‘YOU’VE GOT TO BE INNOVATIVE’— Q&A with J.B. WERNER
G.A. Braun CEO describes coping with COVID, recruitment/retention challenges and more
By Jack Morgan
In recognition of the 75th anniversary of G.A. Braun Inc., Syracuse, NY, Textile Services recently clicked into a Zoom interview with J.B. Werner, Braun CEO and board chairman. Our discussion ranged over the impact of COVID-19, market trends, regulatory hurdles, overseas expansion and more. Excerpts—edited and condensed for clarity—follow.
We hear that a lot of your customer base have deferred on machinery purchases or any capital expenditures due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. With various states opening up, is that likely to change in the second half of ’21?
We’re going to see some pickup on the uniform side, but they’re almost back to where they were pre-COVID. The hospital side’s still down but improving. Obviously, the linen in hospitality is down. I think we’ll see a pickup in hospitality, but more toward the resorts because people can’t wait to go out on vacation. The hotels that cater to business travelers, I think that’s going to go down. Businesses are going to do more Zoom meetings and not traveling as much compared to pre-Covid levels.
Any improvements planned for your manufacturing facility?
We opened the first building 2009 and then we put in the addition and doubled it in 2015. We’ve continued to invest in capital equipment in the factory for fabrication and those types of things. We could expand if we wanted to. We’ve got land to do that. We have no plans to do so at this time.
With no Clean Show this year, how have you changed your approach to marketing your equipment and systems?
It gives us an opportunity. Every two years it’s difficult to come up with new equipment…We’ve got a lot of new product development going on, which if we had the show this year, we wouldn’t be able to show as many new products. By the next clean show, we’ll have a number of new products that we will showcase.
You’ve said people at Braun are happy to be working there. Has that made recruitment/retention better? Have you seen less turnover, or is it any easier when you need to hire an engineer?
At times recruitment can be challenging but we are active with local vocational schools and universities in the area. We provide tours, explain what we do and provide an overview of the industry. We’ve found this approach to be extremely beneficial.
Are you sending sales reps out? I’ve heard with some companies, it’s all phone or “Zoom calls.”
Yes, our sales representatives are all traveling. No question.
How about your pursuit of overseas markets? Has that been affected by COVID particularly?
Yes. Especially the Far East. I think they’re still pretty closed down. We’re seeing some activity in Korea. Central and South America, and we continue to be very active in those areas.
How about supply chain? Have you had issues getting parts?
No. Because all of our suppliers are U.S. based it was rare if we ran into an issue and have had little disruption.
Your factory is ISO certified. Does that give your sales reps any competitive advantage when they’re pitching your equipment?
- Definitely, ISO practices contribute to making the development, manufacturing, and supply of products and services more efficient and safe. I’m not sure who is even ISO certified here in the states. I don’t think there are any ISO-certified laundry equipment manufacturers.
When you do your proposals, do they put that into the proposal? Do they ask about ISO certification when you’re bidding it now?
Some do. More of the government RFPs (request for proposals) will have that.
Is government contracting a significant part of your business?
We do a lot of VA (Veterans Administration) business. We always have. That’s always been a strong point of our company. Yes. A lot of the RFPs have what’s called a “Made in America” clause, not all of them, but many do. With the current administration’s push to “Buy American” I believe we will see more of this.
How do you feel about making it to 75 years in this highly competitive business?
We’re very excited about it. We’re very proud to have 75 years in this business. There are not many companies that can say that. Having four generations basically, if you start back from the Prosperity Company, the chemical company (see related story on pg. 40), I’m the fourth generation in the laundry business. The third generation in the company for Braun.
Looking past COVID, what would you say is the biggest challenge that Braun is facing in the next 15-20 years?
You’ve got to be innovative. You got to keep coming up with new products. If you don’t, the market will pass you by. That’s where we focus. Every year, we get together, gather industry input as to what needs are out there and what they would like to see. Then we talk about different products that we should consider building, and make plans accordingly, depending on which ones we decide we’re going to go ahead with. We’ve several brand-new products coming out between now and the Clean Show (July 30-Aug. 2, 2022, Atlanta) and we are looking forward to showcasing them.
G.A. Braun—Celebrating 75 Years!
While the founding of laundry machinery manufacturer G.A. Braun Inc., Syracuse, NY, dates to 1946, the company’s roots extend further, to Ohio at the turn of the 20th century. In 1902, the great-grandfather of J.B. Werner, the current CEO/board chairman of Braun, operated a chemical company in Ohio with his four sons. “Then they moved to Syracuse (NY) because of all the soda ash and salt,” says Werner. Syracuse bears the nickname “Salt City” due to the briny water in this area of upstate New York.
Shortly after their move to the Empire State, Werner’s forebears shifted gears and launched a laundry and dry-cleaning machinery business called “the Prosperity Co.” Founded in 1915, this manufacturer thrived for 40-plus years in the early decades of the 20th century, providing wash machinery to dry cleaners and laundries. Reflecting the spirit of its name, the business thrived along with the Syracuse community. “They had five factories and employed 1,500 people,” Werner says.
In 1946, G.A. Braun was born as an offshoot of Prosperity when Werner’s grandfather and father split off from the parent company to launch their own business. “We started off as a sales office,” Werner says. Initially, they sold Prosperity equipment.
In 1956, G.A. Braun began manufacturing its own line of laundry equipment, a tradition that continues to this day as the company marks its 75th anniversary. Braun currently manufactures all products in their 255,000 square-foot (23,690 square meters) ISO-certified factory in Syracuse.
With a focus on innovation, Braun added electromechanical controls and automatic chemical injection to its washers in the late 1950s. A breakthrough design in the ’60s featured suspension-mounted machines.
Through an acquisition in the 1970s, Braun added finishing equipment to its lineup. Around the same time, it pioneered the incorporation of microprocessor controls in its washer/extractors. Other innovations followed. These include WASHNET NT, the first computer-controlled laundry program. Additional new products include the PT (pass-thru) series dryer line, the SmoothFlow Series Batch Tunnel System, and true side-by-side Tunnel System Dryers.
Over the years, Braun has continued to add to its portfolio. In the late 1980s, Braun purchased the Norman dryer line. Since then, Braun has manufactured all its dryers. This year, Braun will introduce the new Braun 125-200 lb. PRO® Dryer. It can easily process three loads an hour vs. only one for other manufacturer's washers in that classification.
Braun has long embraced “green initiatives” through best practices in all aspects of its business. In recent years, Braun introduced their Certified Remanufactured Program. Since then, the company has kept more than 600 tons of steel out of the scrap yard. They have revived machines after 20+ years of service and returned them, rebuilt to current specifications with a new equipment warranty. This is not only great for the environment but a significant savings opportunity for clients. Looking ahead, Werner says that continual innovation is the key to Braun’s competitiveness for the next 75 years and beyond.