Sometimes a big change is needed, even if it seems like a major risk. For Don
Holecek, owner of Crown
Cleaners in Knoxville, TN, one of those crucial crossroad moments occurred when he
realized it was time to leave
his hometown of Chicago.
“Ten below, twenty below weather, three feet of snow,” he recalled. “I call it my ‘aha’ moment when I went
outside to start my car one day and I couldn’t start it because it was so cold. I’m getting out of here.”
Up to that time, Chicago was all he’d known, born and raised there since 1969 to a mother who was a
stewardess then a nursing
home administrator and a
father who worked as an
electrician until he passed
away from a heart attack
when Don was only 11 years
during his formative years,
Don earned his own income
through a wide variety of
“I worked at a golf range
literally picking up golf balls,”
he noted. “We got paid by
the bucket. I also worked as
a busboy in a restaurant. Then, in high school, things kind of settled down. I
was actually a clerk in an accounting
firm. Later on, I was a clerk at a law firm.”
By the early 1990s, he was working full time at the firm (now known as Banner & Witcoff) and pondering going
back to college; he had dropped out after a few semesters at Northern Illinois
University. He needed a new plan
and a change of scenery.
After he went on a road trip to Tennessee to help a roommate with play-by-play
coverage of the women’s
basketball team for the local college’s radio station, Don loved the area and decided to go to school in Knoxville
and finish his college education at the University of Tennessee. He earned a
B.A. in Political Science with an
emphasis on secondary education.
Soon, he was hired to teach history and American government at a Catholic high
school in town. He taught
there for the next four years.
“It was extremely rewarding,” he said. “I really liked to change things up. For instance, one year I brought a
Holocaust survivor who lived here in Knoxville to come in and speak to my
classes. One year, I had veterans who
may have been a father or an uncle or a grandfather come in and speak about the
Vietnam War. I thought I
made it very interesting.”
The most important qualities of being an effective teacher, according to Don,
are patience, understanding and
passion. He excelled at his job and even proposed an unorthodox way to teach
history that soon became
integrated into the school’s curriculum.
“What we did was we started to go from the back of the book,” he said. “We were able to learn about stuff that
was a little more relevant.”
As the turn of the century approached, however, Don faced another critical
juncture with the potential for a big
The parents of one of his students owned Crown Cleaners and were looking to sell
to just the right person. Don
seemed to be a perfect fit.
Crown Cleaners had originally opened in the late 1960s by a man named Charles
Rodgers, who sold it to Bob
Rowen in 1988. Now, Rowen was looking to pass the torch to somebody who would
protect the company’s legacy.
“The way it got structured is that there would be an 18-month apprenticeship.
Then, at the end of that, there’d
be an option to buy,” Don said. “We started off with me inspecting clothes, or being trained how to inspect
clothes. He [Bob] felt that that was our foundation.”
The apprenticeship was a bit overwhelming, but once the school of hard knocks
ended, things became even
more difficult when Don realized the future of Crown Cleaners was in serious
“I thought everything could run itself,” he admitted. “The only thing that had changed was the person who
signed the checks. We still had clothes coming in and I still had employees, but
I learned that something wasn’t
going right when I was having trouble making payroll. Essentially, that lead me
to lean on other people to try and
find out what was going wrong and a lot of that was contacting IFI (or DLI as it
is called now) and networking and
asking questions. What I kind of found out was… if we only have five hours of work and yet my employees were
working eight, that wasn’t adding up.”
Don learned to ask for help from other cleaners, even competitors, and to focus
on one problem at a time.
Things improved, but it was a slow, gradual process.
“I had to reach back to that teaching patience and bring it into a retail
production environment,” he laughed.
He also wanted to make that retail environment more professional.
“When I came on board to Crown, there was no dress code or attire so that was one
of the first things I learned
from networking with other cleaners. We were going to have a uniform. We were
going to be branded.”
Over the years, Don has also guided Crown Cleaners through some major
technological advances. The
company, which has three locations and 16 employees, may be a small mom-and-pop
operation, but it is
certainly on the cutting edge.
“We went to bar codes as soon as possible,” he noted. “At one point, we were the only cleaners in Knoxville
where everything we did was bar coded.”
Not afraid to embrace new technology, Don switched from perc to Solvon K4 a few
years ago and he markets
to his customer with email notification. He even had an app designed
specifically for his company about two years
“We primarily use it to send out notifications such as if we need to close the
store because of inclement
weather,” he said. “We generally send out some kind of coupon about every other month. It has an
rewards program. It also lists our locations. It lists our store hours. It doesn’t tie into my software, but it’s more
of a communication app.”
The success of Crown Cleaners is not a just a result of forward-thinking in an
effort to stay ahead of the
competition; Don is the first to admit that he will copy great ideas from other
cleaners and incorporate them to
suit his company.
He recalls reading an article on Milt & Edie’s in a trade publication that mentioned a welcome bag of goodies
that the California cleaners offered to all new customers. Don initially thought
the idea was crazy, but called for
more information about it anyway. Ultimately, he changed his mind.
“I said, ‘OK. That’s a great idea. How can I do it on my level?’ So, I started giving out orange and white koozies
— can koozies. Here in Tennessee our football team at the university have orange
and white colors,” he said.
“Then, I said, ‘What if I put a lint roller in that?’ So, long story short, I now hand out orange and white koozies.
It’s got brochures about Crown. It’s got collar stays. It’s got a lint roller. I kind of add one thing every year.”
Don has borrowed smart ideas for community support programs, as well. He modeled
his “Crown for the
Classroom” program after one by Prestige Cleaners. It kicks back money to schools,
organizations and other
groups in need who bring in new customers in support of their cause.
“I’m a great copycat,” he laughed. “The largest cleaner here in town — he has a program and we use the same
software so I knew I was capable of doing what he’s doing. I was a former teacher. I know it sucks to fund raise.”
A lesson the former teacher learned early during his tenure in the drycleaning
industry is that if he wants
Crown Cleaners to do well, he cannot be an absentee owner. He believes his
customers identify with the company
better through him.
“I think it’s because they see me. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back,” he explained. “So many businesses
now have lost that identity. I think that’s one of 10,000 reasons Chik-fil-A is successful. It’s not uncommon to
walk in to a Chik-fil-A and see the owner/operator there waiting on you or
refilling your iced tea. I think people,
when they come into my business, like to see me.”
Don thinks it’s important for him to remain active in his business, and that means always
looking for new ideas.
He recalls one time talking to James Peuster, the Route Pro, who told him a
story about getting permission from a
homeowner’s association to set up a lemonade stand with route service brochures to attract
“I thought, ‘That’s a neat idea.’ What could I do?” he recalled.
Though Crown Cleaners has come up with numerous clever ways to give back to the
local community, perhaps
the most unique happened when Don decided he could create a different kind of
lemonade stand that was in line
with his love of bike riding.
Don purchased a pop-up tent with Crown’s logo on it and he approached the owners of a local bike shop with
an offer to become a rest stop for lengthy bike rides so he could hand out food
and beverages to keep the cyclists
fueled for the road ahead.
“They’re jaws dropped,” he said. “They actually said, ‘If you got the tent, we’ll give you water coolers,
Gatorade, granola bars, bananas — we’ll give you all of that if you can tell us you’re going to be there for six
hours. So, that’s something I’ve done for like the last three or four years.”
In addition to giving back to others, it has given him something else. “I’m the owner and I’m standing outside
in 90-degree heat and I’m handing out water bottles to guys who are riding bikes,” he laughed.
“I’ve gotten customers out of doing that. People who ride expensive bikes do