A History of Zengeler Cleaners:
Five Generations of an American Family Business
His office, adorned with artifacts and memorabilia from Zengeler Cleaners long history, is rarely occupied. At an age when many successful business owners are practicing their short game, 73-year-old Bob is always out on the plant floor, inspecting, encouraging, and mostly doing. He's been at it since he was discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1952 and immediately joined his father Ralph in the business. Dry cleaning is the only life he's ever known.
"My father and grandfather were my role models, I grew up around the business," Bob recalls. "As a young child, my grandfather Art would take me down to the plant in Winnetka, where he did the dyeing. He was a master dyer. I'd roam around, watching him dipping clothes into the dye kettles, which we have preserved at our little company shrine in the lobby of our Northbrook store. He would dip and pull out the garment, comparing it to a color sample from a customer. He'd dip it back in, pull it out again, over and over until he had a perfect match. He was never satisfied until he could proudly present it to his customer."
"I'd also observe my father removing spots on the spotting board, the place where we keep all the specialized chemicals we use for that purpose. He was meticulous. In high school, I‘d go down to the plant with him before school started, then go back there after school. My uncle would make me put on a necktie the minute I hit the door, and I'd drive around Lake Forest making deliveries to our customers. Then I'd come home with my father after he locked up. I had no desire to do anything else."
"At 18, and just out of high school, I had four years to kill," Bob remembers. "I wasn't particularly interested in going to college, I wasn't ready to go to work full time and I wasn't ready to get married and settle down, so I joined the Navy. Because of the Korean crisis, the Navy extended my 3-year commitment to 4 years, and I ended up marrying before my service was completed. When I returned home, the world looked very different, my responsibilities had changed. I knew that there would be a job in the family business waiting for me. My father offered me $70. a week, pretty good pay for a 22-year old in those days, and it was, as it had always been, the natural place for me to be."
These days, despite his role as patriarch and the fourth generation of his family to control a business that is nearly 150 years old, Bob still doesn't allow himself the luxury of sleeping in. He rises every morning, Monday through Friday, at 4:15 a.m., and by 5:00 he's opening up and turning on the boilers at the Park Avenue operation in Libertyville. To keep that kind of schedule, he's in bed every evening by 8:30 p.m., a routine he's always followed and that he claims he still enjoys. "I never get to see Letterman or Leno, but that's okay, it's a business that has to start early, and I like getting a head start." On Saturdays, he allows himself the "luxury" of arriving at 6:00 a.m.
It seems that Bob Zengeler may have inherited his penchant for getting up early, coming from a long family line of industrious early-risers. In 1857, fourteen years before the great Chicago fire, Bob Zengeler's great-great German immigrant grandfather John staked his claim in what was then a frontier city, opening his "New York Steam Dye Works" on South Clark Street. John Zengeler had learned his trade well in the old country, but he could hardly have imagined that the business he was creating would thrive and remain in his family's control for the next century and a half, surviving the Civil War, two World Wars and the Great Depression.
Zengeler Cleaners is now under the direction of Bob's youngest son Tom, 41. The company has grown to become the largest dry cleaner in Illinois, with 150 employees and seven stores, located in Northbrook, Deerfield, Hubbard Woods, Northfield, Winnetka and two in Libertyville. There are also seven home pick-up and delivery routes.
Though the original operation was reduced to ruins in the great fire of 1871, the business quickly rose from the ashes but at a new location, Cottage Grove and Prairie Avenues. About this same time, the dry cleaning process made its appearance, and a dry cleaning department was added to the dyeing plant, which had continued to enjoy healthy growth. It was here that John's 18 year-old son Art (A. W.) joined his father in the business, and in 1904, they were encouraged by Mrs. J. O. Armour, a satisfied customer and an elite member of North Shore society, to move their operation north to Lake Forest. It seems Mrs. Armour was very impressed by A.W.'s ability to reproduce her favorite shade of pink.
Zengeler Cleaning and Dyeing in Lake Forest successfully catered to the area's affluent and demanding clientele. In 1925, looking to expand and modernize the business and position it within easier reach of more customers, Art and son Ralph opened a new plant on Linden Avenue in Winnetka, offering a complete dyeing and cleaning service based on the knowledge the family had gained from what was now nearly 70 years of experience. Even during the Depression years, Zengeler Cleaning and Dyeing flourished, and the addition of a network of home pick-up and delivery routes helped to spread the name that was becoming synonymous with the finest in fabric care services.
In 1931, the first non-family member, Bob Lechner, joined the ranks of Zengeler management. When Art Zengeler retired in 1944, Ralph Zengeler and Lechner became partners. Expansion began in earnest in the early 1950's with the opening of stores in Hubbard Woods, Northfield, and the "Station Store" at the Chicago & Northwestern train station at Elm St. in Winnetka. In 1962, Zengeler acquired Grande Cleaners in Libertyville and Ralph's son, Robert (Bob) Zengeler, took over the business, and he moved into the Park Avenue location to bring it up to "Zengeler standards."
Seeking capital for further expansion, Zengeler Cleaners merged in 1965 with John Karis and Jim Demis, and two years later, the Northbrook facility opened and became the main cleaning plant and corporate headquarters. In 1972, a uniform rental business was added under the direction of Bob Lechner's son Larry, and the store in Deerfield opened in 1974. Bob Zengeler Jr. began working full-time in 1975, and his brother Michael followed in 1977. In 1985 -- the same year current president Tom Zengeler joined his father at the Park Avenue store -- Zengeler purchased North Side Uniform Rental, and the industrial uniform rental division of the business was moved to Chicago. A second store in Libertyville was added in 1987, 25 years after the first store was opened, with both Libertyville stores managed by Tom. The following year both Karis and Demis retired, and Bob Zengeler Sr. and Larry Lechner became equal partners.
In 1996, Tom acquired property to build a new self-contained operation on Peterson Rd. in north Libertyville. Opened the following year, the new store was an immediate success. In 2000, after 56 years in business together, the Zengeler and Lechner families split apart, with the Lechners owning the uniform business and the Zengelers once again in sole control of the dry cleaning business. Tom Zengeler became President and Joe Maricich, brought into the business by the Lechners as Comptroller in 1994, assumed a new role as COO.
Within a month of his Navy discharge, Bob Zengeler Sr. and his wife Elaine had already started their family, which eventually grew to six children, four boys and two girls. Though the family grew up in a modest household, the boys always knew they could earn spending money if they were willing to work in the business when they weren't in school. It was in the plant that three of the Zengeler sons – Bob Jr., Mike and Tom – observed both grandfather Ralph and their father Bob in action. Their dedication, coaching, discipline and love of hard work served as a powerful example, and each of the boys eventually decided to pursue a career in the business.
Bob Jr., 51, now the manager of the Northfield store, remembers pitching in at age 8, covering hangers with tissue paper to prevent marks on freshly cleaned and pressed garments. By age 14, he was working after school at the Hubbard Woods store. Before he went away to college, he knew he wanted to spend his life in the business, but is quick to point out that "Dad never pushed any of us to follow in his footsteps. You could see from him that it was honorable work, and you always knew there was a job for you, a place where you could contribute. And it's a business I still enjoy." After graduating from college, he went directly to Park Avenue as manager, and then managed the headquarters store in Northbrook before moving on to Northfield.
Mike Zengeler, 45, has never taken two consecutive weeks off from the business since he began working full-time in 1977. Like his brothers, he was around the business from a very young age, with earliest memories of straightening hangers and checking pockets. And like his father, he begins each day at 6:00 a.m. "You have to go the extra mile to please our very discerning customers," Mike says.
"I watched my father and my grandfather the whole time I was growing up. Even in his later years, my grandfather came in to the plant, inspecting the work from 10:00 a.m. until noon, almost until the day he died at age 84. I saw all the pride they both had in their work, and always took it for granted that I'd work in the business. I only strayed for a few months… the summer I graduated from Mundelein High School, I tried my hand at landscaping and realized that business is too seasonal… when it rained there was no work," Mike recalls. "That was never a problem in the dry cleaning business!" A pilot who owns his own plane, Mike works at the Park Avenue store and lends his mechanical expertise to all the Zengeler operations. He has earned professional certification from the International Fabricare Institute, giving him bragging rights as the premier family spot removal expert.
Tom Zengeler always imagined himself being a part of the business, and has been in it full time since 1985. While still in elementary school, Tom would often spend Saturday mornings riding along on a route with Maurice Felgar, a Zengeler home delivery driver. He has vivid recollections of the experience. Tom says, "Maurice was a master, he knew exactly how each of his customers liked things done, and he took great pleasure in keeping them satisfied. I realize now that he was teaching me about the importance of building long-term customer relationships." Maurice is still working at Zengeler Cleaners, and recently celebrated 61 years of service with the company.
At age 15, Tom began working behind the counter at Park Avenue, waiting on customers under the watchful eye of his father. He and his father always had the ability to relate to one another, and that made it easier for Bob Sr. to "share the business" with his youngest son. Bob says, "As I grew older, I had the vision that my children would take the company forward. Tom showed great interest in the business. He always wanted to know what was going on, even when he was young. When he went away to college, he wanted to stay in touch, and I'd write a letter to him every week."
Zengeler Cleaners is part of the 92% of American businesses that are family-owned, employing the vast majority of the nation's workforce. Yet with as critical a role as these businesses play in our economy, studies indicate that only 30% of family businesses survive to the second generation, and just 10% make it to the third. What explains this lack of longevity?
Family businesses present unique challenges. They have unique, even idiosyncratic cultures often tied to the ego strength, charisma and vision of the founder. It is often difficult for the founder to let go of the reins until well beyond normal retirement age, and by then the drive of a successor 50 to 60 years old might have diminished significantly. While most public firms replace CEOs five times more often than family firms, the founder of a family-owned firm often holds onto the culture and the accumulated business wisdom for decades.
In family businesses, t here's nowhere to hide from coworkers when the workday is over because they are inextricably connected through personal lives. Bruised egos or hard feelings from the usual family misunderstanding inevitably affect working relationships. This is the very reason that led corporations to discourage office fraternization.
Job descriptions in family firms are often designed around a family member, rather than filling the requirements of a job with a particular set of skills. However, the collective passion and commitment of a family team can be a powerful force if not undermined by other factors.
Analysts suggest that family businesses that successfully overcome these pitfalls exhibit many of the same traits. Among these are family members who treat each other with respect, and value different perspectives. Companies where roles are clear, without any confusion about who does what. And family teams that share a sense of responsibility and commitment to the success of the enterprise as a whole.
Should love of hard work be added to this list? The family members at Zengeler Cleaners certainly demonstrate that strength. Are their strong family values the primary reason they have successfully made it to the fifth generation? Bob Sr., as always, is much too modest to suggest he has a secret business success and succession formula, but adds, "I've tried to lead by example, and I've never had such an ego that I wanted to keep it all to myself. Plus, our business is pretty simple. Once you have the right technology in place and you've mastered the very best cleaning methods, the business is all about stressing quality, insisting on doing it right, never cutting corners in a business where that's easy to do, and surrounding yourself with people who are dedicated to providing superior service, every day. We work at keeping it simple. Either you enjoy what you do and appreciate your customers and are motivated to do whatever is necessary to satisfy their needs, or you're not!"
He adds, "Treating people with respect has been as important as anything else to our longevity. Zengeler Cleaners has a remarkably low rate of employee turnover, and that fact has played a critical role in our success. I was brought up, and my children were brought up, to respect and appreciate our fellow workers. Family members have always been on the plant floor, working side-by-side with employees. We would never ask anyone to do something we wouldn't do ourselves."
"We didn't need some management guru to tell us that if you consistently demonstrate sincere respect and appreciation, your employees will enjoy their work more, and in turn treat customers with the same kind of respect. And talk about leading by example… for years, I watched as my father and my grandfather wouldn't take any money out of the business until year end, even in hard times, until they knew for sure that everyone else had been paid."