To the regular person, Zarina Ismail may be known as the ‘dobi lady’ who owns Drop & Wash, a local laundry chain based out of Jalan Tun Razak, near Kampung Baru in Kuala Lumpur.
“Internationally, we are referred to as textile and laundry care professionals,” the lawyer-turned-entrepreneur says with a smile.
Indeed, there is so much more to the laundry business than the regular cleaning of clothes – from stain elimination and steam pressing, to textile care and even Syariah compliant washing, and like many other industries, it is not spared from changes; technology is disrupting even your regular neighborhood laundromat.
Coin operated laundry provides an easy do-it-yourself option, while apps, geolocation, and sophisticated tech allows more time and cost efficient laundry pickup (something that Drop & Wash provides too).
However, for Zarina and her husband, Omar Adam Hon, the changes they want to bring to the market are more fundamental.
Since getting into the business ten years ago, the couple have strived to stay ahead of the curve in introducing best practices, with a keen focus on sustainability.
“Firstly, we are different than your usual dry cleaners because we do not use toxic chemicals like ‘perc’,” Zarina explains.
‘Perc’ or perchloroethylene is the most widely used solvent in dry-cleaning – where despite its name, is far from a dry process as clothes are soaked in chemical solvent.
I knew that traditional chemicals were bad. I was hungry to look for alternatives, and of course, having a passion in it helps too
While a highly effective cleaning agent, perc is not always the best choice for the environment. Studies have shown that the chemical can also cause harmful side effects to human.
For Zarina, it was a desire to bring an alternative cleaning option to Malaysia that led her to starting Drop & Wash - a water-based cleaner that uses no toxic chemicals.
“I knew that traditional chemicals were bad. I was hungry to look for alternatives, and of course, having a passion in it helps too,” says Zarina, who says she’s always ‘had a knack for cleaning’.
“When we use a water based system that comes with smart technology, the machines are programmed to handle even the most delicate items like silk, wool, leather, sequins or lace – all using bio-degradable detergents.”
The couple had held discussions with local city councils, advocating a more sustainable business practice among the smaller laundrettes.
When it comes to sustainable development, as in many fields, putting in place green technology can be expensive up front.
At Drop & Wash’s spacious main outlet, stretching over four shop units, some of the machines cost up to hundreds of thousand of ringgit.
It houses a few Electrolux Lagoon system, the only wet cleaning fabric care system approved by Woolmark, a global quality assurance of wool product.
Meanwhile, its Japanese Sankosha shirt finishing machine can blow and press up to 1000 shirts per day – a ‘Rolls Royce equivalent’ machine in the laundry industry, says Zarina.
“Firstly, this is in line with our mission to move into automation,” she explains.
You have to care about the community around you – it’s no longer just about profit making
“We decided in our first year of operations to invest our money back into the company’s assets, which are the people and the machine.”
“That’s why we get the best equipment because the returns are better in the long run - your people are less tired, they get to learn more skills and at the same time, we use a more efficient technology.”
Currently, Drop & Wash has ten outlets and pickup points in the Klang Valley, with most of their staff coming from low income or marginalised communities – also another conscious business decision undertaken by Zarina and her husband.
“You have to care about the community around you – it’s no longer just about profit making,” says Zarina.
‘We hire the Projek Perumahan Rakyat residents, the jobless, (people) from the Chow Kit and Kampung Baru communities, the disadvantaged group, even transgenders.”
“Because we invest in good machines, they are able to learn and upskill on the job. So even when they decide to leave us one day, they can join bigger laundrettes like in hotels with the skill sets acquired.”
Drop & Wash’s social business model was recognised won the International Committee of Textile Care (CINET) Global Best Practice Award 2018.
It is also in the midst of obtaining Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) Impact Driven Enterprise Accreditation.
A strong believer that sustainability and purposefulness makes for better business, Zarina is trying to advocate similar practices across the industry through organising knowledge sharing events and conferences.
“We do have local (laundry) associations but compared to other countries, we are less active. And because we have had insights from overseas, we wanted to share them with the local market.”
Zarina and Omar had recently organised the Southeast Asia Professional Textile Care Forum.
“So, we brought professionals from Japan, Indonesia, France and the Netherlands to share the latest technologies and innovative business models to show the local players that the laundry business is not just about wash, dry and fold. It’s beyond that!”
“We’d like to share what we feel is good for the market with others. We want to emphasise on best business practices. At the same time, give reasonable cost and value to customers.”
Speaking about growth plans, Zarina emphasises that their focus is on increasing capacity, rather than expanding physical presence.
“We would like to grow outside of the Klang Valley but we have to be very careful. We do not want to invest for the sake of showing that you have presence. The market is relatively slow at the moment.”
“Our growth will mainly be in our assets and machineries. Because the more machines you have, the more load you can take.”
“We will also be focusing on setting up more collection points and improving the logistics such as door-to-door services. That is what the market wants,” says Zarina. “Growth, to us, is about investing in new systems and best practices.”