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CALIFORNIA | LEARNING CURVE: BOWERS & SONS CLEANERS

Carrying On : Keeping a Family Business Alive

March 11, 1997

In 1994, when the Bowers family was on the verge of closing the dry-cleaning business it had owned for 50 years, Vivian Bowers knew she couldn't let a family legacy slip away. She persuaded her father to let her take over the business, enrolled in a course offered by USC's Business Expansion Network and started an interior and exterior renovation that has brought back longtime customers, attracted new ones and allowed her to expand her operation. Bowers was interviewed by Karen E. Klein.

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My brother ran the business for 10 or 15 years, but he really did not enjoy it. Because he had lost interest in it, business had really started to decline. By the early '90s, a large house right across the street had become a crack house. In 1994, my brother called a family conference and said he wanted out. My father, who had been retired, came back for six months. I was a sales representative for Kaiser Permanente but I came down after work and worked from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. to help my dad.

It was fun for me and I knew I could not let a family legacy go by the wayside.

I went to a business expo downtown and was pointed in the direction of the USC Business Expansion Network. It was nine weeks of rigorous work. At first, it was so overwhelming I started thinking how crazy I had been to give up a good salary and a company car for this.

But I stuck with it and worked very hard. Along with making my business plan and hooking up with trade associations, I decided I needed a remodel. Our building was a dingy gray and black, trash was everywhere, our signs were peeling and the counters hadn't been dusted in years. To me, first impressions are lasting impressions. How can you get clean clothes out of a dirty cleaners?

I was determined to put whatever I made initially back into the business. We cleaned up the place inside and out and repainted. USC helped me get some new signs that feature a family logo I designed with a giraffe on it. We brought out the slogan the family has used since 1950, "We care enough to add a personal touch."

The whole block has been painted, color-coordinated, with the addresses visible. We plan to put up awnings soon and move the bars on our windows to the inside. I hired a local man to make the signs and had some kids from the high school paint a mural on the outside walls so they would not get covered with graffiti.

People who hadn't been here in years started coming in again, asking who the new owner was. I put up family photos from the 1950s to the present and I make a point of personally being at the counter most of the time to greet my customers.

I have hired two new full-time employees and started up a daily delivery route. We are getting contracts now purely by our reputation, some from as far away as Century City and Pasadena.

My dad is very proud of me. He works a couple hours every day and he can see our customers are coming back. That makes him feel very good.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

AT A GLANCE

Owner: Horace and Alice Bowers

President: Vivian Bowers

Nature of business: Full-service dry cleaner

Location: Central Avenue business district, Los Angeles

Founded: 1950

Employees: 6

Annual sales: $165,000

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