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Companies Put Survival, Workers Ahead Of Competition

Friendly Foes

Dan Haar

January 08, 2009

As he watched news reports of the fire that destroyed Bruce Johnston's Sunshine Laundry on the first Friday in October in Hartford, Jim Reiner remembered a flood.

Reiner thought of the storm that spawned Connecticut's famous 1979 tornado, which also dumped 6 inches of rain in no time, raising the creek that runs under his family business, Mayflower Laundry & Drycleaning Co.

As the water rose to 6 feet in some parts of the Mayflower plant on Prospect Avenue, Reiner and some employees escaped through a window. For the next two weeks, Sunshine took in Mayflower's work.

It wasn't the first or the last time that Mayflower, founded right after the 1929 crash by Reiner's grandparents, and Sunshine, founded during World War I by Johnston's great-grandfather, helped each other through a crisis.

Even as the fire smoldered, Reiner invited Johnston to move Sunshine to Mayflower's plant.

"Come down and use it. It's yours," Reiner said to Johnston.

The temporary, emergency merger saved Sunshine and was also timed well for Mayflower. As it happened, Mayflower had just cut back some shifts.

The work from Sunshine has spilled over to some of Mayflower's employees. Sunshine is making improvements to Mayflower's building, preparing for its busy spring season even as Johnston looks ahead to a rebuilt plant at his site across town on Maple Avenue.

Sunshine, of all ironies, converted Mayflower's room for deodorizing smoke-damaged fabrics into its main office in the now-crowded plant. With a higher volume of laundry, Sunshine is renovating old equipment and will bring in a second, huge six-roll ironer.

"There are no coincidences," said Gail Reiner, who works alongside Jim and their father, Alvin B. Reiner. "The different workforces have melded together. ... People have made new friends, and I'm really happy that everyone's kept their jobs."

Mayflower and Sunshine are both committed to avoiding layoffs at great cost read that twice, corporate America and they've both reinvented themselves over the years.

When the companies were young, they, like dozens of others in the Hartford area, specialized in house-to-house pickup of family laundry.

Over the years, Mayflower expanded into, among other lines, cleaning and rehanging draperies, tailoring, commercial linens, rug cleaning and even renovating feather pillows (state license required for that). Mayflower's Drapemasters division custom orders and installs commercial window treatments and has seen some of its best years recently.

Sunshine branched into higher-end commercial linens for hotels and executive dining rooms (Johnston recalls that UTC wanted Belgian linens while Hartford National wanted Irish), schools and colleges now the company's main focus. In April and May, Sunshine will run shifts for 16 hours a day.

After the fire, Sunshine closed out its remaining family laundry accounts, making Mayflower the last of the old-line commercial laundries still in that business. "If you have never slept in pressed sheets, you haven't lived," Gail Reiner said.

And if you haven't seen cooperation like this, you don't know the soul of business. Other companies in the community of mostly family-owned commercial laundries also helped Sunshine: Falvey, Santoro's, Ameripride, Swiss Cleaners, White Way.

Some of them meet once a month, as they have for decades, as the Hartford County Laundry and Dry Cleaners Association at Angelico's Restaurant in New Britain. There's a reason for that.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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