George A. Steiner started delivering cloth towels part-time for a company in Lincoln, Neb., in 1888. He bought the business a year later for $50.80 and moved it to Utah six years after that, on the advice of a college friend.
The friend was George Dern, who became Utah’s governor from 1925 to 1933. And Steiner’s company — now in its fourth generation of family ownership — today has 17,000 employees servicing more than 300,000 clients in 13 countries.
Alsco, whose acronym stands for American Linen & Supply Co., has evolved into a cleaning-industry juggernaut in a quiet and unassuming manner, reflecting the personalities of its current co-presidents, Robert and Kevin Steiner.
“They haven’t tooted their horn at all. It’s an unknown Utah story, what a big deal they are internationally,” said Peter Billings, a Salt Lake City attorney who serves as Alsco’s corporate counsel, as his father did before him. “It’s a remarkable success story.”
The Steiners officially opened Alsco’s new headquarters, at 505 E. 200 South in Salt Lake City, on Nov. 17. The four-story brick building will bring together 141 local employees who had been working at two Salt Lake City offices, a consolidation that will produce a “more cohesive culture,” Kevin Steiner predicted in a speech at the dedication ceremony.
Those rowdy folks in IT, human resources, marketing and auditing — who had dressed on “the far side of casual” — will face a dress-code adjustment as they move in with their coats-and-ties bosses, he deadpanned.
Clothes humor works in a company that has provided clean uniforms to workers in restaurants, hotels and an array of other businesses since 1895 — along with clean tablecloths, napkins and other fine linens.
Alsco’s first Salt Lake City facility, at a site now occupied by Abravanel Hall, included a laundry that allowed American Linen (as it was called then) to clean its own linens rather than contract that work out to competitive laundries.
It was a business advantage that allowed Alsco to thrive — and still does.
The company has 170 laundry plants around the world, many managed by men who took over the jobs from their fathers.
“That’s not unusual,” said Billings, who worked summer jobs at an Alsco laundry in Salt Lake City while in college. “The people washing the linens and ironing them were often second and third generations, too. … The Steiners treat their people well and it pays off.”
But what really paved the way to the company’s prosperity was the invention of the continuous cloth roll towel dispenser. Patented by George Steiner in 1918, these dispensers became a standard object in restrooms everywhere in the years that Alsco was run by George’s son, Frank.
After World War II, Frank handed over the reins to his son, Richard. Known for his financial discipline and steady building of the business, Richard remained at the helm until 2001, when he retired and left Alsco in the hands of the current bosses, Robert and Kevin.
A successful succession history like that is almost unheard of, said Bill Schulze, chairman of the management department in the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.
“The odds of a family business surviving into a fourth generation are extremely long,” he said. “Less than 10 percent will make it.”
Those that do are, like Alsco, often are in service industries, Schulze said. Unlike businesses where constantly evolving technologies revise the nature of products, the service industry has consistent factors that constitute excellence.
“Quality remains fairly stable,” Schulze said. “These families have this nice thing going. They know how to execute on their business model and they deliver value.”
Living up to high expectations has enabled Alsco to land and keep some high-profile, high-volume customers. Larry H. Miller Sports and Entertainment is one.
The Vivint SmartHome Arena, home of the Utah Jazz, “definitely takes a lot of linen,” said Rob Greener, who handles corporate sponsorships for the Miller group.
Alsco also provides the uniforms worn by maintenance and custodial employees and supplies scores of mats that keep walkways from getting slick and dangerous.
“They’re solution-oriented,” he added. “If you have an issue, they’re there. It’s a reason why all of our businesses, from car dealerships to sports franchises, deal with Alsco.”
Another prominent client is Darden Restaurants, the parent company of several prominent brand names, including Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse.
“We have a longstanding and trusted relationship with Alsco. They are a key service provider for over 1,200 of our restaurants nationwide,” said Keith Kelly, Darden’s vice president of supply chain. “The relationship is strong because of their ability to provide dependable service over a large portion of the country.”
Consolidating Alsco’s management in one office will improve that efficiency, Robert Steiner predicted. The new building’s selection was influenced by its proximity to one of management’s favorite lunch spots, The Other Place Cafe on 300 South, he added.
Purchased in September 2014, the brick structure was gutted, given a seismic upgrade and refashioned into an open office building with big windows offering views of most of the Salt Lake Valley.
“The only thing left is the brick,” said Alsco chief financial officer Jim Kearns, complimenting several companies for their work on the retrofit — Jill Jones from ajc architects, Rich Hazel and the Big-D Construction team, Associated Fixture Manufacturing from Magna and a pair of West Valley City companies, Vision Graphics and Fetzer Architectural Woodwork & Millwork Co.
Alsco’s endurance “speaks to a business being able to evolve and be innovative, adaptive, forward thinking and focused on customers,” said Salt Lake City economic development director Lara Fritts. “Salt Lake City is proud to have a company like Alsco in the city.”
Added Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie: “It is so wonderful to see an established Utah company with such a rich history continue to choose to make Utah, and this community, a priority.”