By Lindsay Cates
The bright yellow laundry bags that line the halls of the first-year-student dorms at Washington and Lee University are a familiar sight to students. Every week the bags are picked up by University Cleaners and then dropped off a few days later with clean clothes inside.
Jay Melvin, the local businessman behind this operation, has two businesses that cater to the student population in Lexington. Melvin and his wife, Trudy, own Melvin Corp., an umbrella company with 22 employees that includes both University Cleaners and a business that rents mini-fridges to students at several area universities.
Mni-fridge installation season just wrapped up, and the yellow bags in the halls signal that laundry season has begun. It’s a welcome change from the slow summer months when students who need laundry service and refrigerators are away.
“It’s real difficult to live on nine months,” Melvin said. “It’s real difficult.”
Melvin said location is what makes his business stand apart from competitors.
Location is key
“When you have a dry cleaning entity you want it to be around three things: grocery store, pharmacy, liquor store,” Melvin said. “It’s just what people are doing.”
The original location of University Cleaners is on North Jefferson Street, where framed pencil blueprints of the original floor plan still hang on the wall. A second location on East Nelson Street opened in 2004 and is now where all the clothes are treated. Lauranna Donald, an employee since 2008, said the Melvins are very active in the business.
“They are good people,” Donald said. “Jay’s a very organized man.”
In addition to laundry and dry cleaning, University Cleaners will restore clothes and textiles from houses with fire damage, water damage or mold problems. Restoration brings in business with very little in additional overhead costs, Melvin said. And the insurance companies like it too — University Cleaners can clean a suit for $12, whereas replacing it could cost more than $300.
A 1980 graduate of Virginia Military Institute, Melvin came back to Lexington in 1986 when the opportunity arose to buy University Cleaners.
“I always wanted to work for myself, and this provided that opportunity,” Melvin said. “I had no idea that it was going to be here or that it was going to be in the dry-cleaning business.”
A cool opportunity
Not long after, in the mid-1990s, another entrepreneurial project arose: renting mini-fridges.
The idea for renting mini-fridges came about while Melvin and a friend were brainstorming ways to make more money. The friend said that in college his fraternity had rented refrigerators to make money for parties. Melvin approached the dean of students at Washington and Lee about letting them do fridge rentals. The next summer Melvin and his friend bought some refrigerators and were in business.
Melvin Corp. is now the licensed affiliate of MicroFridge in Virginia, and the company is actively pursuing expansion to three to five other campuses, Melvin said.
As a private business, Melvin Corp. is not required to release information about profits. Melvin says that he doesn’t know which branch of the company is more profitable because his wife is the one who keeps the books.
“If I did it, we would be in trouble,” he said.
Melvin might not keep his own accounts, but he does serve as chairman of the Board of Directors at Cornerstone Bank. Melvin speaks proudly about the community bank that he helped found in 2008-09 by raising $9.8 million in nine months, selling stock at $10 per share. Last year was the community bank’s five-year anniversary, and according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the bank currently holds 14 percent of the market share for Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County.
Looking to the future, Melvin said in an email that he sees all aspects of the company expanding in the next five years. In addition to offering MicroFridge rentals to more schools, he also hopes to add the laundry service to another campus and make more relationships with claims adjusters to grow his company’s share of the restoration service market.
“I can honestly say that I get up every morning happy to go to work,” Melvin said.
“We provide a service for folks and we enjoy it, it is what we do. So far, so good, I think.”