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Professional laundry in India – A long way off

by Admin
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The Indian laundry sector, though in the last decade has seen tremendous growth and demand, is still largely unorganised with just a few professional houses servicing the hospitality industry. It is still the traditional dhobi, who is opted for at cheaper rates, even if it results in the early death of valuable linen! “This is due to lack of awareness. People are wooed by cheaper rates but do not realise that linen that could be used for a year or two, lasts only six months and loses its colour when washed unprofessionally,” says Akash Dharamsey, Director, Akash Cleaners Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai

What is the most challenging job in the laundry sector?

Treating white bath/hand towels is not as challenging as guest laundry of the hospitality industry. With guest laundry, we have to treat each garment individually and ensure the colour and fabric are not damaged in any way. With institutional linen like bed sheets and towels, the process is simple. Linen is sorted at source, fed into the washing machine accordingly and received in a bulk batch.

The whiteness of linen depends on the equipment, detergents and chemicals. We are using one of the finest plants of Girbau, imported from Spain. Understanding the chemistry between textiles and detergents & chemicals is very important. Although we use JohnsonDiversey Clax range of laundry detergents and chemicals, there are certain bleaches and stain removing chemicals we buy. Hence, knowledge about what to buy is essential to make one’s own formulations.

Earlier, we used to supply our own mixtures to others but discontinued it as we did not want to divert our focus from the core business of laundry service. We do a lot of consultancy though.

In the laundry sector, it is necessary to deliver goods at the right time and in good condition. We have always maintained 24-hour delivery, irrespective of the season and the type of linen.

Are these chemicals made by you, eco friendly?

We are one of those very few laundries, and the first in India, using Ozone technology. It has helped us reduce consumption of detergent & chemical by 50% and the usage of temperature. At the same time, it gives a long lasting and superior finish to the fabric leaving it 100% hygienic.

The Ozone system injects purified oxygen in all the washing cycles, opens up the fabric and flushes out the impurities easily. Even viruses like HIV are eliminated when exposed to Ozone. Sometime back a lab test revealed that the linen from our laundry was so clean that “one could eat it”.

The readings of the cleanliness were more than what was required for food grade hygiene levels. About 13.5 tonnes of laundry are churned out everyday, 24/7. Even with such high levels of hygiene, taking up hospital linen together with hospitality is not advisable, as it could lead to cross contamination.

We also have an effluent treatment plant in place. The treated water is further processed at the common ETP installed in the industrial belt and the water is used for gardening and maintaining the landscape. We consume about 1.5 lakh litres every day and have tried recycling water but the cost is much higher than getting fresh water. Recycling is still in the agenda and we are looking at possibilities. Around 95% of our laundry is done at our Vashi plant.

How do you see the growth of the Indian laundry sector?

In the last 13 years, since we commenced operations, the laundry sector has only grown in an unorganised way. A lot of new players have helped educate and structure the market in one way or the other. If there is no healthy competition, one cannot distinguish the good from the bad. It costs to get a good service but even today at the end of the day, unfortunately, the service is compared to that of the unorganised dhobi.

People fail to understand is what they can get by way of value, quality and service is something which the washerman cannot provide. But if you look at the rates and the services packaged together, people turn to him for short term gains and miss out on the long term advantage. Educating customers of this gain is a must.

Students from the hospitality training institutes, as part of their curriculum, come for factory visits to our site. We educate and train this next generation of executives and housekeepers. Students from Rizvi college and hotel management & catering institute in Navi Mumbai and Lonavala are regular visitors.

Students get an opportunity to tour the site with the director and also get at least two-hour lecture on the chemicals used, the chemistry and understand the actual process. It works both ways; it helps us foresee the challenges from the next generation’s perspective and at the same time helps them to get a good background of their future job.

What is the level of energy consumption at a laundry unit?

There is a choice of running the equipment on different fuels like electricity, oil and diesel. Energy consumption depends on the requirement and the ability to understand and pick the right equipment. Energy consumption is one of the highest in laundry amounting to 60% of the costs. The cost has an increased impact on us, as we do not dry linen under the sun and use the dryer. In the present scenario, with rising oil prices, our energy costs have gone up.

Has inflation affected your business?

Hotels are facing reduced occupancy in the last one year due to inflation. Hotels that had 85% occupancy, are today averaging between 60-65%. This has impacted the inflow of linen for laundry.

Further, considering the panic that was created in the market with inflation, hotels have started resorting to cutting costs and one of the first vendors to go out is the laundry. While there are some who start looking at cheaper options, there are some others who understand that compromising on quality would hurt them in the long run.

This year, we will see at least a 30-33% drop in overall linen volume coming in from hotels. For example, we used to do at least 250 pieces of guest laundry of the Park Hotel, Belapur. Today, it has come down to 50 pieces a day due to fall in occupancy. Most of the matured and long standing five hotels have their own laundry basically because they had no options when they commenced operations. For example, the Taj Mahal hotel has made a huge investment in laundry. But, the recent hotels like Taj President or Taj Wellington have outsourced laundry.

Realistically, hotels do not need inhouse laundry as it occupies space, investment and labour, which could be utilised for their core business. There are enough professionals who can take care of the laundry.

We also have regular auditing conducted by The Orchid, which is an ecotel.

Do you have outlets outside Mumbai?

We have just opened up an outlet in Bangalore, which focuses on guest laundry, uniforms and the retail market. In the next three to four years, many laundry houses are likely to set up shop in Bangalore. At our present site in Vashi, we have been processing hotel linen 365 days a year in three shifts. At our Kurla site we do uniforms.

The size of the Indian laundry industry…

The last figure that I came across two years ago is about 368 laundry service providers all over India. There are at least two to three big players, quantum-wise and service wise, servicing in some of the major states. Companies in other two- and three-tier cities either have an inhouse laundry or manage with whatever available at their end. But the actual laundry companies would be just a dozen and out of these may be only four or five do the actual cleaning.

A city like Hyderabad unfortunately does not have professional laundry services. We could have set up shop there provided hotels are ready to go for a five-year contract. This duration is reasonable enough for players like us to recover costs of equipment and facility. The hotel’s role does not end with just outsourcing to a laundry company; the approach should be in partnering with the service provider and help them sustain the business.

What about laundry in hospitals?

The attitude in hospitals is no different. There is this well known hospital that approached us and said, “you do our laundry”. My reply was simple “you tell us what to do”. A service provider has to be told what kind of linen, what chemicals, the extent of hygiene level expected, the benchmarking… Until hospitals understand the levels required, they will never be able to understand the costing. They will always harp on the fact that a dhobi charges only 2 for laundering a piece and how can you take 5. It is difficult to explain and make them understand.

In another case, this upcoming hospital in Mumbai, specified everything that requires and the contract was in the final stage, only to be disputed by the finance department stating that the ERP does not allow us to go beyond certain rates. Hence, all those hygiene parameters laid down and agreed upon were to be sacrificed, as the costs could not be increased.

It is necessary that as a matter of policy, the company takes a stand and abides by it whatever the cost. Today, even if the hospitality industry is opting out to cut corners, it will come back to us. The market size is not shrinking but expanding. The 30% drop in our turnover or volume will automatically recover in some months.

Future demand…

The demand is ever increasing. In the hospitality sector there are many 50-room hotels that have become quality conscious like the the Abbot Hotel in Navi Mumbai, with 30 rooms or the one in Sanpada. These are the ones which have already experienced the local washerman for so many years and are ready to spend more to get quality service. The hotels have learnt from their linen discard rates. The trend is more towards outsourcing laundry.

The concept of mobile or retail laundry is also picking up. We have been doing it since 2001 and have five outlets in Mumbai. The coin laundry is popular abroad but it will take years before the concept reaches India. It is the Indian mindset that needs to change.

There is an interesting story of how the coin laundry evolved in the US. It was the builders who objected to washing machines running in the houses. Instead they kept four to five washing machines in one corner of the premises and put one person incharge. With growing real estate prices, these washing machines along with the incharge were shifted out to the streets. Personally, I have approached many builders in India and though they are receptive to the concept, they do not want to take the first initiative.

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