“We can grow the way we want to grow.”

Procter & Gamble (P&G) has been in the consumer packaged goods business for more than 150 years, and now one of its most well-known brands, Tide, is expanding from store shelves to its own line of dry cleaning locations. American Builders Quarterly caught up with Steve Collins, vice president of real estate, construction, design, and information technology at Agile Pursuits, P&G’s service- and franchise-oriented arm, to learn how his company is handling the development and franchising of the new chain with a focus on sustainability and customer care.

It seems like you’re constantly on the move, so it’s great to finally be able to sit down with you. You just flew into Chicago last night, didn’t you?
I came in at 10:20 last night. I travel about 150,000 miles a year for this job, and I’m back in the air again tomorrow. So it’s demanding, but it’s a lot of fun. We’re developing corporate stores, and we’re also developing franchise stores. I’ve been working with franchisees for almost 15 years now through a few different companies.

All Tide Dry Cleaners locations use GreenEarth dry cleaning solvents that are healthier and safer for the environment.
All Tide Dry Cleaners locations use GreenEarth dry cleaning solvents that are healthier and safer for the environment. (Photo: Sheila Barabad)

You’ve worked for a couple of big names.
I started my career at the United Parcel Service (UPS). After a few months, UPS actually purchased Mail Boxes Etc., which was the largest package, shipping, and copy franchise in the world. I worked with the UPS retail team to convert the over 4,500 Mail Boxes Etc. locations into UPS Stores. Then, I took over real estate and construction in the Midwest.

From there, I had an opportunity at Jimmy Johns when they had right around 400 restaurants. To go from a big company like UPS to a small entrepreneurial company like Jimmy Johns and take that brand coast to coast was quite different.

Your situation now seems to be pretty interesting because P&G is even bigger.
[Laughs] It’s massive. Procter & Gamble is the world’s largest consumer packaged goods company, but now it’s taking its brands and moving them into retail space through Agile Pursuits. It’s perfect because I can really take my big-company real estate experience from UPS and the small entrepreneurial spirit from Jimmy Johns and apply it here. We’re doing things that you wouldn’t expect.

Was this the career trajectory you always had in mind for yourself?
[Laughs] No!

Not even an inkling?
Well, my dad was with Sears for over 35 years. So, I grew up around that. He was responsible for everything from merchandising and store development to operations and marketing.

It all just happened to fall into place when UPS bought Mail Boxes Etc. They said, “You made a comment that your dad did commercial real estate, so what do you think about doing it for us?” And that’s how it started, and I love it.

So, what’s Agile Pursuits’ history?
Agile Pursuits was set up as a fully owned subsidiary division within the [fabric and home-care] division of P&G, with the Tide brand. P&G really invented the concept of brand management. This was taking that core function and then bringing in folks that have experience in franchise development to meld the two.

What was P&G looking to accomplish with Agile Pursuits?
P&G serves approximately 4.8 billion people around the world with its brands. Entering into the services field enabled us to bridge P&G’s mission of “improving consumers’ lives” directly across the counter—so now there’s a face behind the brand.

It’s about continuing to see P&G evolve and move forward. To take the nearly $4 billion brand of Tide and [not only] move it into retail and franchising but also enter the $8 billion fragmented dry cleaning industry as a disruptive player is a really challenging and rewarding opportunity.

What’s been your strategy so far?
Tide Dry Cleaners was tested in 2008 with the launch of three pilot locations in Johnson County, Kansas City. When I joined the company in 2010, we really started to franchise. We have 27 locations that are currently operating in 12 states. We’ve got eight locations in construction, three with shovels in the ground in two more states, then we’ve got 10 locations that are in lease negotiations and another 30-plus in some stage of [letter-of-intent] negotiations.

Tide Dry Cleaners locations in the Southwest are built in a Frank Lloyd Wright style with a flying roofline.
Tide Dry Cleaners locations in the Southwest are built in a Frank Lloyd Wright style with a flying roofline.

And how are you turning them into successful franchises?
We offer special services that other dry cleaners can’t offer. We use Tide and Downy in our laundry and GreenEarth Cleaning as our dry cleaning solvent, which is environmentally neutral. It’s a silicone-based system, whereas the majority of the solvents out there are petroleum-based, such as perchloroethylene—aka “perc”—which is incredibly hazardous. It’s listed as a likely carcinogen, and it’s being outlawed in California and Illinois by 2020. So, P&G worked with GreenEarth to help develop a dry cleaning solvent that wouldn’t cause any kind of environmental issues.

And, it’s our customer service. We believe that if we can save our customers a few minutes in their day and put a smile on their face, that goes a long way. When a car pulls up into our double-lane drive-through, we come out to the car and either grab your dirty clothes out of the back seat or we hang your clean clothes in the back seat for you. If you have a dog in the car, we’ll give you an Iams dog biscuit, and if you have kids, we usually have a bowl of candy. We even do things like Cincinnati Reds tickets giveaways, and in 2015 we gave out Superbowl tickets.

How do you pick locations?
We are fortunate to be able to grow at the right pace. Our main focus is in the Midwest and growing from Cincinnati outwards. It’s growing with care and confidence.

We start with a general understanding of the market and the competition. We overlay demographics, analytics, and local-market knowledge to really develop a strategic plan for the growth of that market. We partner with analytics companies as well as utilize P&G’s extensive consumer-market knowledge to really understand our customers. Finally, we work with best-in-class tenant-brokerage firms.

But it goes beyond that. We’re out there in the field all the time. We’re looking for sites that are in great proximity to daily-needs traffic. We want to be located in an area that drives high traffic past our stores but is also convenient. There are some great dry cleaners in the country that are going after the type of real estate that we’re going after. We’re competing with major retailers.

How about the actual design of the spaces? How do they stand apart?
I like to think all of our new builds reflect the communities that we enter into. So, if it’s in Prairie Village in Kansas City or in Dunwoody, Georgia, we have a very colonial style of architecture. In Scottsdale, Arizona, our building is prairie style: Frank Lloyd Wright architecture with a flying roofline. We strive to create a warm, inviting atmosphere for our customers that conveys Tide has a home of its own but also reflects the community. It’s their dry cleaner.

Tide Dry Cleaners has reported average unit volumes of nearly $1 million and growing—significantly above industry norms—so overall, how would you characterize the response to these projects?
We’ve been really well received across the country. I believe our customers now have a higher level of expectation out of what they should get out of a dry cleaner. It’s elevated the experience. I think that by improving the customer experience with in-car valet, 24-hour pickup and drop-off, special services like back-to-black, color restore, restore for whites, we’re on a never-ending mission to improve our communities that we operate in.