You may recall that we did a piece on David Cooper’s book, The Laundry Man for the holiday gift-buying season. When I got a call from my friend, Joe Brown at Portside Advertising about a story on a commercial laundry, I thought there must be something in his water. “Seriously, it’s an incredible story. You should meet Sean Chappell and check it out,” he told me.

Joe was right because It’s an unbelievable story of resilience, perseverance, and the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes. Literally! Sean and  I met at his new state-of-the-art facility, Southern Sun Laundry, in Foley, Alabama. Upon arrival, I can see that it’s neat, clean, and looks very automated.

Sean shows me around, describing each stage of the laundry process. My main takeaway is that this is how all those hotels and condos manage the barrage of tourists each and every week. I thought back to David’s main character, William Beauregard Butler, Jr in the book thinking maybe he was on to something.

When Sean and I sat down, I discovered that he is a person who thrives on continuing to learn and pushes himself toward excellence. As he tells his story, I am impressed with what makes him tick. He was born in New Orleans but moved around a lot, finally arriving in Mobile in 1977 after his parents divorced when he was 7 years old. 

Sean graduated from Citronelle High School, and joined the Army to help pay for college and later worked in industrial sales for a New York-based company that had a semiconductor division distributing microchips. The company had an office in Huntsville, and Sean traveled for business while working remotely from his home in Mobile. This would serve him well down the road.

He enrolled at the University of Mobile at night and spent the next  8 years earning his degree in Business Management. “The Reserves paid for my college,” says Sean. “That’s why it took so long.” One day while driving, Sean was listening to Stephen Covey’s The Four Quadrants of Life Explained and was moved to pull over to draw a map of his priorities.

“After 17 years, the company wanted me to move. I was at a crossroads and I needed to decide what to do in my life. I was in my mid-30s and decided to make a change.” In 2003, he engaged a business broker to help find a business he could purchase. There was a dry cleaner store for sale in Gulf Shores.

He had been coming to the beach with his family for most of his life. “I had a familiarity with Gulf Shores and wanted to develop local roots, and stay in one place.” The more Sean researched the dry cleaning business, the more he thought it would be a good decision. “I liked the constant cash flow, and how the business ran. I purchased the business in 2004 and built it up to four locations. I went from high-tech to low-tech and  from coat and tie to employee issues.” 

Then Hurricane Ivan hit in 2005. “I thought it would be devastating. I was out of business for a few days, but, as the area recovered, people needed their stuff cleaned. It was actually good for my business.” 

Seeing how the disaster business worked, in 2006, Sean purchased two FRSTeam (Fabric Restoration Service) franchises, one in Summerdale and one in New Orleans. “After a disaster claim, we clean clothing and home furnishing coverings for insurance companies.”

After the economy tanked from 2008 through 2010, he said “Nothing was happening at the beach so I closed all my dry cleaning stores. I couldn’t sell them because there was no income so I shifted my focus to disaster work and purchased an existing laundry processing business.. Then the BP Oil Spill happened 15 days after I purchased it, and, again, there was zero business. It completely went away for almost a year.” 

Sean joined a business alliance, Vistage Business, and was introduced to Dan Lumpkin, a well-known business consultant in Fairhope. He advised Sean to expand the commercial laundry business and handle more than just restoration work. 

“In 2017, I received an email saying that The Grand Hotel didn’t have any towels. They were dealing with a third-party out-of-state laundry service. I immediately went to see them and they became my only non-disaster laundry client for two and a half years.” 

As he gained more hospitality laundry business, he moved the restoration company to Daphne and separated the disaster work from the laundry business. The disaster business continued to grow because of storm damage recovery after hurricane strikes from St Charles, Louisiana to Panama City, Florida. 

Then, the pandemic happened in March 2020 and everything shut down again. “There was no business to be had. The Grand Hotel had massive layoffs; they had maybe five residents staying there through the first stages of the pandemic. When the beach reopened three months later, the laundry business went from zero to 100 percent full capacity, overnight.”

In the summer of 2021, Sean hired Courtney West, who had been the director of event operations at The Grand Hotel. It was a decent, productive summer, and Sean picked up a few other hospitality clients. “We worked really hard during COVID to keep our business going. Our equipment was old and held together with gorilla glue and duct tape, but we put out a good product and built our reputation.”

On August 7, 2021, disaster struck once again. “I received a call that the laundry facility had burned to the ground the night before. It was a total loss.“ The next day, every employee showed up in the parking lot and went to work to salvage what they could. Courtney purchased a pop-up tent, and one one Sean’s FRSTeam employees brought an ice chest with water and ice. 

“Fortunately, most of the laundry was still on the trucks, and we began sorting laundry and taking it to laundromats to process. Brett Robinson came to our rescue. They offered a portion of their laundry processing area so we could stay in business. We worked there for over a year. We also subcontracted through a laundry service in Mississippi.” 

Through it all, Sean and his team worked a logistics nightmare and ultimately developed a workable system that carpooled employees to four different locations to process laundry. “Our attitude was that the customer was always first. After the fire, we were only down for 30 hours. The only thing the firemen were able to salvage was my framed ‘Honorable Discharge’ from the U.S. ARMY.”

Sean and his team began looking for another facility to buy. Bibb Lamar and Jay Weber at ServisFirst Bank had green-lighted the purchase. They put an unsuccessful offer in on a local facility. When they were unable to purchase a suitable existing laundry service, they decided to build a new facility and traveled to four countries in seven days to research exactly what they wanted.

“We had the premier hospitality properties in the area. I went to each one and they all said they would stand behind me, including The Grand Hotel. We decided to build a 22,000 sf facility at the same location. Steve Bailey at Sun Coast Builders said he could get it up and running quickly. Sean contracted with Jensen North America a Denmark company whose U.S. Headquarters are in Panama City, FL, for the new equipment. Their President and their rep, Carmen Coluccio, came to help plan the new facility.

“Everything fell into place,” says Sean. Jensen’s president told him he wanted this to be the flagship laundry facility in North America and would throw every resource available to get us up and running.” The City of Foley got behind him and helped expedite the building process. “People moved mountains to make this happen. Through it all, we never lost a client or missed a deadline. It was incredible.”  

Today, Southern Sun Laundry is one of the most advanced laundry processing facilities in North America. “We were a dirt track racer and now we’re Formula One. We couldn’t have done it without the backing of ServisFirst. Bibb and Jay Weber were flexible as we worked through our issues. Everybody on our team took responsibility for client relationships, and we didn’t lose one employee the entire time.” 

The new facility is much bigger and more sophisticated. From sorting to electronic tracking of client items to ironing, pressing, and folding, Southern Sun Laundry is technologically advanced. “We deliver a high-quality, no-wrinkle product for our clients. We are way more advanced than what our customers are used to.”

The whole process took a year and a half to complete. This year, both the South Baldwin and Coastal Chambers of Commerce held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on January 31. Sean says, “As a team, we created a clear vision of what we wanted and executed it. We wanted to reinvent the market and we did.”

He points out a few of the improvements offered by  Southern Sun Laundry “We have an advanced system that allows customer service at the highest levels. We have reduced the re-wash from  18% to 3% which is necessary when things don't get clean in the first cycle. We have increased the longevity of items by increasing the integrity of the laundry process. Our material handling is far better than before. We know whose items are whose.”

Sean feels fortunate to be in one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States. “South Baldwin County is one of the best tourist attractions in America. Sean and his team at Southern Sun Laundry are the definition of resilience. As he told me, “We didn’t have a Plan B.”

Thanks, Sean. That’s quite the story. May the Scenic 98 Coastal trade winds provide you with smooth sailing from this point forward!

Mar 6, 2024
People & Business Profiles

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