Behind the warehouse doors at Brothers Cleaners on Atlantic Avenue, shirts, slacks and blouses ride through production lines of cleaning, steaming, pressing and sorting.
Machines whirl, beep and relax wrinkles in pants with a steam tunnel and help straighten men’s shirts by blowing them up like balloons.
All the while, a computerized system tracks and guides each piece of clothing and its bar code through the production line that concludes with an automatic bagger and sorter.
“What this thing does, it takes it all around and automatically assigns it to each store,” said Bob Hilker, 62, who along with twin brother Tom, own the 99-year-old family dry cleaning business. For the daily delivery routes, Bob Hilker said, the sorter arranges clothes by drivers’ stop order.
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Investing in one of the only automated dry cleaning production lines on the East Coast, was one of three steps that the brothers have taken to maintain the family business as polyester and casual Fridays have chipped away at discretionary spending on dry cleaning.
Bob and Tom Hilker are sons of a son of a dry cleaner.
Their grandfather Emil Hilker and his brother Fred opened the first locations of Brothers Cleaners on East Morgan and East Martin streets in 1916. Bob and Tom’s dad, Jerry Hilker, and eventually his twin brother Jim ran the business until the third generation took over in the 1980s.
Today the company, with its three retail locations and a new store expected to open in May, faces a modern landscape awash in challenges, from the increasing cost of utilities to declining demand.
Since 2009, annual growth in the $8.8 billion dry cleaning industry has declined 1.4 percent, according to an industry report by research company IBIS World.
The number of establishments dropped from 45,938 in 2005 to an estimated 39,765 in 2014, according to the report. Establishments are predicted to decline to 37,718 in 2019.
Actions such as investment in automation, diversifying revenue and a continued focus on customer service have helped sustain the company, the Hilkers said.
Investment in automation
A series of events nudged the brothers in the direction of investing in centralization and automation with a long-term goal of reducing labor costs.
About 50 years ago, their father opened Brothers Cleaners at the then brand new North Hills. Bob and Tom Hilker started working there at age 12. By high school they were looking for a line of work that didn’t involve opening up a shop every Saturday.
Bob Hilker went on to graduate from Campbell University in 1974, and Tom ended up studying to be an electrician at Wake Tech.
But their vacation from the family business only lasted a few years.
Tom started working in the North Hills store in the mid 1970s. Bob opened a store at North Ridge shopping center in 1980, which closed in December after the landlord didn’t renew the lease.
In the 1990s, Brothers Cleaners encompassed three stores with in-house dry cleaning plants. During a renovation at North Hills, the Hilkers kept a retail location there but needed to find a new home for the plant. They ultimately decided to consolidate dry cleaning production and built a retail and plant facility on Atlantic Avenue.
When they opened the Atlantic Avenue location in 1998, they started researching automation equipment and its uses at stores across the U.S.
Every two years or so, the brothers added machines to a production line that could do the work in less time and with fewer people.
Since 2005, Brothers Cleaners has reduced their staff from 110 to 80.
Diversification of revenue
Hippies ushered in casual fashion in the 1970s, but IBM nudged the Triangle area in a sporty direction in the 1980s when neck ties dropped from the dress code, the Hilkers said.
Mix in the prominence of polyester, casual Fridays, people working from home and wearing jeans to church, and it adds up to a lot of losses for the retail dry cleaning industry.
To address the shifting landscape, the Hilkers diversified their offerings.
In the 1980s, Bob Hilker heard about a dry cleaning business in Cincinnati that delivered.
“So I went to Cincinnati and spent a week with him and learned how to do routes,” Bob Hilker said.
They bought one truck. When that truck was almost profitable, they bought another one.
Now, the company has seven trucks and drivers that cover 14 routes to Durham, Chapel Hill and most of Wake County. They connect with route customers, who pay the same prices as the retail customers, through direct mail and by approaching homeowners and condo associations at up-and-coming developments that might be interested in listing a pickup cleaning service as an amenity.
Drivers’ income includes a base pay, a percentage of sales and an amount for each new sign up.
In 2002, Brothers Cleaners invested in a franchise that does fire and water restoration work for insurance companies.
After a house fire, Brothers Cleaners employees collect all the textiles, from drapes to teddy bears, in the house.
They clean the items, store them until the house is repaired and deliver them back to the room from which they were retrieved.
Today the business generates about 40 percent of its revenue through traditional retail, while the delivery service and the fire and water restoration service produces the rest.
While technology has allowed the cleaners to put out a quality product with lower labor costs, customer service is another important aspect of the model.
The brothers said they are trying to create a culture in which employees smile and remember customers’ names, but that is a whole lot harder than it sounds.
Their system also includes hiring the right people, collecting complaint cards, being aware and taking steps for frustrated customers and monthly meetings to discuss issues and concerns.
The company also has about six “secret shoppers” that try out and sometimes test employees at different locations. Employees who receive praise get $25.
Those who don’t have a positive report, are asked what happened, Bob Hilker said, and told to “Tighten up, come on man, we are here to be friendly.”