It’s time we studied and changed

Jay Hong in front of CleanAir’s building in Palisades Park, NJ

The largest Korean supply company in the eastern USA. The largest Korean equipment company in the eastern USA. The largest Sankosha dealer in the world. The first Korea dealer for R.R. Street. The first Korean dealer for Fulton boiler. CleanAir Supply has many accolades. Indeed, it is one of pillars for the Korean drycleaning community. CleanAir will be celebrating its 40th anniversary next year. We had a chance to sit down and talk with Jay Hong, its founder.

Tell me how CleanAir Started

I came to America in 1984. Like many Koreans then, I started in the grocery industry. Then, purely by chance, I started working for C & A Supply, the only Korean supply company in NY. After a while, Mr. Chung, the president of C & A, suggested I work in NJ since there is no Korean supply company. He even urged me to get a warehouse in NJ ASAP. So, I found a 2,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Moonachie in 1986. That was the start of CleanAir.

I had an arrangement with C & A where I paid him a lump sum like a franchise fee and he provided me with all the supplies. He said he would drop ship all the supplies in 2, 3 months but even after 2 years, I had to drive to NY to get my supplies. The situation deteriorated and Mr. Chung declared he wouldn’t supply me no more. Luckily, a supply company in Pittsburgh agreed to supply me and it was even for a lower price!

That’s when I realized how important “lines” are for a supply company and worked very hard to secure my own lines. When I became the first Korea distributor for R.R. Street, I felt as if the world was mine.

CleanAir is one of rare cases where a supply company sells equipment. How did that happen?

One of my friends was doing import and export between Korea and America. One day, he told me he might bring in Korean drycleaning machine. I told him not to but he did anyway. So, I introduced him to an equipment company in NJ called Fowler. That drycleaning machine was Delta.

After about 6 months, he called me and told me that Fowler has rejected one machine and asked me if he can keep it in my warehouse. Then, one of my customers was looking for an affordable drycleaning machine and I ended up selling the machine to him. I think it was around 1991.

At that time, I thought I just did a favor for my friend without realizing with every equipment sale comes the after service issues. Everyone told me a supply company should not sell equipment because A/S problems will push supply customers away. But I have already sold the machine and I couldn’t just ignore A/S issues. That’s how I got into equipment business.

CleanAir has always maintained a special relationship with Sankosha. Tell me about it.

As you know, Sankosha made its American debut at ’93 CleanShow in Chicago. At that time, I wasn’t too involved with equipment sales and I just thought ‘What a peculiar machine.’ But one of my customers brought a Sankosha ad and asked me to get it for him. It was Raritan Cleaners in Cranston, NJ.

At that time, Sankosha didn’t make any sales for a year and with Japan headquarter involvement, machine #1 was sold to a Korean drycleaner in Chicago. I made the next sales so I was #1 in dealership and regular dealer sales.

I was having some A/S issues with drycleaning machines and it was very impressive that Sankosha had so few troubles. It’s no wonder Sankosha is where it is today.

How do you read the current business situation?

My sales figure for hangers are not that different from pre-pandemic level. If anything, last year was a little better than this year. Of course, many cleaners are still suffering and store closure is very much a reality.

But I am optimistic about our business. A peak is followed by a depression and vice versa. A closure will create a void other will fill. That is the rhythm of any business.

I am optimistic that drycleaning business as well as equipment sales will improve next year.

Some say Korean drycleaning industry is getting old. How would you answer that?

I myself am over 70 years old. Is that a good enough answer? (laugh) I have always believed that one should not think that he has done something for long enough time no matter how old or young you are. Your thoughts will get rigid that way. As long as your mind is open to a new challenge, age is nothing but a number.

Some cleaners have been using ‘We ♡ Our Customer’ for decades. If you can’t even change a phrase on a cape, what change can you make?

The real problem with Korean drycleaning community is not advancing age but unwillingness to make a change. Especially after the Pandemic, ‘business as usual’ is no longer valid.

What kind of change can you expect from a drycleaner who’s been doing the same thing for the last 20, 30 years?

You need to study. Korean drycleaners usually have a higher level of education. We need to make the most of it.

When using perc, cleaning was easy. And everyone drycleaned the same way. But with alternative solvents, you need to study and experiment to clean better than others.

Wetcleaning is a good example. When I visit wetcleaners, I notice that they all work differently. They all started from the same starting line but their paths diverged thanks to individual research and trial.

CleanAir’s Open House has become one of the most popular event in NY/NJ area. The picture is from last year’s event.

You have walked the straight line for the last 40 years. Are there any changes in store for you?

When I first started in this business, I was the young kid everywhere I went. All the store owners treated me well like their own younger brother. In those days, even an order of 1 box of safety pins made me happy. I still come to work at 7 AM and leave the building last. But I have to ask myself “can a box of safety pins still make me happy?”

I have walked the straight line and I would like to pat myself on the back for that. But it has nothing to do with the future.

CleanAir needs a new vision for the next level. Online business, entry into other industry like hotels, professional company structure and etc.

It is a very conservative statement but CleanAir needs a new “leader” to take it to the next level. I am open to all options.

What do you see for yourself in 10 years?

I certainly don’t want to see me at CleanAir for sure (laugh). If I have free time, I would like to pick up Go again (Jay advanced to a 4th degree in high school but had to give up for college). Go was my first and purest love. I would love to study Go again.

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