If there was one message that emerged from the conference, it was that the textile care industry must get to grips with the three Ms of modernisation, margins and market expansion, if it is to move forward successfully.

Described by one delegate as “Professional and very New Labour”, the conference was indeed slick, but it also provided much substance and the lesson of the three “Ms” was driven home to the audience (comprising nearly 200 delegates from four countries) in a variety of ways.

Alastair McRae of Sketchleys, taking a straightforward approach, looked at the potential for growth in commercial laundry and workwear markets, and urged the need to change. “We are still looking inwards, watching each other and stealing each other’s business.” He added that while the service offered had improved, competition had driven prices downward and the situation could not continue. Sales teams must be directed to seek new business. This would not only expand the market but increase profitability as margins are 10 to 15% higher than on existing business.” “There are 26 million employees in the UK” continued Mr McRae. “Three million use workwear. Just a 10% improvement on that figure would dramatically change the prosperity of our industry.” He warned conference that “If we do not get our act together, if we do not expand the market, there will be more consolidations to come and fewer of us at next year’s conference.” Underlining the relevance of his remarks, the TSA is employing research company, Key Note, to establish the total UK workwear market-size and its potential for growth. The results, collated by industry type, will be ready this month. In its second phase, due to be completed by January 2000, the research will assess the general attitude to wearing uniforms at work.

Nobody could argue with the statement that ‘globalisation is having a worldwide effect’ and Denis Thomas, vice-chairman of the Uniform &Textile Services Association of America, gave a hint of what could be coming to Britain. His figures showed the uniform-rental market in the USA is booming. While it does not automatically follow that the UK will experience similar good news, UK suppliers could help to create the conditions that encourage the transfer of those transatlantic trends.

The laundry and rental revenue in the US is US$8.5billion and the workwear rental sector has increased by over 75%. In contrast, the UK market has increased by only 25%.

Attitude has been crucial to the US growth. Here, uniform wearers are seen as professional, feel comfortable and are accepted at all levels of the business structure. Mr Thomas explained that the frequency of changing uniforms has increased and although the heavy-duty end of the market has decreased, demand for lighter clothing, used to project corporate image rather than protect the wearer, has blossomed.

“Business casual is no longer an oxymoron. IBM’s insistence on a blue suit, white shirt and tie has given way to casual dress and 90% of US companies have a casual-dress policy. The EU will probably outlaw dress codes. The new polo shirts and jerseys make employees feel good, increase productivity and boost morale. And I urge all UK textile rental companies to pursue these sales gambits. Be proactive. Vaccines are more welcome that antidotes.”

Stripping off

At this point Mr Thomas caused some nervousness in his audience by stripping off his business suit. Much to their relief, underneath he was wearing a polo-shirt, with company logo, and dark-tan slacks and he said he now felt more relaxed.

His predictions for the industry included an increase in staff for restaurants, health services and food stores; speciality fabrics will be needed, softness is here to stay, and low-volume, high-margin niches will develop. However, automation and electronic identification will continue to replace people.

Another speaker from the US, Bob Ziifle of Scientific Textiles, looked at customer expectations and warned of too much electronic intervention. Although computerisation is helpful, if managers are not careful, the barcoding, voice-mail and customer databasing will make them lose touch with their customers.

“Your business will have become so impersonal that before you know it, you will have withdrawn from the marketplace.” An earlier speaker had suggested that “If the service you deliver is more than adequate, you are wasting money,” but Mr Ziifle insisted that the route to success was to “exceed the customers’ expectations.” However, finding out exactly what those expectations are may prove difficult.

Appropriately, given the conference’s location, it was a kilted entrepreneur from the Highlands who gave a challenging viewpoint. Ian Cleaver runs four hotels alongside a coach tour business. He has his own on-premise laundry, changes the hard-wearing nylon sheets once a week (presumably whether they need it or not), washes them in cold water (the price of gas is terribly high in the Highlands) and gets the waitresses to help out with the finishing and folding in their spare time.

He challenged any of the commercial launderers at the conference to undercut his price. Just for good measure, he added that commercial laundries were expensive, service engineers should be avoided and, as you would expect, tolerated no pilfering. He reckoned the OPL was saving him £56 000 a year over a commercial laundry service.

More research

The needs of the more discriminating hotel guest were addressed by David Stevens, joint MD of Paragon Laundries. Delivering his talk from a comfortable bed, brought on to the stage for the occasion, he explained the TSA’s Pillow Talk initiative, its second research project. The exercise had gathered a wealth of statistics on hotel guest-preferences and the results have been turned into a sales plan.

The TSA is advocating a Third Way of dealing with hoteliers, forming partnerships and taking the adversarial approach out of the relationship to regenerate customer confidence. Very New Labour. Pillow Talk packs, sales training, advice and support are now available.

Moving on to the high-tech side of the business, Steve Coffey from Omron explained the latest developments in RFID (radio frequency identification systems). In 1998, RFID sales grew by 30%, by 35% in 1999 and by 2000, 40% growth is predicted.

The item identification systems consist of silicon chips, the size of a small coin, attached to the garment and an antenna. The tags are passive, receiving power to make them work and can be integrated into the customers’ database. As a side benefit, customers can use them to monitor the employees movements when wearing the uniform.

The predictions for this fast moving industry were that “smart labels”, that could be sandwiched between paper or textiles, would be introduced as high-volume, low-cost ID tags soon.

Alex Rowe of Combined Linen Services made an impassioned plea for the modernisation of the laundry and textile rental industry and so improving its image. “The public perception” he said “is that it is Dickensian. We need to focus on our poor old employees, because they are poor and they are old. Their development is a passport to success and we should make them feel valued.” He must have been pleased that the conference organisers, chairman Ernie Pymm and other top people in the industry appeared to be ready to move down his preferred path.