The following article by Stephanie Simon appeared in the this week’s Patriot Ledger. Photo is by Greg Derr of the Patriot Ledger.
SOUTH SHORE ENTREPRENEUR: Kevin Dubois
Kevin Dubois, owner of the Hanover-based Lapels dry cleaning franchise, is growing the business, and his new book contains advice that he considers applicable to business owners across the board.
HANOVER — At 18 years old, Kevin Dubois of Scituate was running Horizon, a restaurant in a Holiday Inn in Rockland. By 20, he had turned one hotel restaurant into six.
He was a natural entrepreneur from the beginning, but he had to quickly learn how to make a business thrive, Dubois said.
“It was chaos. I got a crash course on how to treat employees and customers, how to market, keep the books and manage payroll. It was the proverbial Hard Knocks University.”
Now 42, Dubois owns the Lapels dry cleaning franchise business headquartered in Hanover. He has taken Lapels from 20 stores to 65 stores, and there are more than 100 stores in development.
Dubois also co-authored a book, “Entrepreneurial Insanity in the Dry Cleaning Business,” which came out this year. In it, he shares advice that he considers applicable to business owners across the board.
“Most business owners understand how a company is organized before they open the door, but being able to wear the different hats and get the business off the ground while at the same time stepping back and remembering the bigger picture of why they started is the challenge,” Dubois said.
Remembering the challenges of owning restaurants helps him step back and see the bigger picture in his own business, he said.
The work schedule – nights, holidays and weekends – and the high cost of goods induced Dubois to leave the restaurant business.
In 2006, Dubois bought half of Lapels from then-owner Larry Friedman. He bought the rest of the franchise in 2012.
“I’m somebody who hadn’t been in the dry cleaning industry, and I came at it with fresh eyes,” Dubois said. “I took a look at what the consumer was looking for and then really pushed the marketing, operating and environmentally friendly pieces.”
He said Lapels has a hub-and-spokes business model. A new franchisee has to start by opening a 2,000-square-foot plant (the hub), then open satellite stores (spokes). Customers drop off clothing at the satellite stores, and it is taken to the plant to be cleaned.
To start a Lapels, a franchisee needs $400,000 for a plant location. (The expense includes building, equipment and installation.) When the franchisee is ready to open a satellite store, the cost is $100,000. There are about five satellite stores per plant.
Dubois said the environmentally friendly element of the business is unique to Lapels.
“Everybody assumes it’s expensive to do, and to some degree it’s true,” he said. “The upfront cost for us being green is more expensive, and our dry cleaning machine specifically cost us more than the typical dry cleaner spends.”
The flip side is that the franchisee will spend less on goods over time, Dubois said. Lapels’ environmentally clean machine is cooled by a refrigeration system on the top, while the typical machine runs about 80 gallons of water through a chiller, he said.
“Also, the solvent that we use goes back into the tanks and is used again, as opposed to cleaners who buy solvent and throw it out,” he said. “At the end of the day, we don’t charge any more for that green process.”
It’s all part of Dubois’ plan to differentiate Lapels from the competition. Many franchisees are happy and turning profit, which is why more stores are opening, Dubois said.
Lapels has stores starting in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, and the expansion will soon lead to stores opening outside the U.S., he said.
Dubois attributes the growth to his ability to make good hiring choices and surround himself with smart people, another point he makes in his book.
“So many business owners go around putting out fires instead of growing their business,” he said. “A lot of it is because people don’t take the time to hire the right people, and they end up doing an employee’s job because that person didn’t show up.”
“Entrepreneurial Insanity in the Dry Cleaning Business” offers ways for entrepreneurs to avoid making hiring mistakes, and it provides examples of proper marketing.
Within the Lapels franchise, Dubois has a team of 14 people who help grow the franchise and keep stores healthy. The team includes trainers who teach franchisees about the business, construction and installation teams, and a director of operations.
The company looks for entrepreneurs who have the drive to run their own business and the ability to follow the Lapels program, Dubois said.
“It helps that franchisees know I’ve been through it early in my career,” he said. “I know the struggle of putting every penny into opening a business. The skill of opening the door in a healthy way and understanding what you have to do to market the business out of the gate as well as how to get it running successfully is important, and something I use every day.”