Four generations of Plymates and two disastrous fires have created one healthy company based firmly in Shelbyville.
Todd Plymate, current president of Plymate Incorporated, calls the fires “God’s way of doing long range planning for us.”
Following a remodeling of its downtown production facility in 1967, Plymate Cleaners suffered the first of two devastating fires. That forced the local business to its current location on the city’s southwest side.
In 1988, a second major fire drastically altered the business focus of the company to what it is today – workplace apparel and floor mat programs.
Originally a dry cleaners, the company grew into a commercial laundry business, added linen and uniform business, purchased and developed coin-operated laundries and then saw the opportunity to expand into industrial business at a time when Shelbyville was landing foreign businesses.
Glenn Plymate would not recognize the business he founded today, 90 years later, run by his grandson, Todd, and granddaughter, Terri Plymate Warnecke. But he would be proud of the family business that they have cultivated and the customer service they provide in a business where independents battle for market share.
Nor would he envision a third- and fourth-generation of Plymates, Terri’s son, Ben Warnecke, has been with the company over three years now, leading the charge.
All three never considered working for their grandfather’s business. Todd Plymate landed at General Mills in Minneapolis working in mergers and acquisitions. Terri Warnecke spent 10 years teaching in the Indianapolis Public Schools system. And Ben Warnecke moved to Colorado for school and, eventually, work.
“I had no intention of coming back here,” quipped Todd. “I went to graduate school and was working for General Mills. I thought I was hot stuff and the last thing I thought I would be doing was working here. And that’s 40 years ago.”
James T. Plymate, son of Glenn Plymate, suffered a disabling back injury in 1978 and that brought Todd home. It also brought his youngest sister, Tracy Plymate Holt, into the business.
“People of my generation and older probably still think of Plymate as a dry cleaner,” explained Todd. “We don’t do any dry cleaning. We got rid of the dry cleaning. We did linens for the hospital. We had coin-operated laundrymats.
“One thing that was apparent to me was we can’t be good at all of these. So we focused on the industrial side of the business, uniforms and floor mat rental.”
Plymate didn’t go all in on its current focus, though, until that second fire in 1988.
Todd was playing tennis one weeknight when his wife pulled up to tell him there was a fire at the business. He could see the flames and smoke as the car pulled off Interstate 74.
“It was gut wrenching,” said Todd. “We had worked so hard. We were rolling on the food and beverage side and a little bit on the industrial side. I remember I had reached a time where we had this thing working the right way and then, ‘Boom.’ I literally cried.”
No employees were hurt but they were left in a perilous situation. As it turns out, it was those employees that brought renewed faith in the business.
“It was amazing what happened,” said Todd. “We had a lot of single parents working for us. The plant was not functional … it wasn’t for three months. So we went to Indianapolis and leased facilities there. We used them at night. We bussed our co-workers up to the facilities. We had these single parents and nobody quit during the process.
“That spoke volumes to me. I had a lot of respect for the co-workers before, but these guys really cared. It was clear that I was going to come back. I wouldn’t have been shocked if half our work force left with what we were asking them to do. It was like an epiphany. We’ve got something special going on here.”
With the family in crisis, Terri joined in to bring all three of Glenn’s grandchildren into the company fold. That lasted for eight years before Tracy retired, leaving Todd and Terri in charge – and that synergy has been dynamic.
“We always got along well,” said Todd of his relationship with Terri, three years his younger. “We’ve had a remarkable partnership and relationship here for over 30 years. We compliment one another. Terri has a way of nudging me when I need to be nudged. It’s good for the CEO to have somebody he can trust that can help you get back on course if you are headed in the wrong way.”
Still, the decision to sell off the linen business after the second fire was risky. The company needed the capital but it was giving up its strongest production division.
“It was a tough decision because we were giving up volume,” said Todd. “We actually had, prior to the second fire, we had a really good reputation in Indianapolis in food and beverage. We did fine dining, tablecloths and napkins. We weren’t the market share leader but we were the quality operator.
“When we had the fire, it was all hands on deck and what could we do to survive? So we sold the hospitality linen business because we didn’t think we could keep the patient alive if we didn’t. We amputated the arm and used the money we received to grow our industrial business.”
Plymate started creating custom floor mats to work with stock mats and found it could provide workplace apparel that fit well with its customer service philosophy.
And that’s where Ben started in the business following a nearly two-year recruiting process.
“In roughly three years I’ve been focused on the service piece of our business,” he said. “It’s a great way to learn what we’re about, who our customers are and what their needs are.”
Ben worked for Enterprise, moved into data processing outside sales and then commercial real estate while in Colorado. He sees that work experience as critical training for what he has done and will be doing with Plymate for many more years.
“I had a little more time in the real world, post college, before entertaining the option and the opportunity to come back and work for the family business,” he explained. “I think that was helpful and beneficial for me. I focused on sales and service and I took some of those learnings and brought them back to Plymate. It’s helped me have an appreciation for what we need to be doing as an organization to provide exceptional service.”
Ben expects to transition into more of a production-based role with Plymate in 2020 as he continues to master Plymate’s business model.
Plymate recently celebrated with its co-workers the company’s 90th anniversary. Each employee received a $90 check to honor its history. There may be more celebrations throughout the year, according to Terri, who said the company will focus on promoting its 90-year tradition of servicing its customers.
“I feel like we have 85 co-workers and I think the vast majority feel very vested in the success of the company,” she said.
Plymate has survived because of its dedication to its employees and the ability to provide quality service and a quality product to its customers.
“It’s important that it says who we are,” said Todd of the anniversary. “We’ve been around 90 years, maybe two or three percent of businesses that started in the 1930s still exist. We didn’t survive by accident. It was doing the right thing, doing it with integrity, and doing it with the right people.”