An Indian laundry company making its international debut will go down in history. After years of successfully operating as the Indian franchisee of global giant 5àsec, Suresh Bhatia has now turned the tables by starting his own brand — Cleanovo, which will have international franchisees. How did a homegrown company suddenly establish a global footprint? What strengths does an Indian company bring to the international market? And what is Cleanovo banking on to ensure consistent, quality service, irrespective of location? Suresh Bhatia, Founder and MD-Cleanovo, and his sons Harish Bhatia and Chirag Bhatia engage in a freewheeling virtual conversation with Clean India Journal
The two generations of expertise speaks volumes about the strong legacy and backbone of the family-run company SB Fabcare – the father, a veteran of the laundry sector supported by two sons, who have observed his hard work long before they joined the sector themselves.
Case in point: Harish Bhatia. “While I’m new to the business from an operational point of view”, he said, “I’ve been involved since 2010 as an advisor on the weekends.” After 15 years of experience in the consulting industry with stints in Europe, the US, Africa, the Middle-East and Asia-Pacific, Harish finally decided to bring his expertise to his home company and grow the business even further.
“I have a passion for retail, and certainly for laundry, since this is a family business”, said Harish. “I grew up watching my father opening retail stores all across India and internationally, so this is something that comes naturally to me. Even as part of my consulting career, I’ve worked with retail giants like Walmart, and many family groups in the Middle-East. Now it’s time to come in and do the same for our own business.”
Suresh interjected: “Harish grew up watching me setting up stores. Before he moved abroad, I made him slog and open some stores in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and more. Retail is in his blood. Chirag, of course, has been at it all along.”
And so, he has. Chirag said, “I have been in the laundry business from the very start of my career. I am majorly involved in the operations side of the business, making sure we are running professionally as an organisation, both inside the stores and at the back end.” The proud father chipped in: “Chirag is instrumental in the movement from 5àsec to Cleanovo. He strengthened our back-end and brought our IT systems to world-class levels. That is one of the reasons why Cleanovo can stand up tall and say that we are the most advanced dry-cleaning company. We’ve integrated our front-end and back-end seamlessly and are now working to go internationally.
“The reason why some industry players failed is that there are some people who think it is enough to set up demand centers in the form of pick-up points. What they didn’t realise is that supply – rather than demand – is the backbone of the business”
Why is now the time to invest in growth?
It is no secret that the laundry sector has been struggling during the past year. With many people working from home and large-scale functions and events put on hold, laundries – particular professional laundries – have not seen much demand for their services. One might argue that this is the time to lay low and cut costs to survive this dormant period, but Cleanovo sees things differently.
Harish pointed out: “Due to the entry of multiple designer clothing brands, the laundry and dry-cleaning industry of India has gone through a transformation in the last 15- 20 years. Fabrics and clothes have a lot of value, and not only because they are costlier now; as we grow older, clothes hold memories for us. Wedding lehengas and your mother’s sari hold a lot of emotions. What we are trying to do is help people safeguard those emotions and keep those memories for life, in a safe and eco-friendly manner, so they can continue to cherish those memories. That is our mission. And as garments become more expensive, it becomes even more important to care for them.”
India is known for its dhobi ghats but India deserves better than dhobi ghats to care for its clothes. While we wouldall like them to continue to be a tourist attraction, India deserves to have professional laundries to cater to this growing market.
According to Harish, “While there is a lot of scope for growth, the reason why some industry players failed is that there are some people who think it is enough to set up demand centers in the form of pick-up points. What they didn’t realise is that supply – rather than demand – is the backbone of the business.”
A new brand – Cleanovo
Suresh Bhatia is a veteran of the laundry and drycleaning sector and Fab Care is a name known to one and all. In the last 10- 12 years, he has gone from being the master franchisee in the Indian market for the international brand 5àsec – which had over 2,000+ stores across the world – to becoming a franchisor himself. With 25 stores in seven cities – 11 of which are franchisee-owned – Bhatia has successfully made the transition, catering to the mid-to-premium market of each city.
But how did this transformation come about? Harish said: “We have understood that the Indian market needs much faster growth, which is why we took the leap from becoming a franchisee of an international brand to making the latter our own brand. Over the last 18 months, we have accelerated the plan to become a brand by ourselves, which is called Cleanovo.”
The strengths of the brand
Harish continued: “Having our brand gives us more flexibility. India is known to be a technology hub; we’re able to bring this homegrown affordable tech into the laundry industry, and to create much more convenience for customers in terms of touch points, from an app in their phones to better phone service for clients to reach out to us.”
The Bhatias understand that laundry is a hyperlocal business. Customers don’t want to know how many stores they have across India; what they want to know is how the store in their neighbourhood can service them in the best way.
The uniqueness of the Indian market
Chirag said, “With 12 years of experience at Fabcare, we realised that every market has different demands. I have spent a lot of time at 5àsec stores globally, as well as building them here in India, which has taught me that what an Indian customer wants is different from the needs of customers anywhere else in the world.”
He understands that in India, a company has to cater to every demand of every customer. The European market, for example, has a Do-It-Yourself culture, where customers will walk up to the store themselves. Conversely, India has a DoIt-For-Me culture, where the driver or maid of the customer will be deputed to go get the garments processed. Said Chirag: “Our belief is that a disciplined process integrated with tech can cater to all of these markets; that’s how we can diversify.”
Suresh Bhatia merged the thoughts of his sons into a common theme: “We Indians love to be pampered, not only in terms of service, but also in terms of presentability, pickups and drops. With our strong IT backbone, on the click of a button sitting at home, you can schedule a pick up in the evening or tomorrow morning, ask for an express or regular service, ask for specialised services, watch the progress of the laundering process, see which stage your garments have reached, and know when it is ready for delivery – and even change your preferences.”
By streamlining this process, whether you are in Hyderabad or Delhi or Chennai, if you are a customer of Cleanovo, you will have the same experience. Suresh gives the example of international fastfood chains with multiple outlets in India: “Whenever and wherever you walk in, you can be assured of consistent quality and consistent service. We are trying to bring this to laundry and dry cleaning.”
“The Bhatias have five more stores in the domestic pipeline in the near future – with a focus on “each one reach all” (customers) – and are in talks with potential franchisees in six countries.”
Future expansion plans
Simply put, Cleanovo wants to be the largest, premium laundry brand nationally and is on track to become the same internationally. The Bhatias have five more stores in the domestic pipeline in the near future – with a focus on “each one reach all” (customers) – and are in talks with potential franchisees in six countries. Their strong backend infrastructure and R&D capacity to clean garments is the reason why many dry cleaners internationally want to tie up with them. This will be their next stage of expansion.
As Harish pointed out, laundry is not a new industry. Thousands of dhobis and small laundry shops already exist, but there are still relatively few authenticated cleaners. Hence, he is confident that the unit economics will work out. Cleanovo is also exploring the possibility of providing raw materials, packaging and detergents made in India to international franchisees at a better price.
Chirag has the last word: “Veterans in the laundry industry exist. Now, it is time for the new generation to step and adapt it for use across the world.”