Adam Coffey asks questions and doesn’t accept the status quo

Adam Coffey, President and CEO, WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems LLC

Don’t tell Adam Coffey, president and CEO of WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems LLC, that his business isn’t capable of innovation. That will just get him started on telling you why you’re wrong.

“Our business, like many mature businesses, often continues practices or procedures that were adopted decades ago,” Coffey says. “As time goes by, the reasons for implementing the practice become lost; yet, the organization holds on to outdated methods that as the world evolves, actually complicates business. It is incumbent on a ‘Smart Leader’ to constantly validate everything an organization does to make sure that sound decisions made long ago are still relevant to today’s world.”

To put it into perspective, Coffey’s company collects coins from 300,000 machines every month. His firm’s counting rooms process more than 1 billion quarters a year, and they handle more than 250,000 service calls annually, with an average response time of 11.2 hours and a 97 percent first-time fix rate.

Over the course of the last three years, his team’s productivity has increased by more than 34 percent as a company.

Coffey did this through a $7 million investment in cutting-edge technology, and as a result of bringing best-in-class technology to his laundry company, his margins have climbed to be the best in the industry, his customer satisfaction has improved, and in the two worst economic years since the Great Depression, his company has enjoyed the best two years of organic growth in its 63-year history.

Because of his ability to change in the face of complacency, Coffey was named one of the 2010 Smart Leader honorees by Smart Business and Chase Bank. We asked him what keeps him thinking ahead, how he overcomes challenges and about the importance of giving back to the community.

Give us an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

Our company operates what are essentially 42,000 small (self-service laundries) with hundreds of thousands of coin-operated washers and dryers. More than 2 million people do laundry in our rooms each week. Back in the 1960s, the company faced a threat from professional thieves who were experienced at picking locks. The technology of the day made the machines easy targets to a skilled lock picker and a great deal of revenue was lost.

To combat this threat, lock companies developed very sophisticated ‘pick proof” locks. Our company went one step further and developed a very intricate method of insuring that the same lock was only used a specific number of times in a given ZIP code or territory, which also prevented lost, stolen or illegally made duplicate keys from being used in a small geography. These steps and procedures implemented in the 1960s virtually ended this threat and were considered to be a big success at the time.

Over the course of the 50 years that followed, our company faced significant challenges to coin collector productivity because of having to inventory and keep track of literally thousands and thousands of unique keys. These processes slowed down production in our plant because the machines being prepared for field use all required different series of locks and keys, which had to be found, tracked, installed and recorded.

As I began to look under the hood of the company I was running, I started to ask ‘why’ more and more. What I found to be the most common answer was simply, ‘Because we have always done it this way.’

Our company today faces absolutely no threat from professional lock pickers. Today, our biggest threat comes from crack heads with sledgehammers or portable torches. Keeping the intricate keying methods alive works wonders for lock pickers from the 1960s — who are now over 80 years old — but it does little to help with today’s threat of a drugged up guy with a sledgehammer. This guy isn’t into picking a lock; he is into absolute destruction to find enough coins to buy his next rock.

By recognizing a changing threat, the entire company was able to move forward and get beyond what was a viable and necessary solution 50 years prior and begin to design a more streamlined process that is still equally as viable but much more cost-effective in today’s world.

Smart leaders must always be challenging status quo and revalidating processes and procedures to make sure the company is operating and evolving to face today’s challenges, not yesterday’s problems.