Adam Coffey’s effort to engage his team is reflected in the company’s growth

Adam Coffey is not a fan of the CBS TV series “Undercover Boss.”

He doesn’t believe in the concept of a show that features a CEO working side by side with his or her employees without ever being recognized as the boss.

“It’s criminal that a CEO could hide from his employees and they don’t know who he is,” says Coffey, president and CEO at WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems. “If I go into any of my offices, every single employee knows who I am. As the leader, you have to get outside of your comfort zone if you’re not comfortable doing that. You need to find a way to get comfortable. In order to be successful, you need to engage with your people.”

Employee engagement played a big part in Coffey’s ability to turn around a business that had fallen behind the times when he arrived in 2003. In those days, WASH had about 60,000 locations and kept track of each of them on 3-by-5 index cards.

Today, the company has 25 branch offices across the U.S. and Canada and 65,000 locations where more than 4.5 million people do their laundry every week. And here’s another fun fact: WASH processes more than 1.7 billion quarters each year.

At the new WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems, technology is an integral part of the company’s operations. This includes smart card payment systems, Web-enabled remote laundry monitoring and a FixLaundry mobile app that allows residents to scan a barcode on a broken machine to request service.

It’s all led to a business that has doubled its revenue in the last five years to reach $450 million and 850 employees. None of it would have been possible if Coffey had kept his employees at a distance.

“You need to ride with your people, understand what they do for a living and understand their challenges,” Coffey says. “A lot of the good ideas in an organization come from these people. So you need to be able to plug into them as an equal or as a peer, not as a CEO to a subordinate. Somewhere in there, you’ll find success.”

All in the family

When Coffey first arrived at WASH, he didn’t know a lot about the company or the industry that it operated in. So he traveled around the country to meet his employees and soak in their knowledge to make it a better business.

It’s a ritual that he maintains to this day.

“Every year, I travel to every city and I talk to every employee,” Coffey says. “I let them know everything I know. There are no secrets in our company. They know how much revenue we have, what our earnings are, what our challenges are and what our goals and objectives are for the year. So I make them part of our company.”

When it was founded, WASH was known as Web Service Co. and had one employee and 50 Westinghouse automatic washing machines. The company incorporated in 1953 and Coffey believes it has remained a family operation, even though the company is now led by a man who is not related to the company’s founding family.

“We started as a family business and today, we’re still a family,” Coffey says. “The family no longer owns us. They’re out of the business. But the family is 850 employees. Collectively as a unit, I develop my people and I work with my family. Now it’s kind of fun.

“At this stage, what was driven by me in the beginning is now driven by the employees. I can sit back almost like a proud papa and watch my organization feed on itself as it continues to grow and as our people reach new heights professionally in their careers. They are engaged and they are doing more. That culture is what makes companies successful.”

One of the biggest fears that employees have when change is put on the table is how it will affect them.

Coffey works hard to convey an attitude of collaboration over micromanagement.

It comes from recognition that the most valuable resource in most organizations is not the hardware.

“People are the heart of your company,” Coffey says. “So it’s working with people, inspiring people, giving them an opportunity for personal growth and making them part of something. It’s also saying thank you.

“A lot of times, executives can become closed off from the people in the trenches. It’s unfortunate when that happens. But when it does, you lose touch with what is the reality? What is the customer’s reality? What is the employee’s reality? What’s going on day to day in all of these jobs that are being performed by people in the organization?

“When I saw a job classification, I saw people. I knew what those people did for a living. I understood what their challenges were. It gave me a bigger sense of reality very quickly to where I could assess what the challenges were that we faced.”

Blue-collar leadership

Coffey considers himself to be a blue-collar CEO.

“I started at the bottom,” Coffey says. “After high school, I was a private in the U.S. Army. There’s no lower form of life than private in the U.S. Army. So I remembered after the service as I worked my way up through my career in the Fortune 500 world that I had good ideas when I wasn’t a CEO.”

One of the things that shaped Coffey’s career was the tutelage he received at General Electric Co.’s famed John F. Welch Leadership Center in Crotonville, New York.

“I had a corporate mentor who was an ex-professional football player named Mike Martin,” Coffey says. “At the time, I was an engineer. I was planning my exit from GE and I was going to start my own business. Mike was a general manager at the time and he helped me. He said, ‘Adam, what are you doing?’ He took me under his wing.”

Coffey set aside his plans to become an engineer and went to work to become a business leader.

“It was Mike who inspired me to want to cross over from engineering into management and to compete and excel at being a manager,” Coffey says. “He gave me the opportunity to run the worst business unit within GE Medical Systems in order to see what I could do with that unit. He honed my skills.”

Coffey concluded that there is a good reason why the Crotonville experience is so revered.

“It was world-class leadership and management training,” Coffey says. “It was during the time period of Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt. It was the culture at GE that taught me how to be a leader. And Martin was the guy that made it happen.”

Keep pushing forward

Discipline is an essential component to serving in the military and it’s also key to success in the corporate world. Coffey certainly has plenty of discipline, but there’s another aspect to his approach that keeps both him and his team pushing forward to reach even greater heights.

“There is no destination. That’s how you avoid a letdown after seeing success,” Coffey says. “There is no finish line. The modernization of our business has continued for the entire 10-year period that I’ve been here. Our culture is one of continuous improvement. The goal and objective is to constantly be improving the way we operate the business and the way we think about it.”

Coffey says he’s constantly looking for better ways to service his customers.

In 2013, the company acquired Coinamatic, Canada’s largest provider of multifamily laundry services. It was a transaction that joined two companies that are leaders in the industry. In August 2014, WASH announced the acquisition of American Meter & Appliance, expanding the company’s footprint into the Pacific Northwest region.

The moves continue to broaden the company’s reach, but the focus must always stay on the customer.

“I learned quickly that although I have 450,000 washers and dryers installed, my product isn’t washers and dryers,” Coffey says. “It’s customer service. That’s delivered by people. Because it’s delivered by people, my focus is on the people who provide that service.”

Coffey’s approach to leadership was recognized when he was named a semifinalist for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year™ 2014 Greater Los Angeles Awards.

“It’s a great personal honor to be recognized by such a prestigious awards program for my work at WASH,” Coffey says. “Ultimately, this is what transforms the laundry experience for our customers and keeps the entrepreneurial spirit alive in our 67-year-old company.”

As he looks to the future, Coffey has ambitious goals he has every intention of reaching.

“As I said, there has never been a destination,” Coffey says. “From an enterprise perspective, we’re worth almost $1 billion now. So I want to build a $2 billion company and then a $3 billion company. There is no, ‘I’ve reached the finish line.’ By not having a finish line, you’re never done.” ●

 

Takeaways

  • Stay true to who you are.
  • Take advantage of your opportunities.
  • Don’t focus on the finish line.

The Coffey File

Born: Chicago. I grew up in southeast Michigan.

Education: La Salle University, Philadelphia

Honors: The following are awards received by WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems.
■  Winner of Best Laundry Service Provider Readers Choice Award, Apartment Finance Today.
■  Whirlpool Best of the Best Award.
■  ENERGY STAR Partner.
■  Speed Queen Multi-Housing Award of Excellence.
■  Maytag Star Performer Award.
■  Maytag Multi-Housing Excellence Award (four-time winner).
Seven tips to stay green while doing laundry:
■  Wash in cold water.
■  Reduce and reuse packaging.
■  Only wash full loads.
■  Separate towels.
■  Avoid chlorine bleach.
■  Whiten with lemon juice.
■  Remove lint.