Sun Country Cleaner’s Hard Working Sisters

By Mark Albright, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tough times have not slowed two hardworking sisters who own Sun Country Cleaners.

Since 2007 the McCarthy sisters added shoe repair, alterations, free home delivery countywide and faster same-day service. Plus in March they bought eight stores to bring their total to 28.

Meantime, sales in their stores open more than a year are up 6 percent over last year, putting the company on track to do $7 million in sales this year.

“We won’t allow a recession to be an excuse that interferes with our business priorities,” said Susan McCarthy, 52, who along with Barbara, 50, are the unlikely entrepreneurs who made Sun Country Pinellas County’s biggest dry-cleaning retailer.

With fewer people sending out their cleaning, critics compare adding stores today to cutting a shrinking pie into more pieces. But the McCarthy sisters figure being more convenient to more people will make their profitable central cleaning plant in a Largo industrial park more profitable.

Skeptics, be advised. Rivals scoffed at their using a central plant to build efficiency; now others are following their lead elsewhere. And the McCarthys have a history of overcoming odds.

In 1978, they ditched their one-stoplight Massachusetts hometown right after high school.

“We just packed up and drove down,” Barbara said. “I’d never been to Florida, had no idea what we’d do. A friend suggested Clearwater. We’re still here.”

First they served budget steaks and big schooners of beer at Chief Charley’s in Dunedin. They learned dry cleaning when Sand Key businessman Lou Keller hired them to open a store in 1980.

“They built their business the old-fashioned way, one store at a time, by working hard and taking a little risk,” said John Lankford of ActionCoach, a Palm Harbor firm that advises them.

Keller grubstaked the startup. By 1997 he was hobbled by knee replacements, a bout with cancer and a stroke. The never-married McCarthy sisters, who held a major interest in the business, became caregivers to the bedridden divorced man. They bought a condo next to his, put a hospital bed in his office and got him to work daily until he died a decade later.

Mistakes, they made a few. Growing too fast under Keller required putting creditors — including the state for back sales taxes — on a payment schedule for several years. They spent ad money on 19 types of media, but had no clue of results. Same-day service pickup was after 7 p.m., well after customers drove home.

Now the sisters “track everything” to benchmark long-range strategy. They found they owed most new customers to word of mouth, location and newspaper coupons, thus halving the ad budget. They shortened same-day service by two hours: in by 9 a.m., pickup after 5 p.m. when customers are driving home.

“Once we made customer tracking part of our everyday business model, we undid practices that had been shaped by what was convenient for the company rather than the customer,” said Barbara.

Sun Country cleans more than clothes. The company does Rays uniforms and mascot Raymond’s two costumes. They spot-cleaned a life-sized stuffed pony and starched up President George W. Bush’s camo fatigues, which came with their own Secret Service detail.

Sun Country last month lost its dry-cleaner deal at the MacDill Air Force Base Exchange, but the sisters plan to return by opening several stores in Tampa this year. They also will convert the former Spirit Cleaners plant in Clearwater into their first shot at a restoration service cleaning up after fires and water damage.

Technology does not faze them. Customer preferences for starch, arm creases, shirts in boxes or hangers are recorded on bar code stickers glued on garments. In Palm Harbor an automated store has no staff: Dropoff is one bin, a credit card opens another door for pickup.

“It’s been slow to catch on, but it’s the future, ” Susan said. “People today trust their money to an ATM, but want a connection with someone to handle their wardrobe.”

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.