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Mike Esterl, right, recruited longtime friend J.J. Gitner, from Pittsburg, Kan., to help run his Comet Cleaners franchise stores. Two Guys Cleaning LLC recorded $1.1 million in 2010 revenues.
Mike Esterl, right, recruited longtime friend J.J. Gitner, from Pittsburg, Kan., to help run his Comet Cleaners franchise stores. Two Guys Cleaning LLC recorded $1.1 million in 2010 revenues.

Business Spotlight: The DIY Guys

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Kansas-born Mike Esterl is made for the Show-Me State.

Esterl has been getting his hands dirty cleaning clients’ clothing since January 1996, when he purchased the Springfield rights of Arlington, Texas-based franchise Comet Cleaners.

“In this business, you have to learn how to become a mechanic, you have to know how to press the clothes, fix the machines and do the little things,” says Esterl, co-owner of four Comet Cleaners franchise stores.

His first store was leased on East Sunshine Street.

“I found out early on leasing was not the way to go,” Esterl notes.

By November, Esterl bought the Sunshine store and rights to build another, which opened on South National Avenue in February 1997.

With two cleaners quickly up and running, Esterl took five years between each of the next two store openings – Ozark in 2002 and Nixa in 2007.

“Slow growth is better than saturated growth,” Esterl says. “You can slowly add onto the volume you’re working with, without killing yourself.”

When Esterl became overburdened running the two stores in late ’97, he convinced his longtime friend, J.J. Gitner, to quit an 18-year grocery career and help run the business.

Gitner initially bought into the company at 5 percent, and in 2004, they formed the partnership Two Guys Cleaning LLC.

Esterl paid Comet Cleaners a flat franchise fee of $300,000 to open a plant store and $50,000 for each drop store. There also was a $30,000 startup fee.

He declined to disclose his negotiated royalty fees, but the current Comet Cleaners policy is 5 percent of gross revenue per month.

Next on the docket is striking a deal with their landlord in Ozark to expand the 2,400-square-foot cleaning plant to 6,000 square feet, which would centralize the cleaning operation to one site. Currently, cleaning is performed at both the Ozark and South National stores.

“Comet didn’t want franchisees running just one plant,” Esterl says. “I started bucking the system, pushing for that. Eventually they saw it wasn’t such a bad model to follow because you have more control over the product.”

With government regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency, it has become harder for landlords to lease space because of licensing fees for cleaners, says Sandy Gregory, Comet Cleaners franchise office manager in Arlington, Texas.

“Basically, as the economy changed, so did we,” she says.

One plant means lower overhead. Esterl projects saving on natural gas by running only one boiler and consolidating utilities from other plants will save $50,000 per year.

Make yourself or hang yourself
The hardest part of running his business has been relinquishing control. But the “type-A” management style has proven successful for Esterl, from scouting locations to formulating soaps.

“You make yourself, or you hang yourself. You’re going to make yourself because you did a good job,” he says. “You’re going to hang yourself because you didn’t hire the right people.”
Outside of the “do-it-yourself” mantra, Esterl says education has kept him on top of industry trends.

“Unfortunately, there are always crappier products being made; whether that’s the clothing or the cleaners, you have to know what you’re looking for,” he says. “I’ve seen several ‘newest, greatest cleaners’ come and go, and I’ve told retailers when their product doesn’t work.”

Esterl also has taken his cleaning formula on as a personal charge.

“I program those machines on how much soap goes in, how much starch goes in, the water levels and the agitation it gets,” he says. “I don’t have a heaping scoop here and a half a scoop there.

“It doesn’t matter which store you go to, there’ll always be the same amount of starch in your clothes.”

Eco evolution
Esterl says the “green revolution” is a bit of a joke because everyone claims it and no one has to prove it. He says Two Guys Cleaning is committed to reducing its carbon footprint, saving energy and taking every chance to recycle.

This month, Two Guys started recycling the polyurethane bags clothes are returned in. Already this year, the company has used 7,000 pounds of the poly bags. Now, the bags, made of 50 percent recycled plastic, are turned into playground equipment by his bag supplier, FabriClean Supply.

Esterl’s cleaner, EcoSolve, is a second-generation, biodegradable, synthetic petroleum solvent, and the $90,000 dry cleaning machine Two Guys installed saves the EcoSolve and cleans it via an attached still for reuse. The sludgy body oil and grime leftover from the process also is reused as a biowaste fuel by Safety-Kleen Inc.

When Esterl took over his first store in ’96, the cleaner of choice was perchloroethylene, a chemical recognized as a carcinogen by the EPA.

“I think it was a good cleaner, but when something gets a bad rap, it gets a bad rap,” he says.

At least 212 dry cleaners in Missouri use chemicals similar to perc, according to Scott Huckstep of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Six are in Springfield.

Two Guys Cleaning has not used perc since ’97, when Esterl and Comet Cleaners made a decision to switch.[[In-content Ad]]

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