Liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) looks like vodka. It's crystal clear and bright -- brighter than water. And liquid CO2 has an unusual quality: It's very jumpy, almost jiggly.
Although carbon dioxide is commonplace -- it's in every breath we exhale -- most people will never see it flowing as a liquid; it doesn't exist at the temperatures and pressures of ordinary life. But free-flowing CO2 is transforming a mundane, unpleasant task.
Thanks to some ingenious technological tweaks, liquid CO2 is now being used commercially by a new company called Hangers Cleaners in what its developers say is the first pollution-free process that cleans clothes as well as traditional chemical methods do. But more than that, quicksilvery liquid CO2 could be the engine that turns Hangers into a nationwide brand. Micell Technologies Inc., Hangers's Raleigh, North Carolina-based parent company, aims to turn going to the dry cleaners into an experience -- just as Starbucks turned buying a cup of coffee into a status statement.
"How does [Hangers] look to me? It looks fabulous," says Ken Langone, 64, cofounder of the Home Depot and a member of Micell's board of directors. "You've got an environmental problem in dry cleaning that has to be dealt with. You've got an industry that hasn't had any new technology in how long? This is a breakthrough."
Actually, the revolution in dry cleaning has been declared before. For the past half century, most clothes have been dry-cleaned using "perc" (short for perchloroethylene), an organic solvent that replaced the flammable, petroleum-based cleaning fluids that were previously used. But perc, it turns out, is highly toxic, and its use is now strictly regulated. "Wet cleaning," a water-based process, is perc-free but doesn't effectively clean all fabrics.
Enter Joseph DeSimone, 36, a polymer chemist with no previous expertise in dry cleaning. In the early 1990s, while working on ways to replace traditional manufacturing solvents with liquid CO2 -- the substance used to carbonate soft drinks -- DeSimone and a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill developed detergents that also happened to clean well when combined with liquid CO2. "I'm fairly certain it's the only cleaning experiment ever published in 'Science,'" says DeSimone.
In 1995, DeSimone and his colleagues patented the process and cofounded Micell Technologies in Raleigh. Their plan was to develop and sell a new kind of dry-cleaning machine that replaced perc with CO2.
During an early pitch to investors, the Home Depot's Langone saw that DeSimone had a great technology but a limited plan for marketing it. Langone's suggestion: Why not wrap the technology into a whole new business? In order to buy Micell's machines, independent dry cleaners would first have to become Hangers franchisees. That way, Micell could control more than just the cleaning process.
"This is an image business," says Micell president S. Kirk Kinsell, 45. "We want people who are first and foremost concerned with the customer experience." Indeed, a Hangers looks more like a Banana Republic than like a dry cleaner. The stores are airy and flooded with light; the customer counters are topped with buffed stainless steel.
As of May, Hangers had 40 stores in Nebraska, North Carolina, and Rhode Island, and the company expects to open another 60 by the end of the year. By boldly aiming for 25% of the $6.5 billion market, Micell is trying to roll up the dry-cleaning business the same way that the Home Depot rolled up the hardware industry.
Micell must overcome a few hurdles -- some practical, some psychological. For one thing, the liquid CO2 process requires a machine that is too big to fit into some storefronts. And although the machines are more efficient, they cost $150,000 each -- double the price of many perc machines. Plus, franchisees must give up their store names and send 5% of their revenues to Raleigh.
Hangers is hoping that established dry cleaners will realize the virtues of a national brand and a nontoxic process. "We can turn this back into a growth industry," says DeSimone. "We have the technology to grow the business to grow revenues -- and to build equity, instead of liability."
Contact S. Kirk Kinsell by email (email@example.com), or learn more about Hangers Cleaners on the Web (www.micell.com).
Sidebar: Out, Damned Spot!
How do you transform an intensely local business whose methods haven't changed in decades? How do you persuade independent operators to join the CO2 revolution? Hangers Cleaners has a plan.
- Offer a better product. The best part of the Hangers package is the CO2 technology. The process is essentially nonpolluting, and the machines recycle 98% of the CO2 that they use. The company says that the small amount of atmospheric CO2 that the Micell machines add to the environment is more than offset by the energy that they save.
- Offer a better business. Micell Techonologies president S. Kirk Kinsell thinks that his company's package -- new technology, new attitude -- gives dry cleaners a way of distinguishing themselves from every other cleaner in town and offers franchisees the chance to build a business that they will actually be able to sell later on. Says Kinsell: "We want people who understand enough to ask not 'What does it cost?' but 'What is the return on investment?' "
- Offer a better process. Hangers changes the very nature of dry cleaning. The machines are easy to use -- a single-touch screen operates the equipment -- and have none of the fumes or unpleasantness associated with most modern perc machines. That allows Hangers to compete for employees who might not otherwise be willing to do the dirty work.