An entrepreneur with more than a good idea

From a blighted property at the center of Hartford, Jeremiah Smith is building businesses based on others' need to clean.
Every entrepreneur has their eureka moment. Jeremiah Smith’s came in the hospital.

It was a few years ago, and his sick mother was laid up in her bed. He looked around, saw the nurses, doctors and other personnel coming in and out of the room, each one opening and closing the privacy curtain nearby.

"Hospitals take so many precautions to ward off infections. They’ve got automatic doors, hand sanitizers everywhere you look," Smith says. "But that curtain. Everyone was touching it and it wasn’t being cleaned. I thought, ‘That can’t be good.’"

What it was good for was a way to expand his business, Coin Express, a Laundromat in Hartford that Smith opened in June 2011 – with his own money and help from a financier – on blighted property near the city’s center.

The 26-year-old South Haven native and Kalamazoo resident got to work looking for a way to incorporate the curtains – as well as other medical items that needed cleaning – into his washing repertoire.

"I wanted to go into a business nobody could avoid," he says. "I opened this when the economy was still quite shaky, but people still had to clean their clothes. They always will. But if you’re an entrepreneur, you have to constantly look at ways to expand your reach."

How Smith was able to acquire the startup capital to get Coin Express off the ground is something of a page out of a how-to pamphlet for entrepreneurs. He was at a luncheon for small business owners and entrepreneurial hopefuls when he met Dana Getman, CEO of Getman Corp., a Bangor-based firm that designs and manufactures underground mining equipment.      

Smith was impressed with what Getman had to say at the event. When it was over, he decided to take a chance.

“I went right up to him and asked if I could spend some time with him to see how he does business,” Smith says. Getman declined that idea, Smith says, but offered something else: A lunch meeting where Smith could communicate what his business vision was. The two met, which turned into meeting monthly for half a year.  

Smith eventually asked if Getman wanted to invest in his idea. The CEO said he would, and offered a choice: a loan or partnership. Smith took the partnership and got to work.

“Everyone in business needs someone who believes in them,” Smith says. “But you’re not going to get anything in life unless you ask for it. You have to take chances as an entrepreneur.”

Wrapped in a pin-striped suit with creases so sharp they could cut, Smith stands out among the simple concrete blocks and industrial glow of the laundry’s fluorescent lights. He is very much a businessman, quick to point out that he has "the cleanest water in town" that washes clothes in "the area’s most efficient washers."

But business success requires much more than a decent sales pitch. Good decisions are based on good data, and Smith had little more than an assumption that entering the world of medical laundry work could be profitable. So he enlisted the help of business class at Western Michigan University, to look at how washing those curtains might not just help to reduce infection rates, but also be good for his bottom line.

Nationwide, the class found out, hospitals spend $24 billion fighting infections, he says. Washing the curtains was not only a good idea, the study concluded, but providing that service would likely be profitable, Smith says. He found a firm that had been providing small-scale industrial washing services for Bronson Methodist Hospital – Allegiant Services – and bought them out, knowing he had more washing capacity.

Now, on a recent afternoon, his modern washers (he calls them "agitators") are full of surgical towels soaking in a special industrial strength detergent that looks like sawdust (he calls it "reflective"). Curtains, rugs and microfiber mop heads tumble in his dryers. He is looking to grow, and has scoped out a few buildings on Kalamazoo’s northside. He would like to open another facility by sometime next year.

"My dream is to partner with a medical insurance company and offer them this service as a way to lessen their costs related to infection," Smith says. "But one step at a time."

Like all successful up-and-comers, there were people along the way who saw Smith’s potential. John Schmitt, business consultant at the Southwest Region office of the Michigan Small Business Development Center, was one of them.

"He was one of my entrepreneurial superstars," Schmitt says of Smith. The MSBDCs offer free consulting to small business owners and entrepreneurs looking to get off the ground, including help with loan packages, market analysis, business plan implementation and accessing other resources.     

Schmitt has been consulting with Smith for several years, and has seen the still burgeoning businessman blossom, not just because of Smith’s inherent instincts, but his unwavering reliance on data-driven decisions and ability to forego ideas that simply aren’t feasible.

"Five or six years ago, he had this idea for a dog wash," Schmitt says. "He did the research. It was just not going to work, so he walked away from it. That’s the sign of a good entrepreneur--being able to admit that an idea won’t work, and moving on to greener pastures."

Smith says he’s had more ideas than the dog wash. There have been thoughts of opening a restaurant, but then he saw the failure rate of new eateries. Maybe a nightclub, he thought. Then he found out about the inconsistent revenue streams seen at bars. For now, he’s sticking to the suds.

"I think I am a savvy entrepreneur, but hard work trumps that any day," Smith says. "I want to help people, develop independent wealth, take my business wherever the good lord leads me."

Chris Killian is a freelance writer who travels the country looking for good stories. He now is in Kalamazoo.

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