Century Linen & Uniform at 101: Past, Present and Future

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Matt Smith (left) and Dick Smith (right) represent the past, present and future of Century Linen & Uniform. (Photo: Century Linen & Uniform)

Matt Poe |

Third-generation laundry business doesn’t rest on laurels

GLOVERSVILLE, N.Y. — One hundred years ago, Century Linen & Uniform didn’t exist here.

To be honest, it didn’t exist until 2015.

Until then, Century was known as Robison & Smith Inc. 

“My grandfather, Willard Smith, started the business in 1915 with [Frank] Robison,” says Dick Smith, president and CEO and the third generation of the Smith family to run the company. “It became Robison & Smith … until our 100-year anniversary, which was October 2015.” 

At that point, Dick’s son, Matt Smith, was moving into more of a leadership role within the business. 

“I came back in 2012, and I started working on routes, drove routes for a summer,” says Matt. “Before 2012, I worked here for many years through high school, started off washing trucks and opening new sheets and copy-marking them. I worked in our drycleaning department, and then I came back full time after going to college and working for someone else. 

“After riding routes, I got into service management, basically a route supervisor/account manager. Then I worked with our sales team, and then I became one of our regional managers. I did that for 21/2 years. And now I’m vice president of our hospitality and industrial division.”

With Matt moving up in the company, Dick says it was time to “freshen up our identity,” rebrand.

“The name Robison & Smith never said what we did,” Dick says. “It could have been a law firm. It could have been an accounting firm, different things. We were missing a lot of electronic media contact—we were kind of missing the boat on the Internet. It was hard for our sales reps to go to customers, ‘This is so-and-so from Robison & Smith Inc. We are in the blah, blah, blah business.’ Now it’s just Century Linen & Uniform, and it’s just self-explanatory.”

The Smith family acquired full ownership of the business in 1947 after Robison died in an accident. According to Dick, his father, Ronald Smith, followed after his grandfather, Willard. 

“[My dad] was a World War II B-17 pilot, went to college, went to the war, came back in 1945 or ’46. I came in in 1973 after college. My father retired 12, 15 years ago, actively anyway. And now Matt’s coming in,” Dick says. “They say if you make it through the third generation of the business, the fourth one is almost a done deal.”

Matt says he’s brought a lot of technology to Century Linen, along with lessons learned from previous employers. 

“I have worked on modernizing our process,” Matt says. “Our goal has always been to be the best service provider we can, so really focus a lot on training, too, and helping us expand by being well-known for our service.”

And Century Linen has been expanding throughout its history. 

Robison & Smith started out as a family wet-wash facility, according to Dick. The company had 200 employees just doing wash and returning the wash in buckets, damp, using horse and buggy. 

“Dry cleaning became a big part of the business in the late ’50s, early ’60s, and then that faded out and we slowly went into some linen rental,” Dick says. “I came in shortly after we started going to healthcare as a hedge against the linen rental and the typical dips and dives that it takes, as we’re located in a touristy area and it’s seasonal.”

Today, the company has two plants, both in Gloversville: healthcare, and hospitality and industrial. Until 2006, Century Linen ran everything out of one plant, Dick says. At that point, the company separated the services into the healthcare plant and the food and beverage/hospitality plant. 

“That way, we could focus on each industry sector separately, because they are two very different businesses,” Dick says.

Between the two plants, according to Matt, the company has around 3,000 customer accounts. The plants process about 600,000 pounds of goods a week—or about 30 million pounds a year.

He says that it takes about 300 full-time employees working year-round to process and deliver all of the goods. 

“Our season, our busiest time of the year, is summer, and we got up to 320 this year, which was a record for us,” Matt says. “Both plants run in two shifts, but they each have an off day and then one day that runs one shift.” 

Most of Century’s business is on the rental side of the market.

“Our healthcare plant is about 90% rental, and our industrial and hospitality plant is 100% rental,” Matt says. 

Dick oversees the healthcare plant for Century Linen. The plant is located in the original Robison & Smith building. 

“It’s a relatively small facility,” Dick says. “Only about 40,000 square feet, so we really squeeze everything we can out of the building, which is one of the reasons we’re thinking about relocating in the future, if possible. That’s a big investment.”

He says the healthcare plant runs two 11-module tunnel washers and 10 dryers. The plant also has automated rail systems, automated small-piece folders, three ironers and blanket folders. 

“We have an array of old equipment, mid-age equipment and brand-new equipment,” says Dick. 

He says Century’s healthcare business is mostly acute-care medical, working with several large network hospitals and their off-site locations. 

In line with its mission to “be the best service provider,” Century Linen’s healthcare plant was accredited by the Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council (HLAC) in August.  

Matt says becoming accredited involved a lot of training and guidelines to follow.

“We stressed to our team the importance of it, and that gave us a lot of discipline in our process,” he says. “Before, there were several different ways things could be done. This is very disciplined; there’s a right way to do everything, and it became our culture.”

The culture of Century’s hospitality and industrial plant is a busy one, according to Matt. 

“Hotels are a small part of our business. We do have hotel linen rentals. We do restaurant supplies, which is a growing business for us. We do, of course, food and beverage: table linens, towels, aprons,” he says. “Our fastest growing in this plant is industrial: uniforms and walk-off mats. We’ve really been focusing on that in the last year or two, and we’re definitely making progress in growing that business.” 

Matt says the plant has an older, 12-module tunnel washer, along with four dryers and four ironers. Two of the ironers are thermal and two are steam.   

In addition, he says the plant has a conventional wash aisle with dryers and an array of different-sized washers, from 450 pounds down to 50. An industrial department handles rugs, and Matt says the company uses a steam tunnel for industrial garments.

Like the healthcare plant, the hospitality and industrial plant is small, with only 25,000 square feet of production space, according to Matt.

“It’s a small building,” Dick says. “We keep thinking we have to find a bigger facility.”

Space isn’t the only issue Century faces in conducting its business.

“Distribution for us is a huge knot, and we’re constantly working on trying to improve it,” Dick says. “Last week, we drove 32,000 miles, in total. That includes the cars for sales and service. It’s a huge part of our business.” 

It’s also a necessary part of the business. Dick says the company is located in a rural part of New York state. 

“A lot of trees, a lot of windshield time,” he says. “But, we have to go get the work.” 

Dick says the company leases certain vehicles and owns many more. The company has its own garage to do fleet maintenance and repairs, largely because of its location. 

“There aren’t any major chains that are near us,” says Dick. “We have a very intricate system. Matt has done a great job organizing routes for the hospitality and food and beverage part. On the healthcare side of it, we have a full-time transportation manager that oversees the fleet and the maintenance. We use FleetMatics tracking to help monitor what the best routing is and what actually is going on and where the vehicles are at a particular time so we know what to expect.”

According to Matt, Century Linen has done a lot to modernize its processes with advances like tracking software. For example, the company added handhelds for its route service reps. 

“[The handhelds] have a lot of really neat features,” Matt says. “One of the most interesting to me is called ‘Notes.’” 

Basically, what’s entered into the Notes feature is instantly communicated back to the office, he says, whether the information is a simple customer service change or it’s something that needs manager follow-up.

“Before, it used to come in handwritten on an invoice or stapled to an invoice and it would be a day before we got it, if it didn’t get lost,” Matt says. “That’s a really neat feature that’s improved our customer service a ton. And it’s all documented. We can adjust invoices on the fly. We can take payments through the handheld. We can view history.” 

Matt also says that RFID technology is used internally to help make the company productive and to keep track of inventory.

“All of our garments and walk-off mats have RFID chips in them,” Dick adds. “We’ve had that for several years now.” 

“But now, we’ve also made it a sales tool,” Matt says. “We now open that information up to the customers. They can log in through our portal and check scans themselves. See who’s using the service, see who may be missing a garment, see whose garments are in for repair, see how many times a particular garment has been turned in.”

While Matt has made strides in moving Century Linen toward the future, there are other plans and goals, Dick says. 

“From the healthcare side, we plan on continuing to grow with HLAC accreditation. Our next step there will be Hygienically Clean from TRSA (Textile Rental Services Association of America), and then probably Clean & Green,” he says. 

The company also has plans to upgrade some of its older equipment. 

“And a newer building is still a possibility,” Dick says. “It’s just that we’re so restricted with the size and ceiling height that we’re limited in what we can do productively. We need to do something about that to remain competitive.” 

The future of Century Linen also includes having Matt learn more of the business.

“I’ve gotten in-depth with this side. I’d like to get to know healthcare more. Learning more about that side of the business,” he says. “My dad mentioned what we’re going to do for a facility is a big decision for us. Do we keep them separate? Do we combine them into one, efficient, high-tech plant? Keeping up with technology and growing that way, but making sure that through it all, we remain the best in terms of service and doing what’s right for our customers.”

While Century Linen has grown over the years, and has its eyes on the future, both Smiths focus on quality and service.

“I never wanted to have a big company. I just wanted to have a good company,” says Dick. “I’ve always kind of lived by that and I always will. As long as we remain a good company, I’ll be very satisfied with that.”

About the author

Matt Poe

American Trade Magazines

Editor

Matt Poe is editor of American Laundry News. He can be reached at mpoe@atmags.com or 866-942-5694.

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