65 years keeping things clean

Rick (left) and Steve Wellington prepare sheets to go through a folding machine. Photo: Gregor...
Rick (left) and Steve Wellington prepare sheets to go through a folding machine. Photo: Gregor Richardson.
For 65 years, Dunedin’s Wellington family has been involved in the laundry trade.

It might not be the most glamorous of industries but, as Mark Wellington puts it, "we’re still here after all these years".

Best known as the owners of Preens Dry Cleaners, the business has grown to much more than just dry cleaning.

The company recently undertoook a multimillion-dollar development of its Linenmaster division at the Kitchener St premises, using the latest technology, imported from Germany and Denmark.

Mark (left), Rick and Steve Wellington view their new Linenmaster development.
Mark (left), Rick and Steve Wellington view their new Linenmaster development.
The impressive automated process, from washing through to folding, was a far cry from the labour-intensive chore of days gone by.

When Mr Wellington first became involved, it was a very manual task, down to staff having to fold the sheets.

Established in the 1920s, Preens Dry Cleaners has been owned and operated by the Wellington family since 1979.

The family’s connection to the industry dates back to 1952, when chartered accountant Percy Wellington — Mark’s father — first became involved in the Snow White laundry business.

Mark became involved in the business in his 20s and it was subsequently sold and he concentrated on dry-cleaning.

Dry-cleaning was not a growth business, hence the company’s diversification over time, which included branching out into the photographic industry in 1987 and also the Just Cabins franchise, both of which were later sold.

In 1981, the company expanded into workwear rental as an Apparelmaster franchise licensee, supplying and cleaning overalls, mats and towels.

Preens Linenmaster was launched in 2014 and that division of the company serviced hotels, motels and other accommodation providers and hospitality clients, throughout the region, with their linen requirements.

Two of Mark’s three sons, Rick and Steve, joined the business in the early 2000s. Their brother Mike Wellington owns Mike’s Cars in Hillside Rd.

Rick, who is now managing director, studied commerce at the University of Otago, while Steve, who focuses on business development and retail, studied design at Victoria University.

Last year, the Linenmaster division expanded into the building next to its main factory in the city, with state-of-the-art laundry equipment imported from Germany and Denmark.

It was a big project and the Wellington family project managed it themselves, a big undertaking on top of keeping everything else in the business running. A major factor was the planning and purchasing of the right equipment and much time was spent planning the purchasing and also the layout of the factory. It had all been a big learning curve, Mark said.

There was a strong emphasis on sustainability — the company won the sustainability award in the Westpac Otago Chamber of Commerce Business Awards in 2014 — and there was a project to reduce water use, reusing what it could and recovering as much heat as possible from waste water. There was also LED lighting throughout the building.

Commissioning was done in October last year, which was "quite a juggle", given it coincided with the arrival of Rick’s second daughter.

Not only is the equipment high-tech but also the linen. RFID chips were inserted in the linen for stock management, enabling them to maintain product quality.

The chip was like a bar code, and could be identified how many times each sheet had been washed and how old it was.

Customers ordered online and it was like a logistics company, with many vehicles out on the road delivering door-to-door.

"We’re like a carrying company," Mark said.

That linen was destined for hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts and holiday parks throughout Otago, from small bed and breakfasts to large hotels.Tonnes of linen was laundered and dispatched each week in what was high-volume, low-margin work.

Work was quite seasonal and the busiest time generally was the tourism season over the summer.

There was a sense of urgency involved. Clients took the sheets off the beds in the morning and needed to have the beds made up again.

"We can’t say our machine’s broken down, it’ll be there in two days time ... they’ve got to have the product. We have to deliver. The pressure is on each day to get the stuff out," Mark said.

"The linen never sleeps," Steve added.

The family supported the latest proposal for a new hotel in the city. Dunedin had not had a lot of new hotels for a number of years, although the opening of Dunedin Distinction Hotel was "great", Rick said.

The city had great facilities for conferences but it needed to have the ability to have beds to go with that, he said.

Asked what it was like to have his sons involved in the family business, Mark — who is now group executive chairman — said it was inspirational.

"We have a passion for the business ... we’ve found a niche we love. I’m sure it [the business] will be in the family for a long time to come," he said.

It was fortunate that they all got on well together. Not only did they work together, but they also often  played together — whether that was mountain biking or racing cars — Rick said.

They were all Dunedin born and bred and they were committed to the city, which was an easy and great place to live, Mark said.

The business needed to continually evolve and it was evolving all the time with better, more efficient equipment. It was a capital intensive business and its appetite to "eat up capital" was immense.

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