KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At Superior Linen Supply Co., the Kartsonis family and other principals in the independent, family-owned company can look back on any number of important moments and appreciate how they have molded and shaped the 115-year-old business.
Few dates in its lengthy lineage have been as significant to Superior Linen as Dec. 1, 2006.
On that Friday night, after all the equipment had been shut down, the lights dimmed and the workers departed for home, a cart full of bar mops began to smolder and caught fire. Soon, smoke was pouring from the historic building that once powered and housed cable cars.
After firefighters struck down the flames, it was clear that the plant had been severely damaged. But a company doesn’t make it this long in business without knowing how to deal with adversity.
Speaking with a local television reporter immediately after the fire, Matt Kartsonis, vice president and the fourth generation (with brother David) to help oversee the company, said matter-of-factly that Superior Linen would be back in business within hours. The next morning, Kartsonis delivered on his word — as Superior Linen drivers were able to make their deliveries.
Over the next 10 weeks, Superior Linen — buoyed by neighboring laundry companies, a disaster-restoration firm, insurance companies and the local business community — worked long hours to maintain its service, washing its clients’ goods at several different laundries while also repairing and cleaning its plant.
“If you talk to people who’ve been around long enough, everybody has had a tornado or a hurricane or a flood or a fire,” says Bill Kartsonis, third-generation president of the company. “You have to have an ultimate disaster plan, and we’ve proven that our disaster plan will work.”
OLDEST WEST OF MISSISSIPPI
Superior Linen employs 85 workers in processing hospitality and healthcare linens for a variety of customers. Its Midtown location sits several blocks southeast of Kansas City’s elite Crown Center complex.
The company claims to be the oldest continuously operating laundry west of the Mississippi River, having been founded in 1893.
Louis Kartsonis, Bill’s grandfather, spent two years working as a shoeshine to earn enough money to emigrate from Greece to the United States in the late 1890s. He continued his shoeshine work upon arriving in Kansas City, eventually buying the parlor and later a candy store. He got into the cleaning business in the 1910s, when he acquired Superior Linen.
Bill Kartsonis says his father, George Kartsonis, and uncles had to lead the company through an “era of overcapacity” in the laundry industry with the rise in popularity of home washers and permanent-press garments, as well as “one-hour” drycleaners and coin laundries. He estimates 50-60 laundries in the area went out of business during that period.
In the late 1960s, a number of Kansas City area hospitals created a cooperative laundry to handle their goods, further reducing business opportunities.
With bulk laundry work now going for below market value, Superior Linen chose to grow its direct-sale business, which it continues to offer today. Over the next 15 years, four large laundry companies discontinued business in Kansas City while Superior stayed the course.
In today’s hospitality sector, many hotel developers are moving away from building on-premise laundries (OPLs), says Kartsonis, a Master Hotel Supplier (MHS) who has served as president of the local chapter of the International Executive Housekeepers Association (IEHA).
“As investors look at building a new hotel today, they’ll actually look at the cost of building and operating a laundry, and they realize that’s not their core competency and they’re willing to consider jobbing it out.”
Kartsonis believes his laundry uses one-fourth of the energy and water when compared to an OPL, but adds that it has taken significant capital investments and considerable “honing and optimizing” to reach that point.
“We made investments to be highly efficient,” he says. “That’s really the key. If I’m not more energy-efficient, more labor-efficient, more water-efficient, why should anyone do business with me?”
These investments have included automated wash systems, computer-controlled washers and dryers, computerized chemical injection systems, automated ironing and folding equipment, and a state-of-the-art rail system, among others.
Jim Caldwell, who has worked in Superior Linen sales for more than 20 years, uses the high-tech systems to his full advantage when courting potential clients.
“I love inviting customers here,” Caldwell says. “I call it the ‘shock-and-awe’ tour. My theory is that every customer thinks we have this building filled up with all these washers and dryers, like they have at home.”
They’re truly surprised by the level of automation and the resulting cost savings, he adds.
The company can process 40 million pounds a year utilizing two continuous-batch washing systems (CBW®) from Pellerin Milnor. The centerpiece is a newer 12-module machine with 150 pounds of capacity per module, connected to a single-stage, 50-bar press and a bank of five 300-pound dryers.
In a separate building sits a seven-module CBW with 110 pounds per module, linked to a single-stage, 50-bar press and a bank of four 220-pound dryers. The smaller, conveyor-fed tunnel is used exclusively for food-and-beverage linen.
From there, the equipment mix becomes more eclectic.
Superior Linen has conventional washer-extractors from SailStar and G.A. Braun, and dryers from Cissell and Consolidated Laundry Machinery (CLM).
There are ironers from Jensen America, Central and American, complemented by various folders, stackers and/or accumulators. The plant dedicates three ironers to the finishing of flat goods, including sheets, pillowcases and specialty items.
Much of the equipment was pre-owned.
Chemical injection for the tunnels is handled by an Ecolab Elados pump system. A Softrol ChemPulse Catalyst system pumps chemicals used by the washer-extractors.
Superior incorporates equipment to best harness heating, water and other resources, including an Ingersoll Rand air compressor with on-demand control, a 200-hp Cleaver Brooks boiler with Kemco Systems stack economizer and two Thermal Engineering of Arizona (TEA) plate heat reclaimers.
The facility’s most recent addition is the fully automated rail-on-rail system with 50,000 pounds of storage capacity by QI-Systems and Automation Dynamics.
The system’s ability to “sort on rail” and to automatically direct partially filled slings to a “recirculation loop” for storage until the goods can be combined with other goods from the same customer account are unique, says Steve Twombly, president of Automation Dynamics, which provided the software controls for QI’s hardware.
“If you operate like us, wash customer-owned linens and keep them separate, then you have partial batches, partial loads, on any given day,” Bill Kartsonis says.
Route drivers back their trucks into the dock area (Superior keeps the lot thawed in wintertime by pumping laundry wastewater through piping running beneath the concrete) and a worker inside the plant unloads the carts and returns them to the truck.
A worker feeds a vacuum soil-counting system, also from Automation Dynamics, which sends the soiled goods to a mezzanine where other workers standing at a conveyor toss the goods passing by into chutes. An LED display above each chute identifies the goods to be collected there.
Each chute directs 140-150 pounds into a sling. When that threshold is reached, the chute door closes and the loaded sling is transported to the tunnel. Workers can continue loading a closed chute, which will open to drop the goods when a new sling is brought into position.
Twombly, whose company is headquartered in nearby Independence, Mo., believes mixed-goods plants are among the most difficult to manage and operate because of their broad product mix.
Special programming provides Superior Linen with what he calls a customized call-off routine for every customer. “This system is probably the fastest change-out of any system you’re ever going to see, as far as changing from one customer to another.”
Superior Linen plans to expand its rail system further to provide “pairs creation” — always sending two 150-pound slings to each 300-pound dryer to ensure full loads — and emergency feeding to the conventional washers if the large tunnel goes down.
How vital is the rail system to the operation? “If the rail would break, I can’t wash anything,” Kartsonis says.
REBUILT BIGGER AND BETTER
The company had expansion plans and was preparing to put the second tunnel in when the December 2006 fire occurred. Bill Kartsonis believes the incident has actually made Superior a stronger company today.
Family members and key personnel divided responsibilities, with some taking on unfamiliar but necessary tasks. Production workers worked tirelessly in unfamiliar surroundings. Route drivers traveled to laundries as far away as Springfield and Clinton, Mo., to deliver soiled linen and pick up the clean for delivery to Superior’s customers in and around Kansas City.
“You had to figure out what you needed to do, bring in extra staff, have extra trucks, extra drivers to go here, there and everywhere,” Matt Kartsonis says. “You had to have a command-and-control system set up.”
Bill Kartsonis credits disaster-restoration company Belfor USA and the Gallagher and Hartford insurance companies with enabling his company to keep things going. The insurers encouraged Superior Linen to move ahead with its plans to further improve efficiencies and expand business.
“If the insurance broker and the insurance company hadn’t been there to guide us, we wouldn’t have moved in the direction that we did,” Kartsonis says.
These days, Superior uses fire-retardant carts from McClure Industries inside the plant, which is now fully covered by a sprinkler system. An elaborate fire alarm system was in place in December 2006, but Superior discovered later that the alarm company had not been monitoring it. Superior has since changed alarm companies.
Superior’s ability to not only survive but to thrive demonstrates its depth of character, Kartsonis says, and there’s nothing more important to a service-oriented business than character.
“The first thing we have to offer (our customers) is our integrity,” he says. “We’re going to keep our promises. We’re going to represent things that are realistic. … We’re going to deliver their linen, bill them accurately and be reliable.”
How reliable? He likens Superior Linen to “another utility,” like water or electricity.
“When you go over to the light switch, flip the switch, you expect the electricity to be on. Hotels and hospitals, they can’t operate without clean linen.”