Lessons from a bumpy road to success


Charlie Tuzzi owns it Copeland Cleaners cameo and Winzer Cleaners.

Looking back on my life, I can say with certainty that success was by no means a foregone conclusion. My childhood was difficult: when I was four, my father died. He was an electrician with NYC Transit and was killed in an explosion while fixing an electrical problem on the tracks. My mother, a strong and independent woman, raised me. Despite her best efforts, I ran into trouble during my teenage years. I was out of the house when I was 17, and when I was 20 I was in prison serving a three and a half year sentence.

While I was in prison, my mother died of cancer. I stepped out for a final ritual visit and to attend her funeral – both handcuffed and shackled events. It was one of the low points of my life. But it was also a turning point because I decided I couldn’t continue on the same path.

Change was not easy and success did not come overnight. But over the next 30 years I built a hugely successful dry cleaning business and now I have a comfortable and happy life. Bumps, hurdles and potholes shaped my path to success. I have walked that path by finding and learning the lessons in each of the many obstacles I have encountered.

1. Work hard.

When I got out of prison, I started working in construction and saving money. I saved, I saved, I saved… and when I had enough money, the first business I bought was a laundromat. That was my first big investment. (And I kept working construction when I wasn’t at the laundromat.)

2. Create opportunities.

I soon saw an opportunity to expand: I wanted my laundry to also offer dry cleaning. How to start? I was looking for a dry cleaning company to work with. I walked into a store and said, “I want to offer this service. Can we do something together?” He ended up selling me half of his company. Then he taught me the whole trade. I spent a few years there and learned everything I could from him. Those first few years of learning later proved invaluable – and made me forever grateful for that partner, who still works with me today.

3. Be prepared to cut your losses.

At one point I had a dry cleaning service that picked up and delivered to porterhouses in Manhattan. This worked really well for a while; the doormen of these luxury buildings referred customers and they would receive a small commission. But eventually other dry cleaning companies adopted this method and started doing the same. Also, the janitor’s building culture changed as janitors took on bigger and better-paying jobs for individual tenants (such as regular dog walking), making the small dry-cleaning commission much less attractive. The business model was ultimately unsuccessful. Instead of wasting even more time and money on a system that no longer worked, we sold the company.

4. Know what the market can tolerate and find the right market.

Eventually, I got into business dry cleaning: my partners and I bought a company that partnered with a number of offices on Long Island. We noticed that this company didn’t charge much, and we saw an opportunity to raise prices while improving the range and quality of its services. Unfortunately, when we increased the price, these specific corporate clients could legitimately not afford our services. It was a lesson in realizing that (a) we needed to fine-tune our understanding of the market, and (b) we needed to find customers who could be can afford – and in fact would demand – the quality and services we have provided.

5. Become an expert deal maker.

In the intervening years I have made many deals to buy different types of dry cleaning companies. Most of the time, even when working with partners, I was the one structuring the deals. I had to get really good at using all the resources we had. The key was to figure out exactly what was important to the seller, and then find the best structure to achieve that. Was the seller willing to take his money in a slightly different way, such as less upfront? Were they willing to have an incentive program? Were they willing to take a percentage of something? Were they willing to take a longer buyout? If the seller was flexible in structure, there was almost always a deal to be made.

6. Take advantage of economies of scale.

To that end: Whenever I come across a valuable asset that I think could be improved, I look at what we can bring in and how we can reduce costs. If you’re constantly growing, if you’re doing it right, you’re also lowering your operating, production, and delivery costs. It’s an economy of scale: you already have the infrastructure (warehouses, factories, industrial dry-cleaning facilities, etc.) to do all the behind-the-scenes work, often at a lower cost than the person you’re working with. buys the company from. By lowering your costs, you can give the seller what they want and still make money in the long run.

The most important thing that has helped me succeed as a businessman, especially after an admittedly rocky start, is that I’ve always worked incredibly hard… and with a smile. I never cared if I had to work harder than everyone else because I believed that everyone around me could feed on my energy and positivity and then we would all do well. I’ve always had to are the energy, the engine, the driving force in every business I’ve been involved in – but that driving force in particular has been responsible for my success.

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