PAGE 6 / NATIONAL CLOTHESLINE / JULY, 2019 Aworkofart S ome might say drycleaning is a science; others even say it’s an art. For Alan and Rhonda Wernick, owners of Oakwood the Greener Cleaner in Nashville, TN, their business is equal parts both. As a lifelong lover of all things artis- tic, Rhonda brings plenty of the latter to the mix. Alan, on the other hand, worked decades as an accountant and software developer. He paints strokes in a different medium, one of numbers and data, instead of watercolors and oil. Together they brought their comple- mentary expertise and experience to the business ever since they bought it on April Fool’s Day eight years ago. “I think we’ve taken it to the next level,” Rhonda noted, looking back at that first year. “It was a great business when we first got it. It was very well respected. The prior owner definitely had some personal contact with a lot of the customers and I think we’re right now going above and beyond that.” “The basic company and what peo- ple think of it has probably not signifi- cantly changed in that period of time,” Alan surmised. “What we do on the in- side is not what they see on the out- side.” The couple were probably not as prepared as they wanted to be for the drycleaning industry. It was a much different view from the outside looking in as opposed to inside looking out. “When we walked in we found the facility for the company was a fire drill every morning. It was. Every. Morn- ing,” Alan recalled. “It stayed that way for months. It’s not something you fix overnight, especially when you have so many employees.” It didn’t take long until problems and complaints began piling up. It was clear that there was no standardization in the company. That had to change. “I ended up starting weekly meet- ings on Saturdays with all of the CSRs that ran the entire summer, about 12 to 15 weeks. Basically, we were writing policies and procedures manuals that covered everything from answering the phone to collecting a payment at the end,” Alan explained. “We sat down and wrote a two-inch binder’s worth of policies for our CSRs and that’s what we’d use to train.” Then, when multiple route drivers left the company (for various reasons) in the same time frame, Alan stepped up (and into the driver’s seat). The view was enlightening. “It’s good to be in somebody’s shoes for a while to see if it’s still working properly,” Alan noted. “In doing that, I found an awful lot of issues that were — again — no standards of the way things we were doing in the company. Now, doing the driving, I could see how it happened. I made every single one of the mistakes that they made.” Long before realizing he needed to create a new set of protocols for pickup and delivery route drivers, Alan grad- uated with an accounting degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1977. Over the next 14 years, he worked at three international accounting firms including Arthur Young, Inc. His C.P.A. skills were top notch, but he also had taken several computer courses in col- lege, long before the technology was embraced by the public. “When the laptops came out several years later, the firm I was working for acquired one and I basically acquired it,” he laughed. Down the line, he would combine the disciplines of accounting and com- puting and start up a prison manage- ment company with a partner. “We built a 30-station computer sys- tem to operate the prison and to moni- tor and keep track of the inmates, billing, payroll — everything — in a small town where you couldn’t find somebody who could run a word processor,” he said. In later years, he worked with vari- ous start-up companies, often as chief financial officer, and even consulted from time to time. Ultimately, though, he wanted his own business and he cast a wide search to find the right one. Then, for some reason, he thought that the right one might be a drycleaners. G rowing up, Rhonda took every art class she could (“Back when they still had them,” she said.). She never had a doubt in her mind about a life in the arts. After her first year of college, she switched from being a piano performance major at the University of Oklahoma to a graphic arts major (“It was called Commercial Arts then,” she mused.) She worked professionally as a graphic artist and art director for quite a few printers and companies, and she also branched off to teach oil painting, as well. Then, there’s the dancing. “I started ballroom dancing,” Rhonda said. “I started a business where I did graphic art for modern dance studios in competitions all over the United States. I travelled to compe- titions. I did backdrop design for com- petitions and different showcase-type things.” To sum up, she played music, danced, taught, created and sold art and showed it in galleries in a very full life. Then, they bought Oakwood. Rhonda wasted no time in adding creative flourishes to the business wherever she could, from a logo re- design to new delivery vehicle wraps. “When I first got there, because I’m an artist, I started hanging my paint- ings in there, which was sort of unique for a drycleaner,” she said. Her favorite part of the business, though, is the wedding gown service. After all, that is the element that re- quires the most beauty and flair. “Recently, we did a whole aesthetic change and I redecorated the whole Nashville location,” she explained. “We painted it and put in different furniture and made it more of a destination for the bride or somebody who has a spe- cial item. We added pulley hooks to the ceiling so we could hang the wedding gown from the hooks so we could walk around it 360 degrees. We put a little furry white rug under there and they sit in a cushy chair while we inspect it.” The service has been received very well, so Rhonda is trying another one. “We’re offering when a bride brings a wedding gown in, she can choose to have either a watercolor or an oil paint- ing done of her or her gown or maybe a portrait of her bouquet. We are get- ting some interest in that,” she said. Certainly it was that kind of creativ- ity that helped her earn this year’s an- nual Jack Barth Memorial Award from the Association of Wedding Gown Services — that, and maybe because Oakwood’s wedding gown service has grown to almost double in size and now comprises about 10 percent of gross revenues. Clearly, the “fire drills” are a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean the Wernicks have finished improvements. “I work from the theory that I want people to know why we need this, be- cause they can’t see the whole picture,” Alan noted. Sometimes that means looking at a problem differently (or with more eyes), like when he tried to figure out why pieces would go missing. “We put in cameras at our facilities. We monitor,” he added. “We were los- ing about two pieces a month, which doesn’t sound like much. Typically, they were always expensive pieces.” The cameras revealed that items had been ticketed incorrectly. Alan figured out a way to curb the issue. “We created a program that inter- faced with our POS software that our CSRs would run at the end of every day, and they could use that software and identify, in effect, those missing items and go locate them,” he said. “If they could locate them and it made sense why they were there, then they were cleaned. If they weren’t, they’d either figure out what happened or let me know. The whole issue was: catch it before you leave the store, because it doesn’t make your customer very happy when they get something that’s not theirs.” N ot all missing garment mysteries can be solved, but Alan and Rhonda approach each one with logic and creativity, the same strengths that make their business so successful. In fact, Rhonda has taken a break from gallery showings as the stress of creating art in addition to everything else was too exhausting. Fortunately, the couple’s son, Aubrey, has stepped in to help. He gives the family another set of eyes, mostly focussing his attention on the production department. “He’s very much like his mom. He’s very creative and not a numbers per- son,” she said. “He’s very hands-on. He transformed the production depart- ment and made it what it is now.” Today, the entire business is a work of art, or perhaps it’s similar to a man- ufacturing business, depending on which Wernick you ask. “We have processes. It starts here. It goes there. We clean it, then it goes to the presses, except it’s a lot harder than a manufacturing company,” Alan noted, expanding the analogy to a car factory. “A person sitting there putting on a steering wheel does the same thing for eight hours a day.” “Our people have to do a lot of dif- ferent things,” he explained. “If I’m looking at a pants presser, not every pair of pants are the same. They are not all cotton. Some are silk. Some are span- dex. Some are women’s pants. Some have to be creased. Some don’t have to be creased. They’re having to make de- cisions while they’re working.” Drycleaning has proved to be a dif- ficult industry, but the Wernicks will continue to refine their masterpiece. “I try to tell people, drycleaning re- ally is an art,” Rhonda emphasized. “It really is creative when you really look at it... when you’re back there and you need to figure out what to do to get that spot out, or how are you going to press that to make it look its best. There’s an art to that. It’s really all about how you look at it at the end of the day.” Alan & Rhonda Wernick www.oakwoodcleaners.com www.rhondapolenwernick.com