Couple Cleans Up With Zips

By Thomas Heath
Sunday, May 31, 2009

Anyone who sees me in person with any regularity would laugh in my face if I told them I had a big dry cleaning bill.

But I did at one time (and truth be told, I didn't look any more dapper).

My wife, Polly, analyzed our expenses two years ago and said we could save thousands by cutting back on the clothes we send to Parkway Custom Drycleaning on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, Md. I started wearing washable shirts, and holding off on the sweaters and sports jackets.

Our bill dropped like a stone.

I also learned an important fact: There is a lot of money in dry cleaning. Just ask Bart and Theresa Casiello, part owners of a burgeoning Washington regional business empire called Zips Dry Cleaners.

What fascinates me the most about Zips is how it fits the Casiellos' rules for businesses that they want to own, which Theresa had gleaned while auditing companies for the Internal Revenue Service.

First, stay away from businesses selling perishable goods; a downed utility line can ruin a freezer full of food. Second, avoid businesses that require lots of inventory, like clothing or liquor stores, where the owner must buy the goods upfront and hold them until sold. Finally, own a business where you get paid before you do the work, which means you don't have to chase the customer for your cash.

Theresa knew dry cleaning was a good fit when she sniffed around the books of a company that some friends were interested in buying. She also liked the fact that dry cleaning isn't seasonal, and that it is used by people of every income level.

"The sales were around $80,000, and if you ran a tight ship, you could take home 20 to 25 percent of that," Theresa said.

Theresa immediately saw the beauty in high margins: "It's better to make $10 and keep $8 than to make $1,000 and keep only $1 or $2."

So when a California entrepreneur asked the Casiellos if they wanted to buy one of eight dry cleaning stores he was starting in the Washington area, they signed on. (Theresa, 47, was in the private sector at that time, and trying to get the tax and accounting business for the Californian's dry cleaning companies; Bart, 44, was a financial planner.)

"This guy . . . had a business model that included a flat rate of one price per garment and cash prepaid. When I lobbied to get the accounting tax work, he left me a message and said he had a business proposition. He thought I had the right business ingredients and management skills to be an owner."

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