Mark Woolfenden, Afonwen11 January 2016
Janet Taylor visits Afonwen’s Reading Laundry to talk to managing director Mark Woolfenden about the company’s development, the state of the textile rental industry, and the challenges the sector faces in the future
In September this year, Afonwen Laundry recorded production of 3million pieces per week across its three sites (just over one million each for Reading and Cardiff and slightly under that figure for the original North Wales plant).
This was yet a further stage in a family business that has seen continued expansion.
Managing director Mark Woolfenden, says that the laundry dates back to 1935 and was founded by William George, David Lloyd George's brother. At that time Afonwen had a rail line and offered services both to the military and to domestic customers. Two of its managers bought out and ran the company during World War II and afterwards. In the post war years the domestic business, including country estates, returned alongside laundry for the military.
The 1960s saw the business spread throughout Gwynned but it was Mark's father, Paul Woolfenden, who took Afonwen to a fresh level.
He bought the company in 1976 and just three years later, the laundry branched into linen hire delivery and collection in Wales' premier seaside resort, Llandudno. Then in 1983 it abandoned the domestic market to concentrate on the hotel sector.
Mark Woolfenden joined the business in 2003. He became managing director in 2007 and expansion has continued. The business has grown rapidly in recent times. When he joined the company it still handled all categories including dustmats, roller towels and workwear, but it moved out of those markets to concentrate exclusively on hotel linen.Afonwen Laundry now claims to be one of the UK's largest independent laundry and linen hire companies.
"Customers are predominantly three- and four-star hotels but also budget establishments and across the group 55% of our customers are independents."
Afonwen owns and hires all its linen and the bulk is pool stock, although a few customers have bespoke linen.
Growth has continued to be rapid. It's been driven by our customers, says Mark Woolfenden. "We opened the Cardiff plant in 2008 and customers soon began to ask for extra capacity."
Two years later Afonwen opened a depot near Heathrow. This gave it an entry into serving the London and South East hotel markets. The depot was never intended as a long-term plan says Woolfenden and Afonwen opened its Reading laundry in 2013.
Growth here has been even more rapid than in Cardiff and just a year after opening the Reading site, Afonwen again responded to demand and opened a second laundry alongside the first.
When the Cardiff plant opened it was seen as state of the art and the approach was very much in the style of laundries in mainland Europe, spacious modern and bright. The Reading laundry continues that style.
"We have always focussed on modern equipment," says Woolfenden, adding that his father was one of the first UK launderers to install a tunnel washer.
Kannegiesser has equipped all production lines and the Reading laundry has three batch washers, eight ironing lines and seven towel folders.
It's a partnership that has proved successful. "We have worked with Kannegiesser to build a laundry that works for us, spacious and modern," says Woolfenden. But he believes that the company must be able to see an immediate payback from its investment in equipment, and does not want to adopt technology developments unless he feels they can do so.
For this reason, he says the approach is "technology light." However, Afonwen has one technology that marks it out. The company has introduced scanners into the production line to ensure quality control, to a much greater extent than others have done.
It was an early adopter in this respect but the technology has developed since those days and the laundry now uses scanners from the Dutch company Mobics. The scanners use light and photography to detect residual stains and also holes. "Scanning helps to assure consistent quality `- we have very few complaints. All table linen is scanned and we have 12 scanners on this site."
But on other relatively new technologies in the industry Mark Woolfenden is less sure. For example, he can see the logic of RFID for garments but feels that generally the economics do not work out for flatwork, given the relative cost of the chips to the piece, though there might be a case for higher value items.
Considering RFID as a solution to linen loss he also feels that, [with the current state of adoption}, there is a crucial gap in the data available. "Laundries can scan linen in and out but what happens at the customer's premises? If you are arguing that you received fewer pieces than you sent you are reliant on figures that you have generated. There is no customer-agreed data."
Woolfenden's business has seen continued growth for some time but he sees the textile rental market in general as extremely challenging. That situation will get worse and he is in little doubt as to where the main problems will lie.
"The National Living Wage represents a major threat to the industry and my personal view is that several laundries are going to face extreme challenges as a result. Those with relatively low levels of productivity will be particularly vulnerable. "Laundry operators [aged 25 and over] are going to get a rise of almost 11% this year and a significant pay rise each year for next five years."
Explaining his view further he says that potentially the long-term hope is that the extra cost will be passed on. If you don't do that you could be out of business but the textile rental industry has a poor track record in persuading the hospitality industry to appreciate the value of its service.
He feels that in future the industry could again see a period of consolidation - costs are rising and the living wage will be key here, and while energy has come down it may rise again in the future.
The other challenge is that a number of hotel groups are asking to have their own linen but the UK rental industry is predominantly set up for pool stock which it does efficiently. The further costs linked with processing dedicated linen are a challenge.
Some groups ask Afonwen to buy linen for them and operate small pool stocks on their behalf but the laundry would then have to operate several mini-pools.
But it is the National Living Wage that will have the greatest effect' he says. "I think it is ill-judged and has been rushed through without fully understanding the consequences."
SEEING BUSINESS GROW: Managing director, Mark Woolfenden says that growth at the Reading plant has been rapid and led to the opening of a second laundry on the site in 2014, just one year after moving in