Forming a franchise
November 12, 2015
It certainly is accurate to say that Angel and Anne Marie Ramos carved out their own American dream as owners of two Zips Dry Cleaners stores (which are part of a franchise they helped form with a dozen other cleaners), but that’s only the second half of the story.
The first half of the tale proves to be much more harrowing, though, as the couple’s histories involves civil wars, Cuban jails and a twist of fate or two. Angel was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador in 1951. He earned a political science degree and graduated first in his class at the military academy. He would go on to serve in the Salvadoran Army for 31 years altogether, including stints overseeing various combat units during the country’s civil war that erupted between 1979 and 1992.
“It’s incredible what he went through,” Anne Marie noted. “Most of the time, he was in combat zones.”
During that period of his life, he was in the Atalcati Battalion and the Belloso Battalion, which Angel equated to America’s special forces units.
“Between 1995 and 1997, he was brigade commander and he had over 2,500 soldiers under his command,” Anne Marie continued. “That was right before he came to the U.S. as a defense attaché. He represented all of the [miliatary] forces. That was his last post. He retired in June of 1999 in Washington, DC.”
Angel’s decorated military career also included a Legion of Merit Award for the cooperation that he helped develop between the Salvadoran and American military, and an Army Commendation medal for his work as a Salvadoran liaison at Ft. Benning in the early 1980s.
While Angel faced war and military hardship, Anne Marie Ramos faced her own personal strife when her life began in Cuba in 1961. “At the time when I was born, my dad was in prison,” she recalled. “He was there for conspiring against Fidel Castro. He was in jail for four years.”
As luck would have it, Anne Marie’s mother was friends with someone who worked as the head of the prison and her parents were allowed private time together, which eventually resulted in her birth.
When Juan Clemente was finally released from jail, he had to fake a passport to leave the country with Anne Marie and the rest of the family to go to Mexico and from there they would traverse to America. “We contacted people who do that,” Anne Marie said. “My father wasn’t able to get a passport. He had to cross the border in the trunk of the car.”
Anne Marie was about five years old and quite upset during the trip, so much so that she wouldn’t stop crying until her father put his fingers through a vent that lead from the trunk to the back seat. Eventually they made it and headed to Miami, but Anne Marie didn’t stay still long. Her father moved the family a lot, often to places plagued by war and political upheaval. “My father worked with the U.S. government and his assignments took him to different countries in Latin America,” Anne Marie explained. “I lived in Ecuador, Uruguay, Panama and Guatemala.”
After her father retired, the family moved to Houston where Anne Marie eventually earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Houston and moved back to Miami to open an import/export company with a partner. In 1985, she took a trip to El Salvador for her business which sought to import items such as mine detectors, bulletproof vests and parts for trucks to the Salvadoran Army. That’s when she met Angel, who proved to be a persistent suitor. The couple eventually married and Anne Marie sold the business to avoid a conflict of interest. While Angel continued his military career, Anne Marie taught sixth grade science and English as a second language.When he retired as a full colonel from the Salvadoran military, they opted to move to the U.S. “We knew our children would have much more opportunities in the United States and would be safer,” Anne Marie said. While Angel worked as a defense attaché, Anne Marie would take his clothes to a Dryclean Depot store in Maryland for cleaning. One day, something occurred to her. “I was so surprised that I could see lines going out the door. I’d never seen that,” she recalled. “I told Angel one time: ‘You know what? I think we found what we want to do when you retire.’ That’s how we got into drycleaning.”
Eventually the couple had an opportunity to buy a Dryclean Depot in July of 1999. The deal required them to make a down payment and then buy the location for whatever the gross sales were for the second year. One concession was that they had to be present at the store around the clock every day.“I can’t even describe how hard it was. We actually got crash courses on everything. We trained from scratch,” Anne Marie recalled. “So, we were there from before it opened, sometimes at 5 a.m., and we would not get home until 10 p.m. at night… and we had small kids.”
Fortunately, the couple had a trusted nanny, but there were times where Anne Marie was ready to give up and sacrifice the down payment. Angel, though, was confident they could make it work. In 2001, the hard work paid off: they bought the cleaners. Five years later, though, the couple teamed up with a collective of drycleaners to form Zips Dry Cleaners. They began to offer franchise opportunities in 2006.There are two main ways Zips tries to differentiate itself from the competition: same day service (i.e. in by 9 a.m. and out by 5 p.m.) and one price per drycleaning piece ($2.29), be it a suit jacket, a pair of slacks, a shirt or even a wedding dress. “Currently we have 41 stores,” Anne Marie said. “I understand three or four might open by the end of the year.
And, this past summer, we signed a 104-unit franchise agreement for new stores throughout the midatlantic and midwest with a company called ZDC Holdings.”
The Ramoses own two stores: one in Fredericksburg was purchased in 1999 and one in Dumfries was bought more recently. In fact, the Ramoses earned an award last year for their efforts to improve the Dumfries location. “They turned the store completely around,” recalled Chris Allsbrooks, the director of store operations for Zips Franchising, LLC. “For us, it’s not just about sales. It’s about how the stores are performing, what the customer response is to the store, how their operation is running. All of those factors went into them winning the Franchise of the Year.”
Allsbrooks emphasized that Angel and Anne Marie are always willing to help other franchisees, as well. “They’re always willing to share their information with anybody or to discuss anything with anybody. They’re one of my favorite franchisees just because of their willingness to work with anybody,” she added. “They are dedicated to the business and to the brand. They go out of their way to make sure things are right.”
With 65 employees between the two locations, the Ramoses feel a sense of pride in their efforts to retain so many employees. The secret in retention is to give them flexibility to be with their families and to offer a fair wage. Of course, the employees have to be flexible, as well. The Ramoses like to train staff in more than one area to improve their production efficiency. “We do spend a lot of time training. We give a lot of emphasis on customer service,” Anne Marie stated. “One person may help at the counter and then they go back and press. There’s a way of doing things very quickly the way we do it. We always cross train.”
Ultimately, everybody works together for a common goal to keep everything running like a fine Swiss watch. It’s in everybody’s best interest to foster a strong sense of order and camaraderie in the store, which makes it easier to keep the same-day promise and the $2.29 price point profitable. “We actually have a point-of-sales program that is very important because being streamlined and being able to get the clothes out the same day really gives us a cutting edge,” Anne Marie explained.She also noted that volume is a big key in making it all work. “Without the volume, we couldn’t get that price and we couldn’t have the volume without the efficiency of the whole system the way it is.”
It can be a difficult industry, but the Ramoses enjoy it very much and prefer to focus on some of the positive
aspects of it.
“It is a business that doesn’t require a large inventory,” Anne Marie said. “You don’t have to worry about spoilage and things like that, like in the restaurant business. Every week the inventory fluctuates. We use it and we buy more stuff so you don’t have this huge inventory where you have money just sitting there.”
For now, Angel and Anne Marie have no intention of leaving the industry. It has been good to them for over 15 years, even during the recession when many other businesses were struggling simply to keep their doors open.“It is a business that we have found out through the years — when there are more difficult times — that it is recession-proof,” Anne Marie noted. “During difficult times, people still need their suits cleaned and their drycleaning clothes cleaned. Sometimes, we’ve done better during difficult times because it seems more people are looking for a deal.”