Business

'We are true to Dexter:' Marking 125 years, Dexter Laundry keeps building on advances

A Dexter drill press line is seen in the 1920s. (Courtesy Dexter Apache Holdings)
A Dexter drill press line is seen in the 1920s. (Courtesy Dexter Apache Holdings)
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Dexter, a Dallas County community with about 300 residents, was named after a champion racehorse known for its speed and power.

Dexter, the horse, had been used as a model for weather vanes across the country. It also was the subject of a famous Currier and Ives painting featuring President Ulysses Grant.

In 1894, when William H. George saw an opportunity to improve the design of washing machines and started his company, he called it the Dexter Manufacturing Co.

As it marked 125 years of business in August this year, employee-owned Dexter Laundry unveiled technology offering new ways for customers to use its commercial washers and dryers. The corporate logo displayed on every washer and dryer still features the horse icon.

“We sell in two markets — vended and on premise,” said Craig Kirchner, president of Dexter Laundry.

The vended market is primarily laundromats and the on-premise market includes customers such as assisted living and long-term care facilities, fire departments, hospitals, hotels and nursing homes.

“We make large on-premise laundry equipment that does not require quarters to start them,” Kirchner said. “In a lot of cases, they run 14 or 15 hours a day and some run 24/7.

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“It’s a very fragmented market that includes health spas, hair salons and others that have clothing and linens that they need to wash and dry.”

Early models of Dexter hand-and-foot powered washing machines with names like “Monarch” and “Billy Twister” were made of wood slats bound together with metal bands. The washers were sold for as low as $15 and were customer favorites for their sturdy structures and advanced designs.

As Dexter Manufacturing grew in size and needed additional space and more skilled labor than was available locally, George looked for business partners and a new location.

He found them in Fairfield, a Jefferson County town with a growing population and east-west/north-south railroads for shipping and receiving products and raw materials.

A group of local businessmen recognized Dexter Manufacturing’s potential and raised $10,000 to buy the company. The purchase was finalized on Aug. 10, 1911, ground was broken for a factory, and Dexter Manufacturing moved to Fairfield in 1912.

Every step of the manufacturing process — from the casting of gray iron to assembly of the finished product — was performed in the new plant that featured abundant daylight and modern machinery.

“We still design, engineer and manufacture our products right here,” Kirchner said. “We are true to Dexter.

“We don’t take someone else’s product and put our name on it, and we don’t sell our product to someone else and let them put their name on it.”

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On Aug. 28, 1913, Dexter Manufacturing was renamed the Dexter Co. after a management structure was finalized and a board of directors was approved. The company continued to grow and make improvements to its washing machines until 1942 and the outbreak of World War II.

In May 1942, the U.S. Defense Department ordered the production of washing machines to stop because steel was needed for military equipment. Dexter’s final washer rolled down the assembly line on June 15, 1942, and the company focused on manufacturing defense equipment for the remainder of the war.

Production of washing machines resumed in 1945. The company’s sales grew in the post-war period, requiring the investment of additional capital.

In 1954, an agreement was signed to sell the company to the Philco Corp. of Philadelphia. Two years later, the company introduced its first automatic washer and its first dryer.

Dexter entered the coin laundry market in the late 1950s with its first commercial washer.

In December 1961, Philco was sold to the Ford Motor and the company became known as Philco-Ford Corp.

‘Domestic and international’

The future of the Fairfield plant became a serious community concern in 1969, when Philco-Ford announced that it was dropping commercial laundry machines from its product lines. A group of employees believed the plant could be profitable and were willing to invest to keep it operating.

In December 1971, the articles of incorporation for the new Dexter Co. were signed by 10 local investors. The purchase was finalized in February 1972 and the management team negotiated new labor contracts and invested in more efficient manufacturing processes.

With hard work and determination on the part of employees and management, the new Dexter Co. was able to post a profit in its first year of operation.

The company’s foundry and laundry divisions continued to share space in the same building until 1994, after a new 200,000-square-foot building was constructed for the laundry division. The facility was expanded in 1997 and again in 2016.

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Dexter Laundry’s more than 230 employees manufacture washers and dryers shipped to more than 70 countries.

“Our competition is domestic and international,” Kirchner said. “North America is probably the more mature market for vended and on-premise machines.

“There are a number of cultures around the world that are just starting to adapt to the idea of using a common facility like a laundromat to do their clothes. Labor is so cheap in some places that they can hire a housekeeper or drop their clothes off and have someone wash and dry them for pennies.”

Kirchner said his company is seeing growth in emerging markets such as China and India. He said countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have accepted the laundromat concept for years and are strong markets for Dexter Laundry.

Kirchner said the company’s commercial dryers incorporate moisture sensors to turn off the heat when clothing and lenses are dry. That saves on the cost of electricity and eliminates creating a towel that “feels like sandpaper,” he said.

Kirchner said the company’s history of innovation continues with the introduction of DexterLive, a cloud-based management system for laundromat owners.

“It allows store owners to manage their business any time from anywhere using their smartphone, tablet or laptop computer,” he said. “The owner can program machines, schedule promotions, track machine usage and revenue, manage collections, manage wash-dry-fold accounts and more.

“Weekends are the busiest days at most laundromats. A laundromat owner can program their machines to offer free drying early in the week to help shift customers to those days.”

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The company more recently has launched Dexter Pay, a mobile app that allows laundromat customers to pay using a credit or debit card.

“You don’t need change or quarters, so it is convenient for users,” Kirchner said. “We launched Dexter Pay in North America earlier this year and our plan is to launch it internationally early next year.”

Dexter Laundry is one of several businesses owned by Dexter Apache Holdings, formed in 2006 after the purchase of Apache Stainless Equipment of Beaver Dam, Wis.

In 2008, Dexter Apache Holdings bought Leer Inc., a Lisbon, Wis., manufacturer of ice merchandising, vending machines and walk-in coolers.

The company entered the Corridor in 2011 with the purchase of Crystal Group in Hiawatha, a designer and manufacturer of rugged servers, displays, storage devices, networking and embedded devices.

Dexter Apache Holdings today employs about 750 people and is 100 percent employee-owned.

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