New ZIPS CEO sees customer experience as key to recovery

CHICAGO — In June 2021, ZIPS Dry Cleaners, a nationwide chain of garment-care franchise stores, named Bob Barry as its new president and CEO.

While Barry, who served for more than a decade in the same capacity at The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille chain, had eight years of experience as a ZIPS board member, he was new to the day-to-day experience of operating a dry cleaner.

Still, Barry has found that there are more similarities between running restaurants and operating a drycleaning business than might appear at first glance (“They’re both service businesses driven by human capital,” he says).

American Drycleaner sat down with Barry to discuss the state of the industry, his experiences stepping into the lead role at ZIPS, and what he sees coming in the future for the drycleaning industry.

Q: How do you believe your experience in restaurant chain management will be of help when it comes to leading ZIPS Dry Cleaners into the future?

Barry: I see a lot of similarities between dry cleaning and the restaurant industry. You’re very consumer-focused and labor-intensive. You’re a retail brand, and you’re hopefully getting some loyalty behind it. In the restaurant space, you have to be super-focused on the guest experience, or in the case of dry cleaning, the customer experience.

Q: What’s an area you’ve focused on as you’ve stepped into this role?

Barry: Training. We’ve been very focused on redoing our training videos, taking it from using paper manuals to videos to help people hire new team members, and train them more efficiently by giving them these tools — and be able to retrain them, if they have to.

As you know, the labor is extremely tight right now, and everybody’s facing some challenges. So, part of what I feel we must do is to make sure, when we do hire somebody, is that we have a very good retention program in place. We want to have the tools to train people properly, and we want to give them the opportunity to grow. That’s how you retain people.

Q: Describe the transition from being on the company’s board to taking the president/CEO position. What was that shift in responsibility like, and how did you prepare yourself?

Barry: At the board level, you’re at a much higher level, looking at budgets and approval processes, giving guidelines to the leadership group, and what I call “flying at a 15,000-foot level.” When you become president and CEO, you’re at sea level. You’re in it. So, the transition has been interesting because I’m trying to learn the drycleaning business.

As a board member, you’re focused on numbers and banking matters. Now that I’m leading the company, I’m working hard to understand the drycleaning business. How many pieces can we do in a period of time? What are the unit economics? What’s the guest service? What’s the brand positioning? Definitely, in the last few months, I’ve been in heavy learning mode.

Serving in that capacity for The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille chain for more than a decade, Barry soon learned that there were more similarities between the two industries than might be immediately apparent.

American Drycleaner sat down with Barry to discuss the state of the industry, his experiences stepping into the lead role at ZIPS, and what he sees coming in the future for the drycleaning industry. In Part 1 of this interview, we examined how Barry’s past experiences would play into guiding ZIPS into the future. Today, we’ll conclude by examining the future challenges he sees coming both to ZIPS and to the industry.

Q: What are some of the challenges you’re facing?

Barry: Focusing on getting the company’s health back from the pandemic. As we know, people aren’t getting back to the office as quickly as we thought. Also, the garments people are wearing have changed dramatically. There’s more casual attire in the workforce than ever before. I think with the labor shortage, we’re going to continue to see that casual attire in the workforce.

So, how are we as a company going to handle that? While dry cleaning may not be as front and center as before, garments still have to be cleaned. We’re excited because people are going to start going out more, and more events are going to open. We’ve seen an uptick in our numbers over the last couple months, and I think that the research will tell us that we’re reaching our 2019 levels. We’ve forgotten about 2020. We’ve decided that we might as well just leave that off to the side.

I’m focusing on trying to determine how we’re going to position ourselves as we’re bouncing back. Also, we need to support our franchisees. They’ve invested money with us, and we need to make sure that we’re giving them everything we can and provide them with the tools to be successful as they come out of these rough 18 months we’ve been facing.

Q: What will make the difference between success and failure for dry cleaners going into 2022?

Barry: I think we’ve got to start looking at technology and automation. The job market is very tight, and the hourly rates are extremely high right now. So, in order for us to be profitable in this industry, we’ve got to look at where it makes sense to automate things that won’t affect the customer’s experience or the quality.

We also have to increase convenience for our customers. Services such as convenient drop-off and curbside pickup, delivery options, and 24-hour drop-off and pickup are going to be extremely important. And again, we need to automate activities where we can, such as the bagging station and the tagging station. We need to do anything we can to eliminate some hours in production to keep our costs down.

(ZIPS’) model is to charge one price for all garments, and our biggest expense is labor. To maintain that model and to keep that price as low as possible, we’re going to have to continue to see where we can cut those hours without sacrificing the quality or the customer experience.

So, we need to focus on three areas — convenience, technology and automation — to be successful. We’re going to have to change the way we do business and look at different services that may provide us with an opportunity to increase our top-line revenue.