Founder reflects on an era marked by change, opportunity, and fun.
There’s been no shortage of lessons about business and life over the 17 years Hangers Cleaners has been around. As founder Joe Runyan looks back on competing in this very difficult industry, he finds satisfaction in his ability to adapt to change and detect opportunities with the help of friends, family, and the Martin City community.
Turning Struggle into Success
Runyan’s first thoughts about getting into the dry cleaning business grew out of frustration with dry cleaners in the early 2000s. He just didn’t like dealing with them and knew he could do better.
“I remember the girl behind the counter was always rude. The store was always dirty and smelled funny. Then they started messing up my clothes, too. I tried switching dry cleaners but found they were all pretty much the same. I knew there was an opportunity to raise the bar.”
Runyan left his corporate job and started laying the groundwork for a better dry cleaning experience, from higher-quality cleaning and customer service to more environmentally-friendly processes. He signed up for Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac® program to learn how to launch and grow a business and says ‘love money’ largely paid to get the business off the ground.
“I couldn’t get typical small business loans because my business model focused on cutting-edge green technology that hadn’t been proven and other dry cleaners who had tried it really struggled. My financing basically dried up. That’s when my family and friends started stepping in to offer what I call ‘love money.’ I have over a dozen investors, mostly my brothers, sisters, parents, and friends. They didn’t want to just give me loans. They wanted to become shareholders. That really said a lot about how much they believed in me. I simply would not be in business without their help.”
Family and friends helped in other ways, too. Runyan initially needed storage space for his cleaning equipment and his brother-in-law connected him with a landlord in Martin City. That storage space evolved into the first Hangers Cleaners location and now serves as the company’s headquarters.
“We started with a handful of employees and a desperate search for customers. Dry cleaning depends on volume so we were doing anything to get clothing in the door. We even had a deal with Goodwill that allowed us to use some of their clothing donations for practice. We hung those clothes around our customer counter to convince people we knew what we were doing.”
Runyan’s Martin City location was ideal for his centralized business model. All dry cleaning operations happened in Martin City while other locations were opened just for customers to drop off and pick up their clothing. Centralized operations gave Runyan better control over quality and consistency, and freed him from the burden of equipment space and set up when shopping for other storefront locations.
The company’s presence outside of Martin City struggled early on and Runyan wasn’t getting into areas of Greater Kansas City that he really wanted. So he bought a van and committed to front door pickup and delivery service in those areas.
He didn’t realize at the time that his instincts for home delivery would foreshadow a coming trend nationwide. From retail shipping to groceries, delivery is now reshaping the way countless companies do business. More than a decade ago, Runyan’s dry cleaning service was already spot on
“We told people we would give them a bag to fill with dirty clothes and leave on the front porch for pickup. Then we delivered the clothes back within a few days. It took off like wildfire. It would normally take several years to develop a store that equaled what our routes were doing in three months. We really took the local market by storm and changed the way people worked with dry cleaners. Today we are easily the biggest pickup and delivery dry cleaning service in KC.”
However, success wasn’t wrinkle-free. A cash flow problem plagued him for the first couple of years and Hangers Cleaners almost didn’t make it. The problem culminated in a payroll crisis with the walls closing in.
“We had multiple locations including many Hy-Vee stores, but we were running out of money and had 25 employees to pay. I had taken everything out of my savings, exhausted a third mortgage on my house, and ran up credit cards. It still wasn’t enough. I was losing sleep thinking we’re pretty much done.”
The timing and size of a check from Hy-Vee saved the day. Just when Runyan thought Hangers Cleaners was fading, it came back to life in a moment he now believes was pivotal.
“We got that check deposited right away and made payroll. That was the beginning of the recovery. I just remember thinking that we’re going to be okay.”
Keeping a Successful Operation Buttoned-Up
Getting off the ground was only the beginning. Keeping Hangers Cleaners steaming ahead requires Runyan’s gift for finding the right solutions at the right times. He’s strengthened his service commitment with a fleet of vans and created a separate company to branch out into industrial cleaning such as insurance orders.
The search for technological improvements never ends and can sometimes be urgent. Runyan had to act quickly when his environmentally-friendly CO2 cleaning method became a burden without reliable maintenance support from equipment manufacturers. He switched to a different method that’s also environmentally friendly just before his CO2 equipment gave out.
A widening array of other tech advances includes a barcoding system that dramatically improves the coordination of garments, and twist-tie machinery usually used for packaging bread now groups hangers together for customer convenience.
“We’ve incorporated technology that’s new to the industry several times and it has really boosted productivity and efficiencies.”
The business picked up momentum with the arrival of Brian Gunnerson, an old friend from Runyan’s corporate days and an early Hangers Cleaners investor. Gunnerson grew more and more interested in the business and joined Runyan as a co-owner. His talent for operational and financial management fit perfectly and quickly made a dent.
“Brian really started digging into how we could do some things smarter and more efficiently. He helped us focus our service area and that alone changed the game for us.”
By 2007, Hangers Cleaners was on the right track and Runyan celebrated the facts in his financials.
“I remember when Brian and I published our quarterly financials showing a positive cash flow for the first time. I knew we were going to make it. The best feeling was all of the people behind that ‘love money’ that carried me were now seeing some return. They believed in us and it was finally paying off.”
Runyan recognizes that healthy change is made possible by feedback. He chats with customers constantly and listens closely to refine service features. He also encourages employees to speak up with new ideas.
“My employees know we’re on the same team. We try new things together. Sometimes the ideas work and sometimes they don’t. Either way, we learn and build on it. We’re honest about the kind of work we’re doing here and we keep it light to have a good time. Life is too short not to respect each other and have fun.”
Runyan says the best feedback he’s ever received was from someone who knows his employee team well.
“This gentleman pulled me aside and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing but I can tell you that your employees would walk through walls for you.’ That means everything to me.”
Hangers Cleaners is also making a difference for the community with the jobs it creates, the sales taxes it generates, and a commitment to giving back. Runyan even developed a program that donates a percentage of a customer’s dry cleaning bill to local schools.
In addition to your clothes, the company might refresh your day as well with an entertaining social media post or email. At the urging of family friend and Indigo Wild founder Emily Voth, Runyan is sharing his witty personality more to differentiate his business with unique, hometown appeal in the face of increasing competition from corporate brands.
“Emily’s point was to have fun with it. She said ‘Joe, you are so likable and funny. You need to let that come out.’ That meant so much coming from a fantastic businessperson with such a great personality. She has been a big inspiration of mine. I’ve known Emily since she started making soap in her basement. My sisters do work for her. It’s funny that we all share a passion for cleaning in some way.”
Would you believe comedian Jay Leno also encouraged Runyan’s humor? The former talk show host once drew attention to a Hangers Cleaners advertisement that read, “Get $50 off wedding dress cleaning so it’ll be ready for the next time.”
17 Years Worth of Wisdom
When it comes to advice for budding entrepreneurs, Runyan says the most important thing is to love what you’re doing and believe in your idea. You might also follow Runyan’s lead and embrace change as an opportunity to fight off competitors and take your business to the next level. Finally, accept all the help you can get.
“It’s so important to realize what you don’t know and look for help. The Kansas City area is an amazing place for entrepreneurs. There’s so much help available and so many people willing to guide you. In business, you just can’t go it alone. Don’t look at your problems as personal failures. All startups have problems. The answers are out there if you just ask. Programs like the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, which I am part of, can transform the way you think about your business.”
17 years has also convinced Runyan that Martin City is a special neighborhood. He’s seen our area grow into a hub for family businesses. A steady uptick in storefront customers over the years reflects new retail and residential energy that gives him a sense of pride.
“Everyone here cares about each other. They want the community to do well. The people are all pretty good salt-of-the-earth people that you have to love. You also can’t beat the location. For us, the location has been absolutely perfect as our base of operations. Martin City is so centrally located, it’s easy to get around the metro quickly. We’re also starting to draw more interest in this location from both sides of the state line. More people stop in and say hello, and not just while picking up their clothes. That’s the kind of people we really like, both at Hangers Cleaners and in Martin City.”
Drop by and say hello to Joe Runyan and his crew in Martin City today and congratulation them on 17 years!