P.J. Dempsey, president of Dempsey Uniform and Linen Supply, said the most striking difference between family-owned businesses and companies owned by shareholders is one of vision.
“The difference between them is incredibly pronounced,” he said. “A family-owned business is interested in looking at things across generations. We’re not interested in quarterly results — we’re interested in where we are going to be five, 10 or 15 years from now. Plus, employees are people you’ve grown up with, so you have a deep appreciation for the job that they do. You know your decisions affect people you know and care about.”
Dempsey said this difference was revealed in a very positive way during the Great Recession. “All the national companies had massive layoffs and facilities closures,” he said. “At Dempsey, we just said, ‘We’ll absorb this.’ There were no layoffs — in fact, there were raises. We didn’t cut benefits. We kept up a constant communication. Those were difficult years, but our employees experienced them differently than most people.”
Dempsey said the family’s approach to the Great Recession was in keeping with the company’s mission “to preserve this asset for the future.” That mission was first formulated by P.J.’s father, Patrick, who founded the company in 1959 with his brother, Richard.
Patrick’s desire to “preserve the asset” led to a very disciplined and decidedly “unprivileged” management training regimen for P.J. and his sister, Kristin. (P.J. has four other sisters who chose not to pursue a career in the family business.)
“I was exposed to the business starting when I was a kid,” P.J. said. “My sisters and I would go to work with our dad on Saturdays and we had to busy ourselves. I shredded paper. We’d also go on business trips with Dad, talk to other laundry owners and visit plants.”
As a teenager, P.J. unloaded trucks on the docks outside the Dempsey building. “The loading docks have been the recruiting grounds for managers and supervisors for ages,” he said. “A lot of people started there and worked their way up.”
It was a physically demanding and often uncomfortable job — “really cold in the winter!” — that required heaving 75-pound laundry bags in all kinds of weather. Today, those bags no longer have to be hoisted manually. The company has wisely adopted carts.
From the docks, P.J. moved inside the plant to sorting and counting laundry. “I did that job for awhile,” he said. “It may be the toughest job, but it’s the most fun I ever had working.”
P.J. said he developed a close bond with the other workers in these years, largely because he was never treated differently because he was “the boss’s son.”
“That was a powerful lesson my dad taught me,” he said. “I never reported to Dad. I had to answer to Tom Mallas (now a company vice president). He and my dad collaborated on my training, but Tom was the axe man and he could come down very hard on me. I was terrified of him. He mentored and coached me. Now he’s one of my closest friends.”
P.J. kept moving through the operations of the plant, from dock to sorting to the washroom, where he fed ironers and hung shirts. He also worked two years in maintenance, where he learned to fix the equipment running in the plant.
In the summer of 1996, the year he received his undergraduate degree from Lehigh University, P.J. fulfilled a childhood dream and became one of Dempsey’s truck drivers. “Every kid wants to be a fire fighter or a cop. I always wanted to be a truck driver,” he said. “That year I drove the truck to customers around the Poconos and covered routes for guys who were on vacation.”
Perhaps the story that best illustrates the rigor of P.J.’s “management training” is the tale of his post-baccalaureate experience. “I got my MBA from Vanderbilt on a Thursday and on Monday I was at work as a full-time route supervisor.” That contrasted with some of his classmates, who were headed to high-profile jobs with nationally-known companies.
Just a few months later, P.J. got his “big break.” Dempsey had acquired a laundry in Harrisburg and he was tapped to head it.
“This was just distribution,” he said of the Harrisburg acquisition. “Warehouses. It opened up a whole new market for us — southern Pennsylvania and Maryland. Lancaster, Reading and York. It was our first remote location. We took the laundry by truck to our facility in Sunbury. I had a lot to learn.
“The thing that struck me the most was how little I actually knew. For the first time, I was managing people by myself. What I said went. I was terrified — I didn’t want to make a mistake, but it was nice to be away from the prying eyes in Dunmore — those people who remembered me goofing around the plant and swinging from trolleys — those people didn’t see me in Harrisburg.”
P.J. said Harrisburg was an invaluable learning experience. It was there he learned to deal with “sticky customer situations.” He said, however, the best lesson came from the employees.
“It was a small group of people — just about six of us. They saw that I didn’t know everything, but that I worked hard and that I cared. They saw that I was trying to do the right thing, so they all thought, ‘I can give a little extra too.’”
That “little extra” translated into a lot of new business — so much so that Harrisburg was “burying the plant in Sunbury.”
Accordingly, P.J. moved from Harrisburg to become general manager of the Sunbury plant where he presided over a multi-million-dollar upgrade of the facility.
All the years training as a dock worker, washroom attendant and driver finally paid off as P.J. could envision things that would make the operations more efficient. He added a dock, a rail and materials handling system and other systems that changed the way the work flowed throughout the plant. The upgrade ensured that all the extra work being won in the newly opened markets could be competently handled.
His success in Sunbury resulted in his being tapped to come home to NEPA and undertake the company’s most ambitious project to date — the construction of the company’s new, environmentally-friendly plant in Jessup.
“In 2005, Dad handed off the title of president to me,” he said. “His greatest gift was his goal to ‘maintain this asset.’ He wanted Jessup to be my project. I still can’t believe what he did — he worked 40 years to build this company, I know how possessive I would be — but he turned his crowning achievement over to me. I have three little boys and I hope I have the same opportunity to act that way.”