Judging from attendance at this year’s conference, the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers’ efforts to improve its image are working. A home counties conference venue and a switch of the business session to Sunday (to avoid normal trading hours) had succeeded in attracting more cleaners – around 50 out of a 90 strong audience.

President Anne Parris provided further evidence. Membership is growing – London centre has attracted 36 newcomers this year. She said: “We have to ensure that the public knows we have our industry in order and offer value for money.” A route to this lay in training and promoting the Guild Q-Stars scheme. Mike Clark, Guild council chairman said a small budget for publicising the scheme to consumers should be available next year.

Rules and regulations

Pat Dowling of Alex Reid answered another need for cleaners – keeping up with regulation changes. He first outlined the implications of the Solvents Emissions Directive.

Then he highlighted the probable transfer of responsiblity for health and safety enforcement in retail cleaners from the HSE inspectorate to Environmental Health Officers (EHOs). EHOs would be stronger and more pro-active. Cleaners could expect an annual visit. Poor practice could lead to heavy fines.

Cleaners have a lot of catching up to do. They must ensure they have: spillage arrangements, monitoring techniques, equipment to control risks, routine leak detection, a properly equipped first aid kit readily available, accredited waste disposal methods, and planned, regular equipment maintenance.

Costas Kyriakou of Mackenzies explained how he had earned his conference billing as as a drycleaning star. You have to move with changes in the industry, he said. You develop by listening to the customer. In the 12 years since he started, he has extended the customer base geographically and across social groups.

Professional cleaning is a complex matter, involving both fibre and stain identification. Training is the way forward. Mr Kyriakou took a course before starting the business and has now taken Q-Stars.

Cleaners must work on their image. The shop front and reception should be clean and smart. The drycleaning machine should be at the back, customers don’t like to see their clothes stuffed into the machine. The production area should be well designed, well lit and well ventilated.

Johnson Cleaners’s MD David Bryant looked at drycleaners in a wider context and explained how a multiple survives in an industry essentially tailored to owner- managers. Customer service is a priority, but how do you ensure that throughout 500 outlets?

He described the reducing strength of specialist cleaning multiples, highlighting the threat to all from supermarket operations which may see drycleaning as a “loss leader”. The industry as a whole faces severe difficulties. Clothing has moved to casual, easy-care garments. Over half the population never uses a drycleaner. For the rest, 80% of business comes from 20% of the customers. Even in London the average spend is only around £36 per household.

Threats such as home drycleaning kits and the washable suit may have withdrawn, but could come back.

But there are benefits for the multiple. The joy is the company’s team of staff. Mr Bryant said: “We wanted to lift their level of skills.” Now Johnsons is doing so with the Q-Stars, which it would use to establish specialist “cleanologists”.

Ian Parris, well known for his technical knowledge, passed on some of his expertise by explaining how machine technology might develop for the future. Broadly, the aim was to have a drycleaning process in which the machine does more and more for us and operates without human intervention.

Research directions

Machine technology needs to take account of research and the information on best practices that is coming from bodies, such as SATRA, Hohenstein and the IFI. He looked at the various aspects of the process and how they might develop. He also explained the need to realise that processing would have to adapt as alternatives to perc developed.

Ron Davidson, reminding delegates that the Guild also represented launderers, returned to the training theme. In his own career he had seen attitudes change. Early trainers simply took a “sit by Nelly” approach. At the Savoy laundry people were trained, but just for specific jobs. Later in his own plant he adopted a more flexible approach where staff learned a variety of jobs.

Why train? People get bored, they need to vary their skills and progress. “If you can train staff to higher levels, you should. It makes people feel valued. Staff are your greatest asset.”

Roger Cawood and Norman Gill of SDML offered another take on this central theme. Mr Cawood believes the drycleaning industry has suffered through a move to de-skill jobs and away from structured training to a more superficial and generalised approach. Many respected training centres, such the FCRA or Derby Technical, have gone. The industry, he believes needs to provide uniform training that is validated and, above all, credible and able to deliver internationally recognised status. Trainers must be qualified both as cleaners and trainers. Q-Stars aim to do this. The challenge is to promote them.

Norman Gill pointed out that laundry sector training increasingly relied on the machine, chemicals and textile suppliers. Is that enough? The risks are: an unwitting slant on specific products. Training that becomes blurred. It is not independent or validated. Q-Stars address the issue in drycleaning. But where is the laundry Q-Star. (There were said to be plans.)

The conference welcomed a delegation from Kenya and Nigeria. Suitably robed Brian Pearce, a drycleaning consultant working with Garment Care of Nigeria, talked entertainingly about his work and the state of textile care in Africa.