South Jersey couple cleaning up with Maytag washers business

In Atlantic City, Kelly Schwartz washes her clothes in the new Maytag laundromat developed by Dick and Sue LaMaina of Cherry Hill.
In Atlantic City, Kelly Schwartz washes her clothes in the new Maytag laundromat developed by Dick and Sue LaMaina of Cherry Hill. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 01, 2014

In down-on-its-luck Atlantic City, just days before the Showboat and Revel casino hotels were to close, dignitaries gathered Wednesday to rejoice over a business opening.

That same week, in Dallas, Pa., two hours north of Harrisburg, 3,141 students at Misericordia University began a new school year with an introduction to a technological revolution on campus.

In each case, the source of the excitement was . . . laundry.

The new business feted in Atlantic City was a laundromat. The cause célèbre at Misericordia was the conversion of 38 washers and 38 dryers to "smart" machines, capable of informing students via text when their wash is done.

Helping make it all possible is a South Jersey couple, Dick and Susan LaMaina, whose business wherewithal and 51-year marriage have been as durable as denim.

"Some people like golf - we find this very stimulating," said Susan LaMaina, 69, sitting in a replica laundromat that doubles as a meeting room at their Equipment Marketers headquarters and warehouse in Cherry Hill.

The company has been a distributor of Maytag commercial laundry machines since 1961, setting up laundromats - coin-laundry stores in industry lingo - for independent operators in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. They started just three years after Maytag got into commercial laundry.

In the 1970s, Equipment Marketers expanded into vending, with commercial washers and dryers up and down the East Coast in hotels, apartment buildings, schools, campgrounds, and more.

In the late 1990s came another lucrative opportunity, on-premises laundry - customers who do other people's laundry. Among Equipment Marketers' on-premises laundry customers are many sports arenas, including Citizens Bank Park and Wells Fargo Center, as well as nursing homes, spas, country clubs, and horse farms.

In 1997, Maytag debuted its first energy-efficient washer. By cutting water use by 40 percent, the machine transformed commercial laundry, where utilities are a major commodity, Equipment Marketers president Dick LaMaina said.

Seventeen years later, the company includes another generation. Daughters Barbara Collins and Katie Weitzman are assistant vice presidents, handling finance, accounting, marketing, and sales support, while their parents oversee the day-to-day.

And there's talk of another revolution, portending more growth opportunity. Which brings us to last week's doings.

At Arctic and North Montpelier Avenues, a couple of blocks from the Tropicana Casino & Resort, the Philadelphia region's first Maytag laundry store held a grand opening Wednesday.

A franchise without the fees, it is Maytag's post-recession effort to attract higher net-worth investors to the laundromat business, said Randall Karn, North American sales manager for Maytag Commercial Laundry.

"It's a necessary evil," Karn said of laundry. "But we're trying to make it as nice as possible."

And a place customers choose over independent storefronts, drawn by the Maytag name, which will be on prominent display inside and outside every franchise store.

The Atlantic City store also has a high-tech credit-card system. Like slot machines, laundromats are moving away from the quarter.

Equipment Marketers is providing free fit-out guidance for franchisees, who, in return, must get their machines and accessories from the company. Each store will require $200,000 to $400,000 in equipment, Dick LaMaina said.

Besides low labor costs, an upside to the laundry business is that it's largely recession-resilient because "people always have to wash clothes," he said.

With 35 employees, Equipment Marketers weathered the most recent economic collapse without layoffs. (As a closely held company, it does not release its financials.) Though customers kept machines longer, slowing new sales, that created more calls for service and parts, Dick LaMaina said.

Through it all, Alex Kane, director of marketing and technology, finished work with Maytag on a wireless, cloud-based software, installed on washers and dryers at Misericordia last week. Maytag Connect 360 allows laundromat operators to remotely run their businesses - from learning when machines go down to collecting income reports on them.

Besides alerting Misericordia students by text or e-mail when their laundry is done, the system enables them to see from, say, the library, when machines are available, thus preventing wasted trips.

"There are more important things we want them to do than worry about washing machines," school spokesman Paul Krzywicki said, crediting Equipment Marketers with coming up with an alternative to that.

Innovation keeps Dick LaMaina, 71, resisting retirement. After all, Maytag machines that will accept payment through a phone app are due out in early 2015, he said:

"It's going to be another thing that's going to revolutionize the industry."


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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