Sealclean now has a modern home and a fresh outlook. That’s the best way of summing up the laundry’s successful move and it has just celebrated its first year of operations at its base at Tonbridge, Kent.

The original laundry had been based in the small village of Seal, near Sevenoaks in Kent since 1930, offering a high quality service to a customer base that extends beyond Kent into London, Surrey and Sussex.

Sealclean is unusual in the fact that domestic laundry accounts for around 80% of its work, with the remainder covering hotels, restaurants, private schools and prestigious clients in the City of London.

Managing partner Peter Johnston says the business has grown steadily, partly through the growth of the cash-rich, time-poor sector of society and partly by acquisition. Volume now stands at 15,000 pieces a week and the business has a turnover of £1.2million.

Johnston explains that as business expanded, the Seal village premises were far from ideal. “We had been looking for a site for some time, he says. “There were several reasons for wanting to move. The biggest was lack of space. Sealclean laundry was in a stunning 19th century converted stables with lots of the original rooms preserved and this made staff feel as though they were working in separate compartments.”

He added that recruitment around the small village of Seal had been difficult. A more accessible location would make future recruitment easier.

Planning permission to convert the Seal site’s old York stone stables, coach house and clock tower to residential flats had existed since the 1970s. Sealclean’s customer base had been steadily increasing for years but when the nearby Burwash laundry closed and many of its customers came to Sealclean it expanded hugely in a very short period of time. Whilst the additional work was smoothly incorporated it was time to reconsider moving to larger premises.

The search for a site began – somewhere central to Sealclean’s customer base, with good road access and somewhere convenient for staff to reach.

“We took the opportunity to invest in a better more suitable site – and with hindsight, we sold the Seal building at just the right time!” says Johnston.

Johnston spent considerable time looking for a site, initially at existing laundry businesses. “For example, we looked at the old Burwash laundry site in Sussex but ruled this out. We also looked at industrial units in Maidstone and Paddock Wood. However, we decided we wanted to ensure we took as many of our skilled individuals with us in the move – several of the company’s employees live in the Tonbridge and Hildenborough areas.”

Eventually large enough premises were found – a former print works in Sovereign Way, Tonbridge. Purely by coincidence, the Sealclean laundry is now situated close to the former site of the old Castle laundry in St Mary’s Road, which was run by Peter Johnston’s father Alec and before that by his grandfather John.

“Sovereign Way ticked all the boxes – it provided us with more space, a central location and good road and rail access,” says Johnston. Perhaps the only downside is that the company could not obtain the site freehold – Sealclean currently has a ten year lease.

Military operation

The move from Seal to Tonbridge was planned like a military operation – although as Johnston admits, the changeover had the potential to become a logistical nightmare as the old laundry had to be kept fully operational whilst the new laundry was prepared.

The final stage of the transition took place one weekend in April.

“I admit there were a few sleepless nights – but the fact that we opened the Tonbridge site in just four months, providing an unbroken service without letting down a single customer is a great tribute to both our suppliers and to our staff,” he says.

From virtually an empty shell in January 2008, Sealclean’s new laundry rapidly took shape and was fully up and running by 11 April 2008.

The most obvious difference between the sites at Tonbridge and Seal is the much larger open layout of the laundry and drycleaning areas. A special mezzanine floor was installed to take the large water tanks. Essential work included drainage for washing machines and a trade effluent agreement for the removal of waste effluent. Planning permission was required for the erection of a new chimney. However, the only real difficulty encountered during the changeover was with the gas suppliers. The length of time it took to negotiate connecting to the gas supplies meant that the boiler (previously running on medium fuel oil) had to be converted to dual fuel and run on gas oil until the gas supply could be connected.

Sealclean engineer Fred Parks, who has been with the company for eight years, was instrumental in ensuring boilers and other essential machinery at the old Sealclean factory were fully operational up to the last minute to guarantee a smooth transition. Some 25% of the equipment from the Seal site is now installed at Sovereign Way.

PAC Services of Billingshurst, West Sussex supplied Sealclean’s reconditioned Spencer washer-extractors. The laundry now has two 350 Spencers and one 150, totally refurbished. Fully re-built to an “as new” standard, the machines incorporate touchscreen PLC control systems and a single-motor inverter drive.

PAC Services was also responsible for installing the water recovery system. This uses the last rinse of the last load as the first rinse on the next. Johnston says that the system costs around £5,000 – £6,000, which he expects to recover within the first year.

Business expansion

With the move over, Sealclean can now concentrate on the future. “There has been no sign of the credit crunch affecting our core domestic market – laundry for the existing cash-rich time-poor customers seems not to be an issue,” according to Johnston.

However, he accepts that bringing in more customers to a domestic laundry service will take time so the business is likely to develop by expansion, taking over the customer base as other laundries close. This has already seen Sealclean move further and further afield – into the territory held by the now-closed Esher and Burwash laundries to cover all of Kent and most of Surrey, Sussex and central London.

In his view, great opportunities exist for laundries. The way ahead lies in “quality work, sensibly priced”. Johnston stresses: “Too many compete on price rather than quality.”

For Sealclean customers, attention to detail is important. Finishing is mostly done by hand and Johnston adds that few laundries will go to such trouble. “Duvet covers can be processed quickly through an industrial calender but we prefer pressing by hand. It is more time- and labour-intensive but provides a better result and we charge accordingly. Lace tablecloths will be hand ironed and if a shirt comes into the laundry with a button missing, another shirt button will be stitched on before it leaves.”

The business has its own distinctive wicker hampers into which the clothes are packed for delivery.

Most of its domestic customers rely on the personal collection and delivery service. The company has a fleet of six vans that call weekly on private customers, with one for contract customers.