience was the key as Sumner received a couple commitments early and quickly added five to six new partners. The additions forced Beach Buddies to add equipment almost immediately.
“Everything is about marketing,” says Sumner, who also focuses on providing excellent customer service. Only recently did he give up some responsibility in picking up and dropping off linen. He jokes that as the sole owner, he’s got no one to blame if he encounters a setback.TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Beach Buddies joins with its partners in open-ended agreements that can be dissolved with 30 days notice. Sumner says he’d like to lock larger partners into longer-term agreements of 16 or 19 months.
The operation employs about 15 employees through roughly two shifts. Sumner gets started at 6 a.m., performing any pre-maintenance on equipment and starting any terry items to get a jump on the day before staff arrives at 8 a.m. From there, collection and delivery start at about 10 a.m.
Weighing and quality review happens toward the end of the day, before deliveries start. A second shift arrives between 3 and 4 p.m. and works until about 9 p.m. Beach Buddies is processing between 3,000 and 3,500 pounds of linen — mostly bedding and terry items, with some tablecloths — daily. Before Sumner bought a folder, everything was folded by hand.
While the economy and other sectors are seeing downturns, Sumner’s business seems to have been insulated thus far. “They say the tourist season is off [as high as 30%]… but I can’t tell it right now,” he says, adding in the most endearing of terms that the Fourth of July week was “God-awful.”
The flow at Beach Buddies seems more spread out throughout the week, something Sumner attributes to vacationers coming in for more long-weekend stays. Business should remain strong through December before tailing off and picking up again in April. He hopes to bring on resorts that cater more to golfers, as those partners would help carry the business better year-round.
“Last year, I had to beg, borrow and steal linens during my slow time,” Sumner jokes of the off-season. “My goal is to find a nice mix of businesses.”
Even with the slow periods, Beach Buddies may have to double its capacity again next year to keep up with demands during the summer season. For the immediate future, however, Sumner is hoping to add an operational supervisor and additional driver to enable him to concentrate on building the business.
“I love the PR stuff,” he says. And those duties might mean fewer 15-hour days for him as well.
 

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