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

8:01pm EDT April 30, 2011
Adam Coffey asks questions and doesn’t accept the status quo

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 “As time goes by, the reasons for implementing the practice become lost; yet, the organization holds on to outdated methods that as the world evolves, actually complicates business.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.

 

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

Running a large laundry company with essentially 42,000 small Laundromats, 300,000 coin- and card-operated machines that more than 2 million people are using each week may not seem very sexy or high-tech. After all, it’s just laundry. However, that assertion is just plain wrong.

When I came to this company seven years ago, I spent the first 90 days traveling to 28 branch offices in 20 states talking to 100 percent of my 1,043 new employees. I did ride-alongs with each major job classification in our company — collectors, installers, service technicians, sales reps and managers. What I found was a company full of proud people with very long tenure who were drowning in duplication of data entry, outdated practices and suffering from a complete lack of coordinated use of technology.

It didn’t take long to walk in the shoes of the line employees to figure out what was broken and what needed fixing. The people performing these jobs every day provided me with the best insight into their struggles and, in many cases, gave me the beginnings of ideas on how to solve them.

Smart leaders talk to their people and learn to walk in their shoes. Smart leaders don’t make cuts for the sake of saving money; they let technology redefine the jobs and processes, which, as a result of implementation, lead to productivity enhancements.

Upon returning from that initial road trip, I created a 400-plus page strategic plan with my leadership team that we spent almost six years implementing and finishing. Today, our company has an enterprisewide IT system, where data entry is only performed once and where our data-warehouse-driven dashboards now allow business leaders to make informed decisions based on fact rather than intuition. In business, it’s not what you think that matters; it’s what you know.

Our vehicles have GPS tracking, we use state-of-the art satellite dispatching and routing, our counting rooms are integrated via computers to our ERP system, and our processes are streamlined to reflect the needs and realities of today’s world. This technological journey we are on has no ending as we continue to invest $1 million a year in updating and enhancing our capabilities.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

Our company has been in continuous operation for 63 years. Today, we employ more than 500 people in Calif., Nevada and Hawaii. More than 2 million residents of apartment communities, colleges, military bases and hotels use our 42,000 locations and 300,000 machines each week for their laundry needs.

Over 1 billion quarters are collected and counted in our high-volume, high-speed counting rooms, which makes us the largest depositor of quarters to the Federal Reserve, west of the Mississippi. We are the second-largest commercial laundry customer in the United States for our principal suppliers Whirlpool, Maytag and Speed Queen.

Our fleet of more than 400 vehicles is all purchased locally as are many of the supplies and services we consume. Our company works hard to be a good partner to local charities, homeless shelters and to those less fortunate than ourselves. As our company continues to grow and expand, we are actively hiring and working to provide a better environment for our employees’ families and consumers. Our use of energy-efficient, front-load machines save California billions of gallons of water each year.

It is companies like ours that represent the backbone of California business and economic development. We are proud to have our HQ in El Segundo, Calif., and look forward to our next 63 years of growth and prosperity.

How to reach: WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems LLC, or www.washlaundry.com