White Knight Laundry Services celebrated its centenary this year – and the company foresees tremendous potential in its second century with the expansion of its door-to-door domestic drycleaning and laundry services by means of its franchise network.

The company is building on a strong base. Herbert Tomlins founded the original business, White King Laundry, as a single high street laundry in Kilburn, London. Today the company is best known for supplying linen and workwear rental services to hotels, restaurants, catering and industrial businesses throughout the south east of England. The company is also the proud holder of the Royal Warrant, awarded for serving the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace and is permitted to display the Royal Arms on its fleet of vans.

White Knight has developed two main operational arms, its commercial business-to-business laundries in Eastbourne, Reading and London, and the domestic drycleaning and laundry service based in Woking, Surrey. The franchise network, which forms a central part of the latter category, is clearly evolving from a “domestic” service into one more accurately described as personal laundry, says Robert Adams, White Knight’s director of franchising.

The target market for the personal laundry service is mainly ABC1s, says Adams. “It would be perhaps not too clichéd to describe them as cash-rich, time poor. People are working longer hours and want to make the most of their leisure time and reduce household chores to a minimum.”

After commissioning its own market research to find out whether people would use a door-to-door service, the company found that around 40% would use a such a service. With product penetration currently put at around 0.05%, that figure suggests that there is a large untapped potential.

“There is no doubt that the market opportunities exist,” says Adams. “There is a growing population of career households with little time for household chores. We believe that we provide a convenient delivery and collection service for these “on-the-move” customers that is competitively priced against high street and supermaket competitors.”

What makes the White Knight operation distinct from other door-to-door collection services is the fact that the operation is franchised. “What we are doing is selling 100 years of expertise through our franchise network. The recognition of the symbol is an important element in the company strategy, building from its present base of operations,” says Adams.

From the main domestic laundry at Woking in Surrey, a total of 17 collection and delivery vehicles currently operate across 14 franchised territories that stretch across an area of southern England serving 3,800 White Knight customers. Brand awareness within its network territory of Berkshire, south west London, Sussex and Surrey has been achieved largely through recommendations by customers.

The delivery vans are now a familiar sight in the franchise areas, with the White Knight logo acting as a banner for the company. Magnetic signs that can be attached to the vans to flag up current special promotions are being introduced.

“Word-of-mouth is important to a business like White Knight – some 36% of new business is attributed to people recommending the service to others,” says Adams. “It is an effective way of letting people know we exist.” Today the customer base represents a wide cross-section of the general public, from professional people to busy family households.

Expansion plans

The challenge now is to find the right way to move forward. Expansion in the franchised service would have to mesh with White Knight’s commercial laundry commitments. The Woking laundry is the company’s only domestic unit at present, and as it is in the middle a predominantly residential area, operating times are restricted. Adams confirms that expansion would mean having a site where laundry can operate more shifts. “The strategic plan is to invest in a best-placed geographic location, probably between London and Birmingham.”

Woking currently handles 35,000 pieces a week, according to operations manager Nikki Cozens. This includes the franchised personal and domestic laundry business, together with the established commercial laundry customers, such as local schools, Ministry of Defence and fire services.

Given the size of the operation, a track and trace system is a key part of the set up. The franchised laundry collection is boxed and barcoded. The box is scanned as it comes in.

The laundry uses the Polymark system. Items can clearly be recognised after processing and returned to the correct individual or department, but without the need for a permanent mark. A specially designed tape is passed through a laundry marking machine which prints a code number, and at the same time cuts the tape and fixes it to the article. In this way, batches of clothing or other items belonging to the same individual or department can be correctly sorted and returned. For the next batch, the code is simply advanced and the process repeated. Once cleaned, the items are boxed up and await collection by driver for dispatch. All the items are logged out, and the invoice printed for the customer. Customers receive books so their order is made out before the next delivery date.

Although the remaining franchises in the present network are due to be finalised in 2005, the company has identified other qualifying territories. It has pinpointed 40 qualifying territories in the south east, each containing more than 50,000 ABC households.

Franchisees are responsible for developing their own customer accounts in their particular territory through the collection and delivery of White Knight domestic laundry and drycleaning services.

Where possible, the franchisee will live in the franchise area – they are seen as local, so providing that essential “personal” element. It provides greater flexibility so that delivery or collection can be arranged at short notice.

A pilot scheme ran for 18 months to establish that a laundry collection and delivery business could become viable .

Family decision

All the potential franchisees are interviewed, and this is followed up with a joint meeting with the franchisee and their partner. As Adams points out, this is a “family decision, since this is more than just a job.”

There is an opportunity to see the plant and to talk to existing franchisees and to the laundry operatives, to discover more about the laundry industry.

One person who took the plunge is Paul Luker, 42, a former infantryman in the Royal Green Jackets. Two years ago he gave up his post as transport manager for White Knight’s May Cottage Laundry to become the company’s first franchise owner – a decision he doesn’t regret.

“I took professional advice, applied for the franchise and was accepted. The franchise has gone from strength to strength and turnover has trebled. I love the work, I enjoy working with my customers and it is financially rewarding,” he adds.