When Bill Evans stepped into the roles of president and CEO for AmeriPride seven years ago, he became a symbol of change within the company. It wasn’t only that he became the first person outside the founding Steiner family to hold these positions, but Evans also saw a need to simplify, standardize and automate the company to be a contender in the industry today.
“I was the first non-family member CEO, which is a big deal for a 126-year-old company,” Evans says. “One of the first things I did was recognize we needed to change. The traditional business model worked well in the past, but it was not current and we needed to make significant changes in our approach to business and organization.”
Founder George Steiner worked his way through school delivering towels for a Lincoln, Neb., laundry company. In 1889, he purchased the company that would later become AmeriPride for $50, putting half down and paying half later. He and his brother Frank made deliveries from a green and white handcart they pushed through the city streets. They later upgraded to a horse and carriage.
As the years passed, the brothers moved to separate cities – Minneapolis and Salt Lake City – where they each opened a new branch. They never lived in the same town again and spent much of their lives opening branches in different cities across the country. “Back in the late 1950s, the company reorganized and split into two,” Director of Communications Ben Saukko says. “The ownership had different ideas on where they wanted to take the company and it was split into two entities: American Linen Supply was headquartered in Minneapolis and Steiner American Corp. was based in Salt Lake City.”
American Linen Supply had expanded into Canada as Canadian Linen and Uniform in 1925 and grew to become the largest provider in the country. American Linen Supply changed its name in 2000 to AmeriPride in the United States, but the company kept its Canadian name the same. Today, AmeriPride is headquartered in Minnetonka, Minn., and is one of the only large providers that remains family owned. “We are one of the largest textile rental services and supply companies in North America,” Evans adds. “Our founders essentially pioneered the industry.”
It wasn’t until 2010 that AmeriPride created its first strategic plan and began implementing a year later.
“We started our journey into being more customer-centric and service oriented,” Evans explains. “The business was decentralized as each local branch called their own shots. That model worked well in the past, but we realized we needed to centralize and standardize our systems to increase efficiencies and allow the branches to focus on the customer. Much of the work we had to do, even to this day, is a taller order than I think we originally thought.”
AmeriPride has grown through acquisitions and organic growth throughout the years, making centralization key to delivering consistency. “That’s really important to customers,” Evans notes. “Customers across the U.S. and Canada expect the same service no matter where they are and that’s hard for us to deliver without being more standard.”
To develop consistency across its branches, AmeriPride incorporated common practices and used resources such as Franklin Covey’s “Four Disciplines of Execution.” The book helped the company create a common language among its branches to align and move them forward. “Part of our philosophy is not to be afraid of using someone else’s work,” Evans says. “We don’t have to reinvent everything.”
AmeriPride analyzed its strengths compared to its competitors to determine how it could best differentiate itself in the industry, and decided to focus on service. Out of that, the company found itself also becoming a technology leader.
“We didn’t think innovation was going to be a place we would lead the industry, but we have sort of fallen into that leadership role over time,” Evan admits. “Our goal is to provide better service through technology and so we have made a lot of digital advancements and have ultimately become an industry leader in innovation.”
In 2008, AmeriPride began equipping each customer service representative – delivery driver – with handheld computers, resulting in better communication and less paper. In addition, customer service managers today have Dell Venue tablets. “We aren’t just doing this because it’s cool or because everyone else is doing it,” Saukko says. “We implement technology if we feel it will help us provide better service to our customers.”
The company also recently launched an online portal providing customers access to their invoices, and to check on orders and communication with their service reps. Eventually it will allow them to manage inventory levels. “Many of our customers operate outside normal business hours, and we became one of the first operators in our industry to offer 24/7 access through a convenient digital tool,” Evans says. “And soon they will be able to go online and change their inventory levels so their next delivery can be adjusted. I don’t think anyone in the industry has that capability yet.”
AmeriPride’s focus in 2016 will continue to be on its customers. “Several years ago we would lose over 10 percent of our customer revenue annually and today we are at about a seven percent rate,” Evans says. “That’s been a material change and our retention rate today is better than many in the industry. Our biggest push is to keep our customers by providing service that is better than others can provide.”
The company this year partnered with Chef Works, the leading manufacturer and distributor of chef wear and uniforms for the food and beverage industry, to provide an extensive lineup of chef apparel in the right styles, colors and fabrics. “The food and beverage industry is one of our key vertical markets,” Evans notes. “And we want to provide a top-of-the-line product for those customers.”
AmeriPride also provides uniforms for manufacturing, healthcare and food processing, as well as flame-resistant and high-visibility apparel for the oil and gas industry. “We provide oil and gas businesses with uniforms that meet compliance rules for their industry,” Evans says. “In addition, we know how to launder and repair garments so they maintain their flame-resistant properties throughout the garment’s life. We also know when it’s time to replace them.”
The company is always adapting to meet its customers needs. “The more you do to hold on to customers, the better you will be,” Evans says. “Keeping customers leads to company growth. There are a lot of front-end expenses to acquiring a new customer that pay out over time, but you have to retain the customer. We must provide new and improved services and provide real value for their money. We continue to discover new products and services that better serve our customers, and that makes them want to stay with us.” mt