This has been a year of investment and expansion for Stalbridge Linen. The opening of its Scottish office in January was an indication of its success and gives the company a base for further growth. The summer saw the official opening of a 5000sq ft extension to its Milborne Port plant in Dorset, and the building of a 21 000sq ft office and distribution development close to its Shaftesbury headquarters.

Established in the mid 1970s, Stalbridge has seen several changes of ownership, but in 1995, while retaining its core management team, it became part of the Johnson Services Group. Johnson regional director Chris Sander became Stalbridge managing director.

Under Johnson, Stalbridge has gained from significant investment in plant and equipment, says Chris Sander, and this has enabled the business to prepare itself for vast expansion. He says that Johnson has put in place a marketing awareness programme which will promote Stalbridge’s specialised services not just to contract caterers but across the whole spectrum of the catering market.

Donald Smith, director, support services, believes that an additional company strength is a senior board that has been there since the early days and thoroughly understands both the operation and the catering industry. “We are not accountants” he says.

Sales and marketing manager, Ken Wheeler adds that the company focuses solely on the hotel and catering industry. It competes on the quality of its dedicated service rather than on price.

No contract

A “no contract” policy operates over a wide range of standard products and underpins the philosophy of keeping in close touch with industry requirements. Donald Smith explains that the hotel and catering sector requires a high degree of flexibility. Staff turnover is high and requirements change constantly. Operating without a fixed contract allows customers to increase or decrease stocks as necessary, without incurring residual costs for returned items.

The company tries to be flexible in other ways too. It does not insist on customers putting all its business with Stalbridge. If they just want to use one service, that’s fine.

The company offers a range of specialist services. Chefs’ wear has always been a strong area.

“Our main involvement with the larger hotels and hotel chains is through our chefs’ wear” says Donald Smith. He explains that finding a launderer with a specific chefs’ service can be difficult. Few operations have the specialised finishing equipment. Within the last 18 months Stalbridge has purchased three special finishers, and he believes these were the first the supplier had built for several years.

The quality of the service is due not only to its laundering and finishing but also to the original quality of the garments which are sourced to the company’s own specifications.

Product ranges are constantly developed to meet changing needs and fashions. In both chefs’ wear and in linen, the company can offer both permanent and temporary hire. In the latter, ragging stock, as soon as it passes its best, keeps product standards high.

Premier service

A Premier-branded bedlinen and towel service allows hotels’ housekeepers and conference centre managers to enjoy high standards for these products.

Embroidery, using CAD systems to produce logos and names to precise requirements; drycleaning and a shirt service are also part of the Stalbridge repertoire.

Stalbridge’s service relies on a combination of factors: strong focus, expert knowledge, specialised services tailored to customers’ needs and keen marketing. Success is measured by results. Under the Johnson wing, Stalbridge has doubled its turnover and for the past two years it has exceeded new business targets by 40%. Rapid growth has led to the expansion at Milborne Port and Shaftesbury.

The two sites house the production for the whole of the company’s operation. Milborne Port concentrates on flatwork and its customers include hotels, conference centres, and a selective number of restaurants. It also handles chefs’ and porters’ wear for its flatwork customers. It is attracting around 18 new customers a month on average.

The new 5 000sq ft extension will provide additional capacity, particularly for the Premier service. A 50kg tunnel washer has been installed and a calender and two towel-folders will be added.

Stalbridge’s rapid growth has also led to severe pressure on space at its Shaftesbury headquarters. Currently these house not only the three main production areas plus the shirt, drycleaning and embroidery services, but also stores, distribution and all support services.

The new 21 000sq ft building will provide a new home for support services, distribution and IT.

This will free-up space in the main production plant, allow for long-term expansion and the installation of two more ironing lines as well as additional coat-finishing equipment. It will also ease the bottle-necks that sometimes occur at peak times by giving more space to the production lines.

The company acknowledges that at times staff have had to work under difficult conditions and pays due credit to them for the success of the operation.

“They deliver the goods on a day-to-day basis, including those times, inevitable in every business when things go less than smoothly” says Donald Smith. He points out that the company takes pride in saying that if any customer has a problem, staff will take immediate steps to sort it.

New staff joining Stalbridge are given a feel for the whole operation, and where possible, have the opportunity to go out with the reps to visit customers.

The company maintains its own delivery fleet with 23 vehicles and 31 drivers to serve customers throughout England and Wales. Scotland has its own depot. The new building will house a purpose-built distribution section with two storage levels and nine loading bays to take incoming and outgoing goods.

Customer support will also benefit from additional space. Here, the company employs six staff and a supervisor and the team takes around 150 orders per day including one-off requests.

The company is not complacent and the operation is continuously monitored.

It has already gained 9002 quality certification and Ken Wheeler stresses Stalbridge’s environmental awareness.

It is working towards ISO140001 accreditation. Each department has its own representative to keep an eye on the use of resources.

Washers are equipped with rinse-water recycling facilities, the offices have schemes for segregating paper and cardboard for recycling.

This attention to all-round quality has been behind the rapid growth of the past five years. MD Chris Sander hints that the current plans are just part of a comprehensive programme to ensure that Johnson Stalbridge becomes the first choice launderer for all catering establishments. n