Business Big Interview: Michael Jones, managing director of laundry firm Fishers

One of the hardest hit sectors during the Covid lockdowns was hospitality and while the impact on this sector has been well chronicled, the spotlight has shone less brightly on the supply chain that supports it.

Earlier this year, Fishers Laundry – which washes, dries and irons two million items a week in peak season – announced it was re-opening its Perth laundry, which it had to close in 2020. Fishers’ managing director, Michael Jones, provides an insight into how his business was impacted and how things are looking going forward.

It’s a little-known fact that if you’re staying in a hotel in Scotland, chances are you’re sleeping between sheets that are actually owned by Fishers. How does that business model work Michael?

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A typical hotel room requires 40-50 clean linen items per week (eg. sheets, duvet covers, towels, robes). In the first instance it makes sense for hotels to outsource laundry because of the economies of scale which can be achieved in large, automated operations, along with energy and water efficiencies and quality control such as validated disinfection processes.

Fishers’ managing director, Michael Jones, with one of the firm's familiar trucks. Picture: Robert Perry
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Imagine the complexities of handling millions of pieces of linen from thousands of customers, tracking it through the laundry and then getting it back to the right owner, and you quickly get to the second part of our model, which is owning and renting the textiles. When you deposit a £5 note at the bank you don't need to get the same note back when you next go to a cash machine. It is the same with our hotel customers. Their guests use our clean linen; the hotel gives it back to Fishers used and we replace it with freshly laundered items just when they need them.

Fishers has always been closely linked with the hospitality sector which, as we know, was badly hit by the pandemic and a few months ago you announced the re-opening of your Perth laundry. Just how difficult was Covid for Fishers?

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Everything happened so quickly in March 2020. Remember, at the point when businesses were told to close, the government furlough scheme was still to be announced. We went from gearing up for a busy Easter period to seeing more than 95 per cent of our revenue disappear, literally overnight.

Those early days in particular were incredibly difficult and stressful for our customers and for everyone at Fishers . Those customers who stayed open were critical businesses (eg. care homes and pharmaceutical manufacturers) and we had the added pressure of continuing to operate throughout the first lockdown, when I think most people naturally wanted to be at home.

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When hospitality reopened last summer it brought a new challenge. There was an incredible pent-up demand for staycations as overseas travel was still restricted. As we are seeing this year with the airports, you simply can't close entire industries for months and then expect them to re-open as normal with a couple of weeks' notice. Aside from furlough, government financial support across the UK was targeted at businesses closed by law (eg. restaurants and hotels). Supply chains closed indirectly were largely overlooked.

Fishers' journey out of Covid is proving to be as bumpy as the one in, but the re-opening of our Perth laundry was an important next step. We are determined to “build back better” and I am very thankful for the unwavering support of our Canadian parent company (K-Bro) and their willingness to continue to invest in Fishers with a long-term view.

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Just as we were all hoping for some respite, we’ve been hit by a global supply chain crisis, fuel costs have been soaring and staff retention and recruitment are harder than they’ve ever been. How is Fishers coping with these pressures?

We are navigating our way carefully and have had to increase our prices. I see our customers under the same pressures and doing the same. We’ve had a busy summer, with the first Edinburgh Festival for three years. However, looking into autumn and the winter beyond, it seems inevitable that higher room rates and cost of living pressures generally will start to impact demand. Our two largest costs are staffing, and energy and we are always looking (and investing) to improve productivity and efficiency.

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As the Covid scheme was ending last year, many were predicting high levels of redundancy in the economy and scarcity of jobs. In fact the reverse turned out to be the case and Fishers, like many others, had to raise hourly pay rates quickly, and substantially, in order to build up staffing levels. Recruiting HGV drivers was a very big problem, particularly in the central belt, and I am grateful to the large number we have who stayed with us and worked incredibly hard to get through the last few months.

I believe that over the next few years, the success of businesses like mine will be determined by their ability to recruit and retain people and that the issue is not just about pay rates. Staff need to understand and share the ambitions of the business and the business needs to understand the needs and ambitions of its staff. We have invested heavily in recruitment including bus advertising, mail drops and social media with QR codes pointing to our own recruitment site (www.fishers.careers).

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Fishers is famous for its green and white trucks parked outside hotels delivering and picking up laundry and you’ve worked hard in recent years to be seen as part of the hospitality sector – how has that worked out for Fishers?

Our trucks are a bit of a sore point at the moment as we could do with a few more and lead times for new ones are more than 12 months!

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We had an enlightening moment a few years ago when we first became a patron of the Scottish Tourism Alliance. It wasn't so much that we decided to be seen as part of the hospitality sector as much as it was that we simply recognised we are. From that point on we have really tried to contribute in ways we can. Our vans for example carry the STA logo and we have played a major role with the Thistle Awards since 2017

I think that our experiences of the last two years have highlighted just how important the hospitality sector is, not just to the economy, but to the nation's wellbeing. The hotels, restaurants and attractions are at the front end but there is an incredibly hard working and complex supply chain helping to make it all happen... food suppliers, airports, coach operators and laundries. Although we also have a lot of non-hospitality customers, I am proud to be seen in the way we are and our close association, particularly in Scotland, with the hotel sector.

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What is your wish for the future and what are you at Fishers doing to make it a reality?

Our first priority is to get our hospitality business back to full pre-Covid strength, which includes our re-opened Perth plant. The current energy crisis is only accelerating our journey towards net zero and we are putting a lot of effort into reviewing long term options.

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We saw the benefits of business diversity during the pandemic lockdowns when the healthcare and cleanroom parts of our business stayed open. I would very much like to grow these services.

“Hygiene” and “reusable” are at the heart of our business model and we can build on these post-pandemic themes as we all seek to build greater resilience against future infectious disease threats. In Canada our parent company was laundering and disinfecting over a million reusable protective healthcare gowns a week at the peak of the pandemic. This is in contrast to the UK where the NHS grappled initially with sourcing sufficient single use plastic gowns and then had to deal with a mountain of clinical plastic waste to dispose of them. With the national scarcity of gowns, staff in care homes were often left with only small plastic aprons for protection.

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During Covid, a diverse group of volunteers got together in a charity project (called Caresleeves) and created a protective re-usable gown designed specifically for carers. It is a simple garment evolution but has the power to save lives in the future and reduce plastic waste. If I am allowed one big wish, it is to see this project come to full fruition and be in widespread use.60 second CV:

Born: Blackburn, Lancashire (famous for its ‘four thousand holes’ in the Beatles song, ‘A Day in the life’)

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Education: Allerton Grange High School in Leeds and then a business degree at Edinburgh University

First job: In school and university holidays I worked at a laundry in Leeds

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Ambition at school: To be a Miami Vice detective

What car do you drive: Plug-in hybrid Toyota Rav4Favourite mode of transport: Boat

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Music: Bruce Springsteen & Jackson Browne

Last book you read: The Choice by Edith Eger, an incredible story and affirmation of life

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What makes you angry: Tribalism in all its many forms

What inspires you: Possibilities… we live in a time when these are endlessFavourite place: Broughty Ferry

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Best thing about your job: The people I work with

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