Superior Linen Service Turns 60

Celebrating 60 Years of Serving Oklahomans

October 18, 2014
By April Sandefer, Oklahoma Restaurant Association

Douglas Waldman serves as president of Superior Linen Service, a company his father spun off from a business founded by his father in 1954. But, the last thing Waldman would ever say is that Superior Linen Service is a family business. “It’s a family-owned business and I’m happy to be the family member in the business,” he explained. “But it’s really not about me. I could leave tomorrow and it would probably run better without me.” Waldman’s sentiment and the autonomy given to the company’s employees explain why many have stayed for 40 years or more. And, it’s a philosophy that has been around since the companies’ inception.

Waldman’s grandfather moved to Oklahoma in 1954, and started a company in downtown Tulsa called Industrial Uniform and Towel Supply. In the 1970s,  food and beverage linen service was added. By 1984, Industrial Uniform had become a large regional company, encompassing five states. It was that year that Waldman’s father, who had become president     of the company, sold the industrial business to a national supplier and reincorporated as a linen supply company. 

At the time of the company change, Waldman -- who had previously worked for Superior Linen Service -- was working in the defense industry doing research and development for the government. “Dad didn’t think I was coming back, but he wanted to make sure the business would keep going for the employees. That’s why he sold it. But the person who bought Industrial wasn’t interested in the linen component. The employees said they’d run the linen side. So, from day one, it’s been very much an employee-run business and the staff has felt that sense of ownership. We think that makes it better for our customers. In big corporations, no one can make a decision on their own. Here, every decision doesn’t have to come back to me.”

 In 1997, Waldman continued in his grandfather's and father's footsteps, becoming president of Superior Linen Service. Although Superior Linen Service has only been around for 30 years, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the organization’s origins and that meant for a great reason to celebrate. This summer, Superior Linen Service pulled out its best linens and held a 60th Anniversary Gala at the Tulsa Country Club (one of its customers).

The Gala further illustrates Waldman’s company philosophy. “If you want to know what makes Superior Linen Service stand out…we invited every single person in our company to our 60th Anniversary Gala and had nearly 300 employees and their spouses attended,” he said. “This wasn’t just senior management or suppliers and vendors. Everyone is a key person, just not owners and managers. That sets the tone for what we try to do here.”

Planning for the 60th Anniversary started with an idea early in 2014. Waldman and Ashley Tosh, Director of Marketing and Communications, were brainstorming an idea to make employees feel valued during such a special time/milestone in the company’s history. The idea of a black-tie gala came up.

“I heard things like, ‘We tried that in the past and it never turns out that great’ or ‘not many show up’,” Tosh said. But, she was determined that was not going to be the case. Tosh put a lot of detail into nicely designed invitations and tickets, so employees would feel like attendance was a big deal. Employees were invited and each one could bring a guest. Waldman’s father, now retired, was in attendance along with his wife and several other family members.

 “We toyed with the idea of inviting some vendors and customers but thought, ‘No, this is about the employees. They’re the whole reason we’re around 60 years later’,” Tosh said. The event included a social hour with hors de’ouvres, a meal with a champagne toast and dancing. Every employee also received a “memory book.”

"As a part of the 60th Anniversary, we thought it would be nice to document how we started and where we are now,” Tosh explained. “So we created a memory book; not just a traditional history book with a year-by-year account of our history, but with stories about the employees who got us here.” To create the book, a writer spent three days visiting the different plants and interviewing several individuals who had a key role in the development of the company. The 72-page bound book is titled Superior Linen Service at 60: Stories of Teamwork, Technology and Trust. 

Today, Superior Linen Service serves more than 3,000 customers across four states, including most of Oklahoma, the western half of Arkansas and southern parts of Kansas and Missouri, employing around 420. The company has three main processing locations -- Tulsa, Muskogee and Springdale, Ark. About 240 employees work at the Oklahoma offices. The most senior ten employees in the corporate office in Tulsa represent more than 360 years of combined service.

“I think Superior Linen Service is a good size right now,” Waldman said. “In our business, we have to service and talk to our customers on a daily basis. If you’re too small, it’s hard to compete, but if you’re too big, you lose that personal interaction and the company culture doesn’t filter down to all employees, ending in a lot of employee turnover. We are the largest regional chain in the area, giving us buying power and economy of scale, but we’re not so big that everyone is just a number and employees don’t care about the company any more. We try very hard to maintain that employee longevity, so customers are comfortable with whom they work with.”

That’s not to say Superior Linen Service isn’t growing. Twice, the company has been named to Inc. magazine’s list of 5000 fastest growing private companies in the U.S. “We’re still growing,” Waldman said. “Our growth plan is strictly internal growth, though, not by acquisition. We did some minor small acquisitions in the 90s, but we haven’t done any growth by acquisition since then. At this point, our growth plan is geared around internal growth through sales.”

Another list where you can find Superior Linen Service, is national companies earning accreditation for hygienics. According to Waldman, it is a very short list, likely due to the fact that, surprisingly, there is no requirement for it in his industry. “We hear talk about food safety, but people haven’t talked that much about the hygienics of everything else,” Waldman said. “It doesn’t do much good to have a well-cooked steak, served on a dirty table. We’ve started sampling and processing our linens. We take a random sample of a product and test that it is hygienically clean.”

Superior Linen Service also earned national recognition for certification as a “Clean Green” company. It’s another short list and Waldman said they were one of the first companies in his industry to earn the certification. Clean Green certification is awarded to companies that have used the best management practices to process energy use. The companies that get the certification are using the least amount of resources. “Obviously using cloth is better long term than grabbing 17 paper napkins and tossing them in the trash,” Waldman explained. “Energy savings and sustainability is important to us and we know there are restaurateurs who feel the same.”

Although not part of the Clean Green initiative, Waldman also helps save precious natural resources by cycling to and from work on a regular basis. In fact, the City of Tulsa has named him “Bicycle Commuter of the Year” three years in a row. He founded Team Superior, a cycling club sponsored by Superior Linen Service. The team has participated in countless organized rides and has raised more than $200,000 for charitable organizations.

Waldman likes to encourage his employees to be healthy, both physically and philanthropically. “When talking about the company, the last person I talk about is me,” he said. “In order to have employees with longevity, you have to keep them healthy and if they aren’t healthy, they aren’t happy.”

He explained that most of the companies’ employees have fairly physical jobs. Superior Linen Service goes beyond that, though, having formed a health and fitness group called the 15 Minute Fitso’s. The group gets together every morning for a group stretch and again in the afternoon for walking, light weight training and/or cardio exercise. “Getting their heart rate up in a healthy/safe manner has been really wonderful and made a huge impact on their workday,” Tosh said. “They’re happier, healthier, and have more energy…many employees have even lost a significant amount of weight by following the program and combining it with healthier eating habits.”

“Personally, in order to set by example, I bike to work,” Waldman said. “Oklahoma gets a bad rap on health and fitness. I’ve ridden bikes around the country and the world. I think Tulsa has one of the best biking communities in the country. I’d much rather ride a bike around Tulsa than Oregon. And, I pass a lot of joggers and runners out there in the morning when I’m riding my bike.

As part of the companies’ philanthropic culture, Superior Linen Service established the Good Work Initiative in 2014. Waldman, Tosh and the Director of Sales decided they wanted to highlight how the company gives back. “It’s not about showing off that we give money, but shedding light on the organizations we’re involved with and who are serving the community in a positive way,” Tosh explained.

Each month, Superior Linen Service picks a different organization and either gives funds, time or donates products.  Some of this years fund recipients are The Nature Conservancy, The Red Cross, and The National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Several organizations have received product donations of linen, such as a local burn camp [AT2] and, of course, we do a lot of fundraising cycling rides. When Haiti experienced its devastation, the company challenged [AT3] employees to give a little to the Haiti Relief Fund. “When all was said and done, we gave a substantial amount all from donations of just $5 from one employee, $10 from another,” Tosh said. Waldman matched every dollar of the funds raised.

 Superior Linen Service has been a member of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association for many years and is a Key Club Partner. While the opportunity for face time with customers is definitely a plus, Waldman likes to look past that when assessing the value of ORA membership.

 “It’s not just that I get to see ORA members at conventions,” he explained. “I pick up information at conventions that other suppliers provide. We show up for ORA Day at the Capitol and walk the Capitol halls with the ORA members. It’s good for the ORA, and it’s good for us. The issues that the ORA members face with state legislators is exactly what we face – labor, energy and utility issues. By being a part of the ORA, not only do I help the ORA members, the ORA helps me.”