Ducker’s approach to the drycleaning market is determined but steady. “We are not going for all out for immediate growth,” says chairman Chris Ducker.

Rather, he explains, the aim is to achieve steady and, above all, controlled growth, ensuring that its new venture always delivers what the customer needs, so that “each machine sold becomes a first class reference”.

The policy is in line with Ducker’s stated reasons for entering the sector, namely that it felt it could offer an unsettled market the stability, strength and depth it needed, having already established these qualities in its textile and healthcare laundering sectors and in machine manufacture. It had also had some contact with drycleaning through conveyor installations in some of the larger plants.

It had two priorities for the move:

• finding the right supplier

• ensuring that it could set up a separate division that would not detract from the goals of its established operation.

On the first count, Ducker’s concerns were the build quality of the machines, a detailed machine features list, and that the supplier should have enough flexibility to meet the needs of the UK market plus an infrastructure that would provide customers with spares and technical solutions, and general operational support.

Its eventual choice of partner, SailStar, could bring all these qualities to market. The Shanghai-based company claims to be the world’s largest manufacturer of drycleaning machines. Its manufacturing plant will be nearly one million ft2 by the end of the year, and in 2000 it supplied the worldwide market with over 4,000 machines. Further, it will increase production as its distribution network increases, for SailStar’s own expansion mirrors the pattern of planned growth targeted by Ducker.

The first step was made through Tony Franklin, president of SailStar USA. A visit to the States gave Chris Ducker and Ducker managing director Martin Bull a chance not only to see the machines, but also the way the SailStar operation approached the marketplace.

Impressed by quality

The machine quality impressed, in particular the number of features, such as three tanks, two filters and a carbon recovery system, that were standard.

Another point in SailStar’s favour was its 50% stake in Italian manufacturer Lindus, widening the available choice.

SailStar’s attitude was equally encouraging, one of eagerness to please and willingness to learn, backed by a high calibre staff.

The advantages of its new partner were confirmed at the venture’s debut at Clean UK. The UK drycleaners’ preconceptions of a Chinese machine are not always favourable, says Chris Ducker, but shown the machines without knowing the country of origin, visitors were impressed with the build, and surprised to learn they were made in China.

The Clean UK showing was timely as it coincided with the setting up of SailStar Europe. This company headed by Eckhard Gerschewske will now be the direct point of contact as Ducker takes on SailStar’s sole UK and Ireland distributorship.

Ducker placed equal weight on the right structure for its new venture, which must not detract from the established business. Specialists with the knowledge and expertise to run the division as a separate entity were a priority. Ray Barnard and Jane Green, both well known in the drycleaning industry, have joined the sales force. “Ray has superb all-round knowledge that includes engineering,” says Chris Ducker.

Additionally, the reputation of both Ray and Jane in the field will be a distinct advantage as “ people buy from people they know”.

Additional technical staff will be employed to make sure that customers’ full requirements are covered. Keeping support in-house will be the rule. The Ducker warehouse will carry spares. Servicing will also be the responsibility of an in-house team, not contracted.

The drycleaning division’s structure has been kept “flat” to allow maximum flexibility. Day-to-day responsibility for the division splits between Ducker directors, Martin Bull, on the technical and operational side, and Andrew Cartwright on sales issues. Both report directly to the board.

Matching demand

The company is unwilling to be too precise as to the machines that will be on offer, implying it will be “flexible” to match market demand. It will have a full range of slimline and standard machines to cover all types of customer from the small unit shop up to the largest central processing plant. Perc and hydrocarbon machines will be offered. The machine’s technology already meets the legislation planned for seven years hence.

One surprise, CO2 machines are planned for the future. SailStar has already launched these in the States. Is there a need in the UK? Chris Ducker thinks there is, albeit a specialist one.

The offering extends beyond sales. “We can offer a complete turnkey operation, whether for a new shop or an established one,” says Martin Bull. On-site training will be a USP.

Drycleaning machines will be complemented by finishing equipment. Two sources have already been lined up, other distributorships will be built. Above all, Ducker is adamant that it’s in the drycleaning business for the long term. That’s why the approach is not one of all-out attack, but growth that is steady, controlled and assured.