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Business of the Month: Turning dirty chaos into clean order is a family affair for uniform outfitter

In business since 1901, Sudbury's Northern Uniform Services is expanding once again

No matter which room you enter at Northern Uniform Services’ sprawling 25,000-square-foot production facility, there will be, displayed prominently on the wall, a plaque with these words:

“Keep your promises. Be fair. Tell the unvarnished truth. Respect each other. Do the right thing.”

It’s a visual reminder of the values guiding the 122-year-old company in every facet of the business, whether it’s serving customers, working with vendors, or managing employees.

“It’s how we live every day,” said Chad Laframboise, the company’s general manager. “It’s instilled in everything we do.”

Led by Jim and Paige Bisset, Northern Uniform is one of Canada’s last family-owned and operated uniform rental services.

Headquartered in Sudbury, the company serves clients across Ontario, outfitting their workers with the shirts and pants, coveralls, gloves, and lab coats worn on the job. Once soiled, that workwear gets sent back to the production facility where it’s laundered, pressed, and sorted before being returned back to the worker for reuse.

Northern Uniform’s Bradford depot serves clients across the Toronto area, primarily in the foodservice sector, and a Timmins branch is currently under construction to cater to the area’s burgeoning mining industry.

“One of the attractive features of (the industry) is you get a whole bunch of dirty chaos, and at the end of the day, you’ve turned it into clean order,” Paige said.

“And, from a human standpoint, to take it from dirty chaos and make it into clean order, it can be very satisfying.”

Co-owner Paige Bisset stands near a plaque displaying the company's values, which provide guidance through all of its decision-making. | Photo courtesy of Northern Uniform Services

Jim’s grandfather began Northern Uniform in 1901 as a laundry service after immigrating to Sudbury from Portneuf, Que.

At that time, the laundry was established at the family homestead at what is now 161 Larch Street in the city’s downtown.

“Hot water was run by logs that came in on big box cars from up north, and deliveries were by horse and buggy,” Jim said.

“Shortly after the Depression, both (my grandfather) and my grandmother died, and so my father took the company over.”

The business thrived for decades under Herb Bisset’s guidance.

Through the Second World War, one of the company’s larger clients was the munitions factory in the town of Nobel, just north of Parry Sound. Northern Uniform would send a truck with equipment from Sudbury where workers would wash all the linens for the plant’s on-site bunkhouses.

After Jim graduated from university in the late 1960s, the laundry moved to Walnut Street in the west end of the city, where Sudbury Steam Cleaners remains today.

It was Jim’s job to transition everything to the new space. But he had his own ideas about the business, and before long, he had begun renting and laundering uniforms to other local companies.

Some of his earliest clients were the local car dealerships Cambrian Ford and New Sudbury Volkswagen.

“I would do the cleaning, because I had a little wash wheel at Sudbury Steam Laundry in the back, and I’d do the invoicing, I’d do the delivery and come back and do the repairs,” Jim said.​

Located on Algonquin Road in Sudbury's South End, Northern Uniform Services' 25,000-square-foot production facility handles between 200,000 and 300,000 pieces of laundry daily. | Photo courtesy of Northern Uniform Services

​By the 1980s, the venture had outgrown its location and Jim went on the hunt for a new space. Plenty of vacant buildings were available for repurposing, but Jim was adamant about building from scratch so the operation could maintain proper workflow.

Northern Uniform’s current facility, a sophisticated setup purpose-built in the city’s South End, was completed in 1989. Equipped with the industry’s most state-of-the-art technology, the operation handles between 200,000 and 300,000 pieces of laundry a day, each of which is implanted with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag so it can be tracked throughout the process.

“We’re probably the most unique plant in North America,” said Chad, who’s been instrumental in introducing much of the new technology to the operation. “And, right now, we’re one of the most modern.”

Soiled items arrive in large laundry bags, which are then emptied into one of seven massive washers, capable of handling 400 items at a time. Once clean, each load is dried and emerges ready for sorting by hand.

Workers place each garment on a hanger, which is outfitted with a unique barcode. The garment’s RFID tag is then scanned, entering it into a database for sorting, before it’s whisked along a dizzying system of ceiling rails snaking through the building’s vast expanse.

When it finally settles at its destination, the garment will have been sorted according to its wearer and readied for packaging and shipping back to the client.

“We were one of the first (uniform rental) companies in Canada to be barcoded,” Jim said.

“The barcoding allowed us to maintain control of our inventory, because inventory is very expensive. We have millions of dollars of inventory that has to be identified, and kept track of, and billed for.”

That was just one of many firsts for the forward-thinking company.

When the mining industry was looking to add reflective tape to coveralls to boost the safety of underground workers, Northern Uniform did all the Canadian testing to attain the highest level of visibility and durability.

Working in tandem with partners like Vale, Glencore and 3M, the company tested various iterations before hitting on a combination that worked.

“We did a trial, and then we did one site, and then it grew and became the underground standard for mining,” Chad said.

That standard has now been in place for close to two decades.

Chad Laframboise, the general manager at Northern Uniform Services, has brought in new technology and processes to streamline the 122-year-old company. | Photo courtesy of Northern Uniform Services

In 1997, the company pursued ISO 9001 certification, a set of quality-control criteria, and 15 years later added ISO 22000 certification to its credentials.

The latter sets out strict guidelines for product handling, packaging, and testing, Paige said. Though it typically only applies to food producers and foodservice operators, Northern Uniform opted to pursue the standard as the company landed more clients in the food industry.

“We know what (our customers) are subjected to, because we subject ourselves willingly to the same thing,” Paige said.

This spring, the company rolled out its Keeping Promises Team of five customer support advisors, who work alongside the company’s account supervisors and service specialists as a third point of contact to help take care of customers’ unique needs.

It’s an attention to detail Northern Uniform hopes will “remind people of why they do business with us,” Chad said.

Despite its growth, the company has worked hard not to lose sight of its family roots.

Employing more than 100 people across locations, Northern Uniform provides good pay, benefits, incentives, and uses a reward system to highlight worker performance.

Through labour interruptions, economic downturns, and even the pandemic, the company hasn’t laid off one person. And that loyalty has been returned in spades.

Many employees have been there for 10, 15, 20 years, or more. One is nearing the 30-year mark, while another has been employed there for nearly four decades.

Over the years, some have left for other jobs, only to return later because they preferred working for Northern Uniform.

“We feel very strongly that we have an obligation to the people that are here eight, 10, some of them 12 hours a day, that they should have a clean place to come to work where they’re well rewarded and respected and thanked for what they do,” Jim said.

​​“And I really think that we work really hard to try to make that happen.”

Mining is one of the company's primary industries. After laundering, worker coveralls are inserted into an automated folding machine where they emerge ready for stacking to send back to the client. | Photo courtesy of Northern Uniform Services

After a lifetime in the business, doing just about every job there is, Jim could happily hand over the reins while he and Paige ease their way into retirement.

But the Bissets balk at the idea.

“It is laundry, essentially, at its core, but we do enjoy what we do — we love what we do,” Paige said. “It’s a good industry.”

So, for now at least, succession talks are off the table. The pair plans to continue running the business as they always have, with their values intact and leading the way.

Retirement will come — one day, Jim said. But not any time soon.

“They keep trying to boot me out,” he laughed. “But I keep coming back every day.”