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Awash in Innovation

Resilience Drives Belmont Laundry for More Than a Century

Cover-BW0713cWhen Gaetano “Tommy” D’Amato was about 14, his mother became ill, and around that time, she began using Belmont Laundry to do the family’s heavy washing.

The centenarian, who celebrated his 100th birthday on May 8, remembers a horse and buggy — or horse and sled, depending on the weather — that came to pick up the family’s sheets from their home on the corner of Oakland and Orange streets in Springfield. “There weren’t any phones back then, but they told us they would be back every third day,” he said, adding that they couldn’t afford to have the laundry dried, so it was delivered wet, and his sister hung it on the clothesline. Over the years, D’Amato met many people who worked for the company, including one who retired after 47 years.

April McCarthy

April McCarthy, who runs the Belmont Laundry Wilbraham Road store, shows off a 1912 wringer washing machine used when her great-grandfather ran the business.

The laundry was founded in 1907 by Harry Samble, who emigrated to the U.S. with his family from Scotland. It has withstood the test of time, an achievement that has taken Herculean resolve due to deaths, a devastating fire, and dramatic changes in the industry and economy.

The tragedies began when Harry died unexpectedly. At the time, his son Robert was 14, and his wife, Corrine, was forced to run the business. History repeated itself a generation later, when Robert, who had taken over the business, died at age 43 and his wife, Dorothy, had to run the laundry. Ironically, their son, Robert Jr., was also 14.

Today, 89-year-old Dorothy still spends Friday mornings at the business on 333 Belmont Ave., which is run by her son Robert (Rob) Jr. and his children, Matthew, Derek, and April McCarthy. The company has expanded and has two branches: Belmont Laundry and Custom Dry Cleaners, which has four storefronts — two in Springfield, one in Longmeadow, and one in West Springfield — as well as the Belmont Linen and Uniform Rental service, which comprises the majority of the business.

“There is a lot to this, and you have to be good at many things to survive, grow, and remain strong, because there is always something that needs attention and improvement,” Rob said. “But we have not only kept up with things, we’ve been pioneers in the latest advances.

Robert Samble, left, with his son Matthew

Robert Samble, left, with his son Matthew, says the 106-year-old business has persevered through tragedy and calamity by keeping a constant focus on innovation.

“At one point, we were the only ones in the world using radio frequency identification chips with bar codes in our garments and entrance mats. We were also the first in the Northeast to put in spot cooling for our employees,” he told BusinessWest, noting that his sons spent an entire summer installing thousands of electronic chips in the mats used by area businesses.

“Every new idea that comes out gets evaluated, and if it’s feasible, we jump on it,” Rob continued, adding that Belmont is a green company and has recycled 23.5 million gallons of water over the past five years, recovered thousands of BTUs of energy, recycled thousands of hangers and garments each year, and uses environmentally friendly detergents and chemicals.

 

In the Beginning

Harry’s business began as a home-based operation. “The laundry was picked up on bicycles, washed in a tub in a barn behind the house, and brought back to people while it was still wet,” Rob said.

As the customer base grew, Harry graduated to a horse and wagon, then an electric truck, and, later, a gas-powered vehicle.

His wife Corrine ran the business after his early death, until the couple’s oldest son, Harry Jr., took over. He was joined by his younger brother Robert (Bob) when he returned from serving as a fighter pilot with the Army Air Corps during World War II. “By the early ’60s, my father had become president,” Rob recalled, explaining that his dad took the helm when Harry Jr. retired.

Competition had always been stiff, as there were more than 20 laundries in Springfield, but many of the owners were friends, and Bob’s cronies included Russ Dale of Dale Brothers Laundry on Union Street and Bill Hamilton of Royce Superior Laundry.

When Maytag began running coin-operated laundromats in low-income neighborhoods in 1958, they all signed on to the program. “They thought they would get rich,” Rob said. “But the laundromats were left open 24/7 without any supervision, which proved to be a bad idea.”

He remembers accompanying his father in the middle of the night when windows were shattered or money was stolen from coin boxes. It wasn’t long before Maytag’s experiment failed, and when the company switched gears and began selling washing machines to the public, many local laundries went under. The D’Amato family was one of millions who purchased a washer, which meant they could do their own laundry.

“The last nail in the coffin came when polyester was introduced, as it didn’t need ironing,” Rob said. “By the early ’70s, there were only two commercial laundries left in Springfield.”

As a child, he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. But during his teens, his interests shifted, and after graduating from high school, Rob attended Springfield Technical Community College for six months, worked as an auto mechanic, then moved to Arkansas, where he revived and ran a catfish farm.

In time, he returned to Springfield and was working as a refractory mason when his mother told him she was tired of running the struggling laundry. The year was 1974, the economy was floundering, and she said he either had to take over or the business would be sold. So Rob entered the family enterprise at a time when other laundries were closing their doors.

“I had held things together for eight years,” Dorothy said. “My youngest son was only 8 when my husband died. He was killed on Saturday, and I went to work the following Tuesday. It was a crazy time. I had had nothing to do with the business when my husband was alive, but my dad gave me advice, and everyone there was friendly and worked very hard.”

She also received help from her mother-in-law, who was in a nursing home. She was still very interested in the business and wanted to see an itemized expense sheet every week. “She had been treasurer at one time and signed all the checks,” Dorothy recalled. “I signed them too, once I took over, but the place was much smaller then. It was homey, and a lot of ladies worked there. I knew everyone by name.”

When clothes came into the laundry, they went to a ‘marker,’ who put a number on every garment. Each family was assigned their own number, which ensured they got their laundry back. “We used to wash wool blankets and hang them over a big board suspended from the ceiling, because they couldn’t go into the dryer. It was so different back then. Everything was done by hand. Now we use pulleys, lifts, and belts,” Dorothy said.

Although it was all she could do to keep the laundry operational, her husband had purchased new machines and rebuilt the structure before he died.

Rob said the company’s expansion began when his grandfather sought and received a variance to put an addition onto his building, which was in a residential zone. His father purchased adjacent properties as they became available, but by the time Rob became vice president, some of them had been sold to meet expenses.

 

New Ventures

The business took a new spin when Dorothy sent Rob to the National Institute of Dry Cleaning in Joliet, Ill. He returned with new ideas, but the manager immediately shot them down.

However, a short time later, the man had a stroke, and the trustees at Security National Bank named Rob vice president. “I was only 21 at the time,” he said.

His first coup was landing a contract after union workers walked off the job at the Worcester State School. “One day, the school showed up with a 53-foot trailer filled with sheets,” he said, adding that the Worcester operation also did the laundry for the Belchertown and Northampton state hospitals.

Belmont also served as a backup for Baystate Medical Center’s laundry and “they always had work for us,” Rob said. “The revenue we made from those accounts allowed us to grow into the textile-rental business.”

That venture was in line with the training he had received at the Institute of Dry Cleaning, because it did the laundry for a nearby prison. Rob’s work as an auto mechanic also came into play as he purchased old equipment and rebuilt it to keep up with the expanding business, which soon grew more competitive.

Large, national firms began vying for hospital accounts, and as a result, Belmont lost its contracts. But the company was already branching out into new territory, and in 1980 Rob hired two salesmen for the textile business. One didn’t last, but Ernest Gagnon, who stayed with the company for 20 years, helped make Belmont Laundry a recognized name in the uniform- and linen-rental industry.

The family laundry storefront also remained open, and in 1977, when Dale Brothers Laundry closed, Rob purchased its routes and customer list. “It was a good decision because we had done family laundry for so long, we were on automatic pilot, so although it was a dying industry, we were able to keep up with it,” he said. However, the business was threatened as one-hour cleaners were coming into vogue and Rob’s competitors were going bankrupt.

The next blow came in 1981 when Belmont Laundry was devastated by a fire. “We lost our offices and the store, but were so efficient, we delivered laundry and dry cleaning the next day,” Rob said.

He set up a temporary office and “scrimped and saved” until he had enough cash to build again, which was possible because he served as general contractor. “I only had enough money for a down payment and went back into debt. But I was able to rebuild with help from friends in the trades, who guided me,” he told BusinessWest.

In 1988, Rob purchased the Shea/Flair Dry Cleaning chain. “It made us the market leader in dry cleaning. We took over three plants with stores, which brought up us to seven locations. Then, in 1989, the economy tanked, and although we continued to invest in the stores and plants, it was a futile effort,” he said.

Today, four of those stores are still open, including one on Wilbraham Road in Springfield, which is run by Rob’s daughter, April McCarthy. The Main Street store is being used as a storage facility, and the former Flair location at the ‘X’ in Springfield, as well as another store, were sold.

“But our rental business continued to grow — we specialize in uniforms, sheets, and patient gowns,” Rob said, adding that the company’s accounts include restaurants and auto dealerships.

Rob’s sons began working at Belmont when they were about 10, and Matthew, now vice president, recalls straightening out hangers, then manning the counter when he was in high school. Derek, who is the dry-cleaning division manager, said he and Matt painted the roof of the building when he was 12.

They have followed the family tradition of implementing change. “I pushed for green cleaning, and by 2009, we were totally green; it was the right thing to do,” Derek said, adding that the company needed new machines, and he felt it was ready to handle more business.

“We put in a new shirt department and revamped it twice within five years,” he said. “Technology is changing so quickly, and I wanted to have the highest level of quality for our customers. The market has slowed, but we’ve held our own. We have tried different styles of marketing and spent time learning how to implement new ideas. I spend about 55 hours a week here and look forward to coming to work every day.”

April began working in the Longmeadow store when she was 14. “I had a lot of responsibility,” she said, adding that she closed the store at the end of the day.

When she went to Westfield State University, she worked in the West Springfield store, and although she earned degrees in elementary education and psychology, “I could never leave. I’ve been here almost 22 years, and it’s a great business. We depend on each other and have customers who have been coming to us since I started working as a teen. This is such a part of my life.”

 

Forging Forward

Matt and Rob plan to visit a laundry in Davenport, Iowa in August to evaluate the operation and see what they can learn from it. “We have to work to stay ahead of things. There are a lot of different angles to the business,” Matt said.

Rob agrees. “I’ve made mistakes, but it was diversity that put us on the map in the rental business, and it’s diversity that allowed us to stay in the retail business. We have a good product and take care of our employees. They are very good to us, and if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here today. They take care of our customers, who can rely on a consistent product.”

Which is exactly what D’Amato experienced when the centenarian called them a month ago for the first time in about 25 years. “They still do a good job,” he said.


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