A family affair

In 1970, Patricia Lewis opened her first dry cleaning store in Stow. She has faced many challenges since then, from being unable to obtain financing as a single woman to attracting and retaining skilled workers in a dying trade.

Lewis grew up in the dry cleaning business — her father owned 19 such stores in the Akron area at one time. She recalls pressing shirts and waiting on customers at the counter by the age of nine. Her parents later sold the stores and moved the family to Florida, opening more stores in the Miami area.

But Lewis didn’t see herself making a career in the family business. Instead, she returned to Ohio to study law enforcement at Kent State University. Then she received the call from her father that changed everything.

Her father had sold the dry cleaning store in Stow many years before. Now, the new owners were unable to make the business profitable, so they contacted Lewis’ father to see if he wanted to buy it back. He didn’t, but he offered the opportunity to his daughter, who was getting married and looking for a business opportunity.

“When I came into my own business, that store was surrounded by farmland,” Lewis says. “It’s just mind-boggling how Stow has grown. Back then, it was very hard for a dry cleaner to get any business in that area. You didn’t have corporate people living there. There weren’t very many two-career families.”

The business survived by offering deep discounts, and despite the obstacles, it thrived.

Later, facing a divorce, the mother of three bought a building and started a cleaning business of her own. In 1979, she opened White Swan Cleaners in Tallmadge.

Unable to afford day care and faced with long shifts at the store, she added a room to the business for her children to stay with her. While a few customers disapproved, Lewis cherishes the time she was able to spend with her children.

“My youngest child was 2 years old when I was divorced,” Lewis says. “At that time, you had to be married to get a loan as a woman. It was difficult to get any kind of financing and almost impossible to get any kind of leased equipment in a male-dominated industry.”

Based on that experience, she recently shared a bit of financial wisdom with her daughter.

“I told her to always make sure you have something of value that you can borrow money on. I had a classic Corvette, and that was the only thing I could use to take to the bank to borrow money. That title became so worn from all of the transactions I used it for.”

Historically, the dry cleaning business experiences drastic slowdowns during the summer, and owners in the industry often borrow money to survive the slow periods.

“I was fortunate because I did have family in the business, and we all knew how to budget those times of the year,” she says. “We would help each other get the best prices, and sometimes buy each other’s equipment.”

Lewis’ older brother, two younger sisters and her two sons own multiple dry cleaning stores in Northeast Ohio and Florida.

“My family has always been a source of knowledge,” she says. “I remember we would all get together on Sunday and talk business. When someone’s date would come to dinner, they would always ask, ‘Is this all you people ever talk about?'”

Now Lewis’ challenges don’t come from a lack of financial backing but rather from a lack of skilled applicants for the positions she has to fill. A majority of White Swan’s 30 employees have been with the company for more than a decade. But finding new, qualified employees is difficult — there are no training programs for tailors, spotters or pressers.

Lewis has combatted employee turnover by offering flexible schedules, benefits and competitive wages. She also recruits high school and college students who are looking for flexible hours.

This is manual labor. It’s not a glamour job,” she says. “When computers came along, they took away potential employees. When you invest so much effort and time into training someone — to have them leave for a 50-cent raise breaks your heart.

“You hear so much about loyalty and corporate employees worrying about when they will get a pink slip. I think in the service industry, it’s in reverse.”

To broaden her base, Lewis built a full-service tailoring department and ventured into real estate by adding a three-suite retail plaza to her property. How to reach: White Swan Cleaners, (330) 633-3363

D. R. Powers is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.