Third-generation Alaska business honored by SBA
People need suits, dresses and professional clothing dry cleaned as much today as they ever did, and that’s an opportunity that hasn’t escaped the owners of an Anchorage business in a time when many traditional careers have become obsolete.
Fireweed Cleaners will be honored for its three generations of continuity in Anchorage on May 3 as the 2018 Family Business of the Year by the Small Business Administration Alaska Division.
Dating back to 1967 and the efforts of Helen and Gerald Earp, the business was passed to their son Randy Earp and his wife Julie in 1993. In 2010, it was passed down again to their daughter, Katie and her husband J.T. Hampton.
The Hamptons took over the business after graduating from Colorado State University in Fort Collins in 2010. Katie had earned a degree in social work; J.T. was one of the first classes to graduate with a business degree specializing in entrepreneurship.
Katie grew up at the cleaners. She recalled at age eight helping customers and her dad, but it wasn’t on her list of goals to work in the business.
“I didn’t want anything to do with it,” she recalled, and neither did her twin brother, Ryan.
At college she met J.T. who was enthusiastically inventing a new business to walk through pitches for his degree. It was a company that made personal assistants available to an older generation for understanding their iPhones, iPads or whatever else they used.
“He told me he wanted to own a business, to be his own boss. I said ‘well hey, my parents have a business they are trying to retire from,’” Katie said. “And I recalled watching my parents and realizing they had the benefit of being their own bosses.”
The first generation at Fireweed Cleaners is the story of the Earp family. Katie’s grandparents, Gerald and Helen, said goodbye to their farm in Monmouth, Ill., in 1959.
“Dad got tired of farming in Illinois,” son Randy Earp recalls. “He wanted to do something different. Two places he wanted to check out were here or Australia, of all places. That was the year they had discovered gas in Cook Inlet. He could see that things were just about ready to explode and go big time.”
The Earps drove up the Alaska-Canada Highway in 1959 in their Pontiac sedan pulling a trailer. Randy was three years old.
His dad worked for Alaska Oil Sales at a time when they delivered fuel to Anchorage homes, many fed by underground oil tanks. Later he worked for the Alaska Aggregate Co. laying cement. Then in 1967, Gerald Earp saw a future in dry cleaning.
“He was busy with other things. He worked at Alaska Aggregate until 1973, then he bought a plumbing and heating wholesale supply house," Randy Earp said. “Anchorage had only one, maybe two, cleaners. He did it more as a business interest.”
The cleaners started with three employees, including Helen Earp. Then Randy came into the business and he and his wife took over in 1993 when Gerald retired completely.
The business grew to a second location, and more than 25 employees through the years.
The technology has changed a lot in terms of machines and chemicals used in the dry cleaning process. “Dry” cleaning is a misnomer, since the clothes are washed in water. A key chemical, perchloroethylene, or perc for short, was the main one used in the past, added to the water, Randy Earp said.
“It was a man-made chemical, a degreaser more than anything, that was used for a lot of things,” he said. “However, the handling of it was very expensive. It had to be handled as a hazardous chemical and it was expensive to dispose it.”
Used perc was shipped out of the state in barrels.
“We were responsible for it from what’s called the ‘cradle to grave,’ where it is incinerated at the other end,” Julie Earp said. “It was one of our major expenses at the end of the year, about $10,000 to get rid of it.”
Now dry cleaners use System K-4, an environmentally-friendly perc substitute that gives better “mileage” Randy Earp said, by giving more pounds of cleaning per gallon.
Another big change came about after Randy had a motorcycle accident a month after his daughter married J.T. Hampton.
“They took over, maybe before they were ready for it,” Randy said.
Just now getting ready to celebrate their 30th birthdays (J.T.’s is in May; Katie’s is in June) the two were truly “fresh out of college” when they took over eight years ago.
One of the first changes J.T. wanted to make related to the new bar code technology that he realized the computer system at Fireweed Cleaners could adapt to.
“They used to use tags that went onto each piece of clothing,” J.T. said. “With a bar code, all you have to do is scan an article of clothing and it will give you all the information on the brand, the color, the type of garment and you can track it throughout the store.”
The Hamptons also expanded into more hotels for picking up laundry and they run both Fireweed Cleaners locations: one at 500 Fireweed Lane, and the other at Abbott Road.
Now Julie and Randy Earp live most of the time in Anchorage and part of the time in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“Randy helps with maintenance issues. We pop in if they need us but for the most part we’re retired,” Julie Earp said.
And yes, if the family last name sounds familiar, it is the same as the Old West legend Wyatt Earp, who came to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 and eventually made it to Nome where he and a business partner built the Dexter Saloon, the first two-story building in the town.
Wyatt Earp was Randy’s great-great grandfather’s brother. They all came from the same Illinois town, Monmouth, where both Wyatt and Randy were born.
“We don’t mind a bit when people ask,” Randy said.
Now Katie and J.T. have two children of their own, Finley, three, and Jamison, five. Bookkeeping allows Katie to stay home with them for now.
“Who knows, they might be interested one day,” J.T. said.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].