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Huebsch at 125 - 'Our Turn in the Sun'

The aroma of grilled Italian sausages wafted over Huebsch Services as some 200 customers and friends meandered across a red carpet at the front entrance of the Eau Claire, WI, industrial laundry during an 11 a.m.-3 p.m. open house that marked the company’s 125th anniversary.

The Sept. 23 event featured personal tours of the 60,000-square-foot plant, which is among the cleanest and brightest industrial laundries this correspondent has ever seen. Guests received goody bags with koozies and other mementoes of this fourth-generation, family-run business that dates back to 1891.

Both inside outside the plant, tables were set with blue and white tablecloths where customers could nibble on samples from a buffet of picnic favorites including hamburgers, baked beans, sauerkraut, potato salad and - naturally - a large sheet cake decorated with a logo commemorating the laundry’s anniversary.

In the lobby area, customers posed for Polaroid photos seated atop a wooden replica of a horse-drawn laundry sleigh that Huebsch route drivers used at the turn of the 20th century. The mood in the plant - among both staff and visitors - was as bright as the sun that shone through an azure blue sky on a warm early autumn day in this city of 65,000 people.  

In a video that played continuously near the entrance to the plant, Huebsch President and CEO Jim Vaudreuil summed up the company’s approach to running its mixed industrial business, noting that, “We’re not in the transaction business, we’re in the long-term relationship business.” Huebsch has 100 full-time employees in Eau Claire and a smaller plant in Eagan, MN. The company serves some 6,000 customers across north-central Wisconsin and metro Minneapolis/St. Paul.

 In an interview after the open house, Vaudreuil said he’s feeling upbeat about the company’s future, based on its investments in improving productivity, quality and service. He told a story from 2002 when he adopted his daughter from China, and how a government official there boasted this was his country’s “time in the sun.” Vaudreuil says he feels the same way about Huebsch today. “I feel it’s our turn in the sun,” he said. “I’m really optimistic; we’re making investments. The public companies think about the next quarter. We’re thinking about the next quarter century.”

When asked for an example of where his company is investing, Vaudreuil cited a push to implement a solar power system in the plant. As early as next month, Able Energy Co., a local contractor, is expected to begin installing the first of 270 4-by-3.5-foot solar panels on the plant’s roof as part of a 100 kilowatt system that will help Huebsch cut its electricity costs. The program is expected to provide 30% or more of the plant’s electricity needs, said Angie Domagalski, sales manager for Able Energy, who sat at a table lined with marketing literature during the open house. A 30% tax credit provided a strong incentive for the solar power system, Domagalski said. The solar energy system is expected to pay for itself in 5-6 years.

Vaudreuil added that his local utility provider, Xcel Energy, has a progressive approach to alternative-energy development. The theoretical payback is closer to 6-8 years, he said. However, the fact that Xcel allows to solar power users to sell off their excess electricity through a “net metering” arrangement helps make the deal more affordable for Huebsch by allowing the company to sell excess electricity back the utility. “Like right now, we would be generating more than we use,” Vaudreuil said. “It would be going out and we’d get credit, the same price as we’d be paying if we’re buying it.” The prospect of net metering made a difference in Huebsch’s decision to adopt solar energy. “Even if you have all the tax stuff, if you can’t get things like the net metering, then it’s really hard to make the economics work,” he said.

But while the solar initiative and other efforts, such as Huebsch’s use of RF chips in all its garments, helps Huebsch stay competitive, General Manager Mary Steinke noted that the company’s family-like environment is critical to its success. “Our culture is what’s important,” said Steinke, who started at Huebsch 41 years ago in the dry-cleaning department. “It’s because of our employees.” In a hallway leading to the plant floor, a bulletin board displayed photos of each staff member posted under a banner titled “Our Clothesline of Success.”

Vaudreuil says the company’s family environment helps reduce turnover, but he acknowledged that he’ll need to dedicate resources in the not-too-distant future to find successors for senior staff members like Steinke who could retire in the next few years.

Sales Manager Klaus Bauer added that having an owner and longtime plant manager like Vaudreuil and Steinke available for sales calls helps his efforts to grow the business – especially with other independent companies. “They hear it from the owner; that’s priceless,” said Bauer, a 15-year Huebsch employee. “That’s how we sell an account. We take him along. We try to have the plant manager or the owner. That usually works out great.” Having prospects tour the plant is another plus, he said. “Showing people the plant … that’s the best sales tool we have. This beautiful, clean plant.”

As for the 125th anniversary, mentioning it draws rave reviews in a region where Huebsch’s longstanding support for local charities, such as the United Way and Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, is well known. “We use it as a conversation starter,” Bauer said of the anniversary. “We put it in our business proposals.” Click www.huebsch-services.com to learn more.