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Published: Monday, 6/4/2001

Findlay-based company thrives in wake of fire

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER

FINDLAY - Just before the long Fourth of July weekend in 1994, Paul Kramer was on top of the world. In June of that year, he had been named a northwest Ohio Entrepreneur of the Year. The board of his firm, Kramer Enterprises, Inc., had voted to raise his pay. And he and his family were packed and ready to take off on vacation.

On Saturday, July 2, 1994, Paul Kramer's world turned upside down.

At 3 a.m., a fire broke out in his downtown Findlay business, then known as City Laundry & Dry Cleaning. It was caused by spontaneous combustion of a load of dish towels in a laundry cart on a steamy night.

“We got the call and came down to watch our business burn down,” recalled Mr. Kramer. “Literally, everything we owned was disappearing before our eyes.”

He quickly made up his mind to rebuild the business. Thanks to fast action, the help of several friendly competitors, and a farsighted insurance program, Mr. Kramer was able to reopen three days later, the day after the holiday, without missing a single business day.

Since the fire, Kramer Enterprises has grown steadily, now at a 12 percent annual rate. He estimates that 2001 revenue will reach $7 million for his three businesses - Findlay's City Dry Cleaning & Laundry and City Uniforms & Linen, and Schafer Dry Cleaning in Jackson, Mich. His firms employ 112, up from about 85 before the fire.

“If he hadn't had business-interruption insurance, I don't think his business would be here today,” said Thomas Buis, his insurance agent and chairman of Spencer-Patterson Insurance & Financial Strategies in Findlay. The insurer, Lumbermen's Mutual Insurance Co. of Mansfield, Ohio, paid more than $5 million, about $1 million of which was to keep the business operating, Mr. Buis noted.

“That allowed the company to pay extra expenses to get back in business,” he said. Some of the hundreds of customer claims were unique. “What's a wedding gown worth?” asked Mr. Buis. Insurance also paid for band uniforms lost in the fire for two Tiffin high schools.

The business-continuation funds allowed Mr. Kramer to rent temporary quarters - a 34,000-square-foot former department store - while rebuilding facilities to house his dry-cleaning and uniform-rental businesses. And he was able to hire other companies to handle his customers temporarily.

One of Mr. Kramer's first calls on the day of the fire was to a competitor, Dayton-based Van Dyne-Crotty, Inc., a major player in the garment-rental business. Daniel Crotty, president and chief executive officer, decided to help him.

“Paul is a good competitor,” Mr. Crotty said. “He has done well, and we're glad.”

The Kramer family business began in 1944, when Mr. Kramer's parents, Carl and Edith Kramer, moved to Findlay and bought a failing dry-cleaning and laundry business on East Main Cross Street, where the rebuilt facility stands today. Mr. Kramer joined the firm in 1976, when it employed 28. At the end of 1986, Mr. Kramer, president, and his wife, Pam, secretary and treasurer, bought all the stock of Kramer Enterprises, and three years later they bought Schafer Dry Cleaning in Jackson.

Mr. Kramer was named entrepreneur of the year in the “socially responsible” category largely because of his “Coats for Christmas” campaign to collect coats for the needy. Since the late 1980s, his company has collected more than 100,000 coats. And in 1997, three years after the fire, Kramer Enterprises got a Blue Chip Enterprise Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that recognizes businesses that overcome adversity.

His three businesses represent an investment of nearly $10 million, said Mr. Kramer. A 27,000-square-foot production plant for City Uniforms & Linen just outside Findlay uses automated equipment to process uniforms for about 2,000 industrial customers. Each of the retail dry-cleaning stores has about 10,000 customers, Mr. Kramer said.

Mr. Kramer, 47, and his wife have three children. “I would like to see the business passed on,” he said. “We're involved in the [University of Toledo's] Center for Family Business with that in mind.”

Small Business Profile is a weekly feature on local companies. To be considered, send information about your company to Small Business Profiles, Business News, The Blade, 541 North Superior St., Toledo, Ohio 43660.



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