| [Photo: Peter J. Thompson,
CLEANING UP: Dove Cleaners owner Sam Mizrahi says he chose the dry cleaning business because no one had brought newer technologies and business systems to the industry.
Thirty-two-year-old Sam Mizrahi, owner of the Dove Cleaning dry cleaning chain, started the business from scratch at the tender age of 21. Amazingly, it wasn't the first business he built. At 18, Mr. Mizrahi started what quickly became an enormously successful electronics company, distributing and selling blank audiovisual tapes.
How can you be hugely successful selling blank tapes, I ask.
"I was making money on the spread. I was the middleman and the middleman always makes money," he says. And he's not kidding. Mr. Mizrahi 's company was doing $18-million a year in sales from 1987 to 1991, and when he sold to his competitor ("When CDs came in, we were out of the market," he says), he had enough money to invest in another enterprise.
"I left for California," he tells me, "because I thought it was the place to go. I was looking at new business opportunities, industries that had not been modernized." That's when he zeroed in on -- of all the unlikely, unsexy enterprises -- the dry cleaning business.
"No one had brought technologies and business systems into it. I was the first to put ISO 9002 [international standards] into it." To his knowledge, Mr. Mizrahi tells me, "we're the only retail dry cleaning business in the world using this system."
About ISO 9002, he says, "It's an outside auditing agency that tells the public that you do what you say you do. It's a quality-control system."
Has the $20,000 investment that he spent to create and install the system helped his business? "Absolutely," he says, "it allows a small company to quickly grow, with systems that are scalable to a multi-chain or a national brand. It develops product systems and management systems that you can fall back on, in order to give direction to employees, managers and suppliers.
"It allows us to put out a super-ior product consistently, and to enhance the customer service experience," Mr. Mizrahi says. He advises any small dry cleaner owner to do the same if he's looking to grow beyond a one-store operation. "I am expanding because this whole business has been overlooked, it's an old-economy business. The dot-coms are gone ... This is where the opportunity for the future lies, because investors now only invest in tangible, simple businesses; ones you can see, feel, touch."
And dry cleaning is also highly fragmented, "which means there are no dominant players, no market leaders, it's all mom and pop stores." The opportunity is in consolidating and modernizing the industry.
In California, Mr. Mizrahi owned four dry cleaning stores and a car wash, but by 1997 he was ready to move back to Canada. "I love Toronto and I wanted to bring the concept to Canada."
Although he has exciting hobbies -- he is both a pilot and swordsman -- he is also passionate about the business of dry cleaning and doing it right.
Mr. Mizrahi, whose customers include the who's who of Toronto, from Antonio Davis of the Raptors to visiting celebs such as Tom Cruise, says one of the keys to success in his business is honesty.
"Once we found a $35,000 Rolex watch in a tuxedo jacket. I called the customer and said, 'Do you know what time it is?' " Mr. Mizrahi says with a laugh. Discretion is also valued. "We find a lot of photos, compromising pictures," he says. "You can't send them back with the clothes, so we call the customer and say, 'We've found something, we've packaged it, and we think that you should come personally and pick it up.' " This never happens with celebrities, Mr. Mizrahi tells me, "because their drivers bring in the laundry, and there's nothing in the pockets. They go through them carefully."
His staff, he says, gets excited over celebrity laundry. "They love the sports figures, my staff gets excited most about the Raptors and the Leafs," he says, pointing out the largest pair of dry cleaned pants I've ever seen. They belong to a Raptor. "I'm six feet tall and they come up to my neck," he marvels. With stores in tony areas of Toronto such as Hazelton Lanes, Scotia Plaza and Yonge Street at St. Clair, Mr. Mizrahi says, "We cater to the top 2% of Toronto's population."
And is his company environmentally friendly? "We were the first in Canada, in 1994, to exceed every environmental mandate that was proposed or even considered to be proposed," he says proudly. "Dove uses hypoallergenic detergent and everything is tracked by bar code. When you have 3,000 pieces at any given time, you need a sophisticated tracking system. The key is to be the best."
And how did he do it? "I really had great bankers," he says. "I love the banks." Not a quote I hear too often. "That's the reason I'm successful," he reflects. "The banks took risks on me, they took the gamble, they saw the entrepreneurial spirit ... "
As far as ISO 9002 for the dry cleaning business is concerned, Mr. Mizrahi's company, Dove Cleaners, owns the rights to the system that he created. "I believe that if someone wants to be successful, they need this system," he says. "If a dry cleaner wants it, we can help him implement it." Cost is $20,000 -- exactly what he paid to get the system up. Ah, a true entrepreneur. I can hear the cash register ringing as we speak.