If you’re familiar with the popular television series “Mad Men” you probably cannot imagine Don Draper wearing anything that wasn’t freshly dry cleaned. This was the pre-permanent press era and every dapper Don in corporate America had his wardrobe run regularly through professional laundry and dry cleaning services.
So in 1954 when Brown & Pratt incorporated in the city of Indianapolis, it was a business that catered primarily to manufacturing and distributing a variety of packaging items for the small dry cleaning shops that seemed to be in every neighborhood.
“The company had a team of five or six people just for garment bags – including two staff artists who did the two-color designs on all the printed bags,” says Gil Smith, current owner and president of Brown & Pratt. Smith’s father was one of the classic traveling salesmen, with an eight state territory – gone from Monday through Friday each week making visits to his regular customers.
Adjusting to Change
The year 2014 marks Brown & Pratt’s 60th year as a company – and in past six decades a lot has changed. The introduction of permanent press nearly did in the mom ‘n pop dry cleaning business and sales in the garment bag industry began to drop off dramatically. To survive, Brown & Pratt began to change its business model – and diversify.
“My father began to form relationships with other bag manufacturers – they would make them, he would sell them,” says Smith. “He also understood the importance of building relationships with his customers. If they happened to need boxes this time instead of bags, he found them boxes. Eventually he was selling boxes as well as bags. Then along came the industrial launderers.”
Industrial launderers, along with a custom packaging, now form the lion’s share of business for Brown & Pratt – although Smith points out they still get just under 20 percent of gross sales from the small dry cleaning shops. “It’s part of our DNA,” he says, while acknowledging the business now encompasses pretty much everything in packing and shipping supplies.
Smith, like his father, started at Brown & Pratt as an employee – although he claims he worked every job from the bottom up before he got his chance to represent the company as a salesman. “I liked it and was good at it,” says Smith. “And I would make deliveries as recently as six or seven years ago.”
A Family Tradition
He switched hats from employee to owner 10 years ago and the family tradition that was established with his father is still going strong. Smith’s son, Brandon, joined the staff as a part-timer while still in high school – and now, equipped with an MBA from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, he is helping his father steer Brown & Pratt into a new era.
“I’ve brought a lot of technology on board to make things easier and to open up new opportunities,” says Brandon. “I also like the marketing side of things – I’m kind of an ‘idea guy’ around here as well.”
And while new technology and new direction may keep the business fresh, both Smiths realize that the pillar of their business is an emphasis on building solid relationships. “Our culture is based on customer service,” says Smith. “Our people know we do things the right way.”
And even though Brandon is relatively the new kid on the block, he knows a history of responding to the marketplace and treating people right is the gold standard. “We’re not some fly-by-night operation,” he says proudly. “People know us by reputation – and that’s not something you just get overnight.”