Laundry operations director is used to clean living

11th June 2004

Irish Examiner

Gerry Harris

If you were to ask most consumers in this country to name Ireland's most popular brand they'd probably respond with the likes of Guinness, Ballygowan, Tayto, King, CocaCola, Heineken, KitKat and the like. The list is endless.

But, in reality, the one brand that Irish consumers arguably come into contact with most is that of Spring Grove, the textile rental company. Most times that you dry your hands on a rollertowel in a pub or restaurant toilet (presuming you wash your hands in the first place) you're using one of Spring Grove's towels.

Chances are that the linen that covers your restaurant table is from the same source. While there are a number of players in the Irish market (Celtic Linen and Connacht & Court/National Linen are two of the better known), Spring Grove is the clear market leader. In total, it caters for more than 17,000 customers and employs around 650 people.

With three processing plants in Dublin (Dun Laoghaire, Cabinteely and Stillorgan) and two in Cork (Blackpool and Glanmire) and three regional distribution centres in Limerick, Roscommon and Antrim; it's safe to say that the company has nationwide coverage.

"Our locations allow us to provide a service – ever sector – on a 32 county spread and that's a pretty unique position in which to be," according to Spring Grove's operations director, Gerry Harris.

Spring Grove caters for a number of different sectors. Hotels and the hospitality industry is a main source, as is the healthcare market. For the hospital environment it provides sterile fabrics (drapes and gowns) for operating theatres under its SteriTex brand. It also manufactures workwear for a number of industries.

The fact that the company's products are reusable is also an advantage. Says Harris. Reusable; linen is both environmentally friendly and more user friendly in that it proves much more costeffective."

Spring Grove's latest coup came three months ago in March. By receiving European Norm (EN) accreditation for its Steri Tex product, the company became the first – and so far, only – laundry company in Ireland that can put the coveted CE mark of quality on its products.

Spring Grove buys the stock (table linen, bed linen, napkins, towels, etc.) and then rents it to its various clients – collecting and delivering maybe two to three times a week. It currently has 90 vehicles serving customers around the country.

Harris, who joined Spring Grove six years ago after working with Lufthansa (his background is in engineering, particularly aviation engineering), says the job is enjoyable but more complex than it looks.

"It's not all it seems, there's much more than meets the eye. It might seem a simple enough job – renting out linen to customers, collecting it, washing it and returning it – but due to the scale we work on, it's incredibly complex, logistically. We aim to measure the business on a number of issues – from a high level of professionalism and excellent levels of service to being cost competitive, which we're ideally placed to be," comments Harris.

He points to the massive levels of capital investment that Spring Grove has made over the eight years that he's been on board to back up his last point.

The company has invested heavily (Harris is reluctant to quote figures, but maintains that we're talking about a multimillion euro total) in expanding existing sites, building new ones and increasing production and engineering capability across all of its units.

Its Blackpool, Cork plant was totally reequipped with a new production unit. Three new Continuous Batch Washers (CBWs) were installed (each washing one and a half tonnes per hour); its mechanical handling systems (the taking in of returned stock) were overhauled and a new finishing line (able to iron and fold 1,000 sheets per in an hour) was built.

The old Ballsbridge, Co Dublin (Spring Grove grew from the merging of three businesses: the old Spring Grove Company in Cabinteely, the M Laundry in Cork and the old Swastika Laundry in Ballsbridge) facility was closed because there wasn't enough room to extend it, and later reopened in Dun Laoghaire as a stateoftheart processing plant mainly catering for the healthcare sector. A new production unit was opened in Stillorgan in Co Dublin. And its Cabinteely plant was redesigned as a workwear manufacturing plant, with its own cleanroom facility for best quality food preparation clothing.

The Dun Laoghaire facility also had the first automatic sortation system in Ireland – where the traditionally labour intensive job of matching every work garment to its specific owner (every piece of workwear is tailored and barcoded to its individual owner) when being returned has been automated with the use of technology to allow for a faster turnaround time.

The splitting up of Spring Grove's different focus areas (hospitality, healthcare, workwear) over different sites coincided with a new management structure being implemented. Now each area of the overall business has its own separate management team. This has been a very important development, according to Harris, as it has enabled the company to focus more clearly on providing its customers with a better level of service.

Overall, Spring Grove is part of the Davis Service Group – the FTSE quoted, UKbased group which is the largest textile rental business in Europe with a market capitalisation of stg£ 1.1bn and operations in Scandinavia, Germany, France and Ireland.

"That helps us to benchmark our performance against our peers and colleagues," according to Harris. "The long – term focus is very much on future growth in all the sectors for which we cater. From a financial point of view, we may have made a lot of changes which cost a lot of money, we still have a strong balance sheet.

"Even given all of the negative impacts on the tourism trade in the last few years the hospitality industry has held steady and is still a significant source of business for us. We have a good retention level with our clients, which is mainly down to our good service levels," he adds.