By Tim Leeds
Havre Laundry and Dry Cleaning is continuing its success in the same way it has for almost a century with hard work, diversification and adapting to the times, its owners say.
"It just boils down to us keeping our nose to the grindstone and providing good service," said Jim Brenna, vice president and assistant manager of the business.
The business has gone through many phases and owners during the 98 years it has been operating, said Ron Brenna, president and general manager. The Brenna family has been involved since 1934, when Ralph Sleeter, Ron and Jim Brenna's grandfather, went to work for Walter MacKenzie.
MacKenzie in 1931 bought out the five partners he had formed the business with in 1904. The business started out as Havre Steam Laundry and Baths a popular spot because it was one of a very few places in Havre with hot water for baths, Ron Brenna said.
Baths were a big part of the business, he said, with people coming in to have their laundry cleaned while they bathed.
Sleeter bought the business from MacKenzie in 1946. His son, Jim Sleeter, worked for him until he left to go full time in the construction business in the 1970s. Neal Brenna, who is married to Ralph Sleeter's daughter, Patricia, started working there in 1961 or 1962, Ron said. Neal is Ron and Jim's father.
Neal Brenna was president from 1976 to 1995, when he retired and Ron Brenna took over the position.
Havre Steam Laundry and Baths has been changing with the times for most of its history. Dry cleaning was added in 1923, and the brothers' grandfather switched the business to the Sanitone dry cleaning process in 1955. Sleeter also added Northern Montana Linen Supply in the 1950s, which supplies and cleans sheets, towels, tablecloths, and the like. That business grew to serve hospitals, hotels and other businesses from Glasgow to Chester to Big Sandy, Brenna said.
The business is still changing. The work of cleaning sheets and towels for hotels and hospitals has dropped off as those facilities get laundries of their own, Brenna said. So the business has concentrated on supplying and cleaning items like entrance mats and carpet runners, butcher's aprons, and coveralls instead.
"We have adapted to changing times," he said. "We're always looking at different areas for expansion or diversification."
"That diversification has certainly helped us to survive," Jim said.
One newer service is supplying customized floor mats, and one such product caught national attention, Ron said. Havre Laundry and Dry Cleaning Service produces "Havre It's the People" floor mats in cooperation with the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce.
That concept to produce a product in conjunction with a Chamber was introduced at a national convention, Ron said, and was received as one of the best ideas at the convention.
The business cooperates with many groups in the community, Ron said. It donates cleaning and mending for the Coats for Kids charity sponsored by the Havre Jaycees, and cleans the American flags put up for holidays in town by the Lions Swim Team.
The business works with the community not only to keep itself alive, but to keep in touch, Ron said.
"We've been partners with the community as long as the company's been around," he said.
The times continue to change and so does the business, Ron said. Dry cleaning has gone through some hard times, partly because environmentalists have questioned whether the process is harmful and partly because of the popularity of more casual work apparel, he said.
Havre Laundry and Dry Cleaning has brought in computerized machinery to professionally clean and press items like cotton slacks, to go along with equipment that's been in the building since the 1950s.
But diversifying hasn't changed the focus of the business providing a service, Ron said.
"When it boils down to it, people have a need to have dirty things cleaned," Jim said.
His brother agreed.
"We don't see getting so diverse we lose sight of what we do best," he said.
Statistics show that 93 percent of family businesses are lost in the third generation, Ron said.
"Not on our watch," he said. "We're going to survive. We're going to be part of that 7 percent."