How a well-known Dublin family business is fighting back – and giving back – in the face of the pandemic
The day Geraldine Mooney became a business owner she walked over six kilometres from Dublin city-centre to her home in Finglas with somebody else’s vacuum cleaner on her back.
She was broke and in need of a new hoover. But the arduous trek home was just the first difficult steps in a journey that has seen Geraldine and her family build up one of the city’s best known and most successful dry-cleaning businesses.
Unlike many rags to riches stories that begin with a broke but determined entrepreneur who is driven to succeed against all the odds, Geraldine candidly admits she never even wanted to own her own business.
Back in October 1995, the then 30-year-old young mother of four children (who were aged between four and 13 years old) just wanted a part-time job so she could help pay the bills that were beginning to clog up her letterbox.
Then fate intervened. Geraldine had only been working at Excel Dry Cleaners on Dame Lane in the city-centre for a few months when her then employers landed the bombshell that were quitting the business for personal reasons. But, they told her, she was welcome to take over the business if she could come up with the cash.
Geraldine’s mind raced. She never dreamed of owning her own business, but the thought certainly appealed to her. Geraldine knew the dry-cleaning business, she was a quick learner, a natural salesperson and she’d built up a great rapport with all of Excel’s clients …
But she had zero resources: the day she was made the offer that would change her life forever she didn’t even have the bus fare home. She had to borrow the company’s hoover because her own one was broken and, with four young kids to take care of on top of the day job, the house needed a good going over.
“It was a bolt out of the blue to be honest,” Geraldine says of the offer. “I never dreamed I’d be running my own business but after it sunk in I decided to just go for it.”
Geraldine talked it over with her sister Breda, who worked in the pharmacy sector, who would eventually come on board as a business partner. She managed to secure a bank loan and suddenly she found herself in business.
Those heady first few months were a baptism of fire for the young businesswoman.
Just six weeks after taking over the company Geraldine got “the biggest fright of my life” when the accountant told her a Revenue bill of €26,000 was outstanding. Geraldine was aghast. All the money from the bank loan had gone into setting up the business and she had no idea how she could possibly stump up that sort of money. But with the help of her family, and another loan – this time from the Credit Union, Geraldine somehow got over her first major hurdle as a business owner.
The experience could have crushed her, but instead it made her stronger. She found another accountant, who has been with her to this day. Geraldine recalls: “Those first few months were very hard because I knew nothing about running a business. I knew how to wash and dry clean, but everything else was completely new so I had to learn very quickly. When you’re thrown in at the deep end you have to learn to swim pretty quickly!”
After that initial scare Geraldine went from strength to strength, steadily growing the business and establishing a very loyal customer base. Aside from the hard work and long hours, Geraldine’s ability, as she describes it, to “build relationships over the counter” brought in new clients of all sizes, including some of the country’s best known brands such as Brown Thomas and Louis Copeland.
Geraldine is clearly passionate about the dry-cleaning business, and she has ensured Excel has kept its strong family focus. Her husband Joe works full time with her and their children – Lisa (36), Joseph (34), Rachel (31), Gary (28) and Ali (18), and even some of their spouses and partners – have all worked in the business at various stages.
Geraldine loves interacting with the public and after spending three decades dealing with ‘Dublin’s dirty laundry’ she has more than her fair share of stories to tell. On one occasion in the early days a customer unwittingly left €5,000 in cash in an inside pocket of a jacket. Geraldine and her staff looked on in shock as wades of notes spun around and around the washing drum like something out of a spoof Lotto ad.
“We were literally laundering money,” laughs Geraldine, “but thankfully the notes were all intact and we were able to hand them back to the customer with a gentle explanatory note.” She adds: “Now we always make sure to check the garments thoroughly beforehand …”
On another occasion Geraldine’s husband Joe found a G-string in a pair of trousers that had been handed in to be cleaned, but they didn’t know who the owner was. After much debate, Geraldine hung the skimpy undergarment on a hanger in the front window of the shop with a sign inviting the rightful owner to come forward. “It was just a bit of a laugh, but the tourists used to love it,” recalls Geraldine. “They’d queue up to pose for photographs outside the shop with the G-string in the background!”
Excel Dry Cleaners has weathered a few storms over the past quarter of a decade, but Geraldine and her family have always managed to tough it out. Excel survived the Celtic Tiger crash and thrived in the aftermath, firmly establishing itself as one of Dublin’s leading dry-cleaning businesses and one of only two dedicated wedding dress cleaning specialists in the county. Last year Excel opened up two new shops, in Celbridge and Maynooth.
Then Covid-19 hit. This, particularly for a business that relies almost entirely on the hospitality and retail sectors, was a recession like no other. Almost overnight, Excel Cleaners lost 95% of their client base, according to Geraldine. With the relaxing of Covid restrictions she now estimates the figure to be closer to 85%.
Despite the business facing wipeout, Geraldine refused to shut up shop and opt to try and wade out the crisis on the pandemic payment. The determined Dublin woman feared closing her doors would make them much harder to reopen when the dust eventually settles on Covid-19.
But Geraldine understood the business had to adapt to survive. With normal footfall evaporating, she knew she had to go “outside the counter” to build a new customer base. Excel developed an impressive new website as they refocused the business around a new collection and delivery service.
Geraldine and her family have diversified the business to provide cleaning services for companies moving or switching office. They have expanded their dedicated corporate service and are providing delivery services for employees working remotely. They deep clean curtains and upholstery at nursing homes. As Geraldine puts it: “Everything has changed and we have to adapt: the customers are not coming through the doors anymore so we have to go to them.”
In spite of their own difficulties, when the pandemic hit Geraldine and her family immediately leapt to the aid of the frontline workers, providing free laundry and dry cleaning services for nurse, guards and other employees at the coalface of the war against the virus.
“It was the least we could do and we had the time to be able to do it for them,” says Geraldine. “They [frontline workers] are the real heroes of these strange times and it was also very good for our own morale to be able to do something positive for the community when there can be so much negativity around.”
Excel Dry Cleaners is also providing a free service for people who have found themselves out of work as a result of the pandemic. “If anyone is unemployed and needs a suit or outfit cleaned for a job interview we’ll do it for free,” said Geraldine. “What goes around comes around. Hopefully they’ll remember us if their interview is successful.”
Despite the obvious challenges ahead, Geraldine is very optimistic for the future and believes traditional businesses such as Excel can survive and thrive if they can adapt to the post-pandemic reality.
“The world was changing anyway,” says Geraldine, “and we’d probably have had to start doing some of the things we are doing now in a few years’ time anyway. There’s no getting away from it: businesses like ours are literally fighting for their lives. Many will probably go under, but I believe we’ll emerge from this even stronger if we can utilise all our energy, skills and commitment to deliver the type of quality service there will always be a demand for.
“It’s been an incredible journey over the past quarter of a decade – but we’ve still got a few more chapters to go before this book is done.
“And then,” she laughs, “maybe we’ll do another one!”