58 Years of Linen, Uniforms and Integrity

The New Pathway is presenting a new series of interviews covering businesses located in our communities which are owned or operated by Ukrainians, or serving Ukrainians (and everyone else).
We are starting this series with one of the most prominent Ukrainian-owned companies in Toronto, Topper Linen and Uniform Service. The New Pathway has interviewed the company’s President, Tim Topornicki:

NP: Please tell me how it all started

TT: The company was started in 1956, in our home, on Fern Avenue, Roncesvalles and King area. My dad (Edward Topornicki – New Pathway) started it with my grandmother who worked at White Way Linen Service. He was born in Canada, Winnipeg, raised in Sudbury, then came to Toronto.

He was selling real estate to the Ukrainian and Polish community. He’s fluent in both Polish and Ukrainian. He would pick up his mother from work at White Way and the owner of White Way, Mr. Bazos, said to my dad, “Why don’t you go out and solicit business from the Ukrainian community?” My dad said, “If I’m going to solicit business, I’d rather do it for myself.”
So they had an agreement and my dad started bringing in customers for himself. We started with seven customers and kept on growing the business. They moved to Fern Ave. Mr. Bazos washed for my father – my dad would put the laundry in his car, bring it to our house and they would sort it out, the coats, aprons and towels, etc.

They slowly got more customers in the Ukrainian community, the community was very good to my mom and my dad. They continued to grow the business. There were six children so we would work here in the summers and on weekends. We just continued to get more business with reliable service, honesty and integrity.

We are now competing with all American corporations. There’s very few people left in this industry in Canada. We’re the largest independently owned, Canadian owned laundry in Canada. We have 130 staff currently, 2 plants, 27 trucks on the road. We are primarily in the food and beverage industry. We service restaurants, food processing, butcher shops, delicatessens, golf courses, banquet halls…anything to do with linens and uniforms. Anytime you go to a restaurant and the people in the kitchen are working, they need our services; they need aprons, towels, chef coats, safety mats to stand on. If you go to a grocery store and the butcher and the grocer are wearing long coats, those are our services. If you go to a wedding and there are table cloths and napkins on the tables, those are our services. Healthcare, we do that. We only really service white, we have other colors, but we are mainly a food service provider.

We have been at this location and we keep buying our neighbours up. We have 50,000 square feet. What my father originally built in 1968, 5,000 square feet. We just keep growing and providing good services. People think of a laundry as Maytag washers and little dryers, but you can see here today the tremendous investment – we have 35 million dollars plus invested into expanding, upgrading, buying properties, equipment, computer technology over the last 20 years. We’re not washing laundry like we did way back when. Everything is now computer controlled. Nobody’s touching chemistry any longer. All the chemicals are blended ourselves. Everything is pushed in by computers and controlled by microprocessors. The operators are really here to load and unload. I am here every morning early. Our trucks load all up at night time and you see our trucks on the road early in the morning.

NP: When did those big American companies come to the Canadian market?

TT: The American companies have always been here. There’s an American company called Canadian Linen and in the United States it’s called American Linen. It’s been here since the 50s.

NP: When did they start pushing out the independents?

TT: They started pushing out the independents 25-30 years ago. They’d like to push us out too. But we keep pushing them back and taking on more customers. We’re the type of company that’s very involved in the community. We know our councillors, we know our members of parliament. We know the city. It’s a very personalized service. Most of the customers have origins to us through other service we have provided to them, or we know them somehow…and they trust us. They do business with us because they trust us. Our invoicing programs are clear. There are no hidden charges. We are providing a service, we do not wash other people’s goods, we are a rental company. We’re 100% rental. So everything we give to our customers, they rent from us. Our investment in this is huge. Our customers sign a service agreement with us and we move forward.

NP: So it makes sense for them financially…

TT: They don’t have to invest in products, it makes sense absolutely financially. Our trucks pick up and deliver weekly. We’re what you call an essential service. We are like garbage men. You can’t not have a laundry. Everything goes to China. You can’t ship your laundry to China. So that’s why we continue to grow and the city has grown with us. Our client base has continued to grow with us.

NP: So you’ve been growing despite the competition from the big network corporations.

TT: Well we keep taking business away from the big guys. We keep taking market share away from them.

NP: You’re growing your market share?

TT: Absolutely. For the food beverage side of it, in Toronto, the market is divided up between 3 companies: myself, Faster Linen and Canadian Linen. Canadian Linen has about 40 trucks on the road, Faster about 25-30, we have 27, so I would say that I would have at least 25% of the market share in Southern Ontario. We go as far as London, Aurelia, all the way to Peterborough and down to Niagara.

NP: Who are your clients?

TT: We just started services with Future Bakery and MC Dairy. They just signed up on a full rental program vs. washing themselves, they didn’t find that economical. We service Mandarin Corporation. We service Club Link Corporation, a golf course entity. Ivan Franko Homes, we’ve looked after them since they opened in 1971 (In 2010, Topper provided Ivan Franko Homes with free laundry services for the whole year, which was worth around $50,000 – NP). We service sports bars, Bruno’s Fine Foods has been our client for 40 years, Superior Sausage was our first company, they are no longer in business. Andy’s Sausages as well. We almost have 2,000 customers we service on a weekly basis.

NP: How did you start at the Topper Linen?

TT: I started here with my dad in 1979 full time. I graduated from University of Waterloo with a general BA, and April 15, 1979, I came here, started working. Then I went back to school at the George Brown College for a two year engineering program. I then worked at a health care facility for 18 months and continued to help my dad when we only had one small plant and three trucks. And we’ve been working together ever since. My dad comes to work once or twice a week for an hour or two so that he can see what’s happening. He hasn’t owned the business since 1992, but he still has a desk and an office. I’ve been the owner since 1992. I’m the fourth of six children.

NP: What do your siblings do, are they in this business?

TT: One’s a nurse, one’s a school teacher, they are retired. One’s a life coach, one’s an interior designer.

NP: So, you have a technical background?

TT: I had 5 years of education before I started here. I think the key to my success is my engineering background which allows me to be very efficient, to understand what’s behind all this. You’re not going to school and learn about laundry, but you’re going to school and learn about air, steam, electricity and chemistry. Then you’ll build your knowledge from there. That’s been very key to me, understanding how things work mechanically. I’m a mechanically inclined person. We do our own repairs and maintenance here. We have a five-person maintenance team that keeps this plant going and they work under my supervision on a day to day business keeping the factory going.

One of my key guys has been here for 29 years. My CFO has been here for 31 years. We have a lot of long term, very dedicated people. As I said earlier, laundry business is not going to go to China. It’s a steady job, it’s not as if you’re going to get a job and then worry that the factory is going to shut down and you’ll lose your job. It’s an essential service. I’m 58 years old. I’ve enjoyed my career. I continue to work every day. I like it.