Published in Small Business

Continental Linen Services right-sizes business, adapts to new environment

BY Monday, May 25, 2020 02:38pm

KALAMAZOO — The 121-year-old Continental Linen Services Inc. helps customers keep their workplaces sanitary and clean. 

In the middle of a global health crisis, the Kalamazoo-based company’s services such as uniform rentals, towels, linens, gowns and safety apparel are highly in demand. 

Kurt Vander Meer, President of Continental Linen Services Inc. COURTESY PHOTO

The problem: A significant chunk of the company’s customers are not operating right now, having been forced to close their doors by statewide social distancing and stay-home measures. 

As a result, Continental Linen Services has had to scale down its business, which operates from six locations in the Lower Peninsula, to match the revenues that are coming in from the customers in health care and retail that have remained open, said owner and President Kurt Vander Meer. 

The company was coming off 2019 in which it made a $2.4 million investment into expanding its laundry processing facility in Kalamazoo to better accommodate the increased volume of business. 

“We got that done, got it behind us and we’re cruising right along. Then we got into March and kaboom,” Vander Meer said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s really hit us quite substantially.”

CLS furloughed some of its workforce and had to implement layoffs to adjust for the loss of volume. Vander Meer also said CLS applied for and received a U.S. Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program loan, which “has been extremely helpful for us in helping to pay our workers.”

“It’s a far cry from where I’d like to be, but it’s been very helpful, absolutely — very needed,” he said. “Cash is king — always is, no matter what the situation is. We’re managing very well short term, we’ve scaled the company very nicely. The blessing I have is I’ve got an amazing team around me that’s very creative, very resilient.”

Over the last couple of months of operating in the pandemic, CLS has been particularly successful in working with customers for uniform rental services, according to Vander Meer. The selling point for customers is that they can control the safety and cleanliness of workers’ clothing, while also building a team mentality and a corporate image, he said. 

“Those uniform programs are such a big deal for the businesses now,” Vander Meer said. “It has been a good thing for our business. We’ve seen quite a lift in the customers that are open.”

For the customers that have been closed, CLS focuses on outreach and communication on a weekly basis to see if they still have needs the company can serve. 

Vander Meer said that unfortunately, not all customers will make it through the current crisis, through no fault of their own. 

“That hurts. They had no control over this and they have to make a decision to shutter or go out of business. Losing those long-term business friends is probably the worst in all this,” he said. “And then you have all those people that are stranded without jobs. There’s not a lot of good there.”

Vander Meer has witnessed positivity by way of the entrepreneurial spirit Michigan businesses have demonstrated during the difficult times. He cites as one example of their adaptability the rapid shift to remote work in the last few weeks. 

“Sometimes you kind of march in place and it’s what you do; you create your ritual,” Vander Meer said. “This disturbed it, and challenged the status quo of the ritual. 

“For the first few days, we would talk and meet and collaborate as a team, and we would hear, ‘We’ve always done it this way. We can’t change.’ Well, hold on. The world just changed, it flipped, so the rule book you had doesn’t exist. You’re going to create new rules, new processes, and some of that’s been really good. Some of it’s really hard. We’ve just got to think differently. Customers are going to need something differently.”

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