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Uniform Rental Industry Unwrinkled by Recession

Top-notch growth rate of '80s slides to respectable 8 percent in '90s

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THE nation's uniform rental industry has been hit by the economic slowdown. But shed no tears - growth still runs 8 to 9 percent a year.

Prior to the 1990-92 recession, however, the uniform business was growing 15 to 20 percent a year. More and more of the nation's workers have been putting on rented pants and shirts, jeans, coveralls, lab coats, and even executive uniforms and flame-resistant garments.

"Our industry is enjoying an unusual position during this period," says Cliff Weller, manager of marketing of Textile Rental Services Association of America in Hallandale, Fla.

Revenues of the uniform industry have grown from $2 billion to $6 billion in the past 10 years, primarily because of the increase in service-related businesses from fast-food restaurants to banks, industry analysts say.

"Service companies whose employees meet the public face to face are trying to project an image," says Craig Peterson, chief financial officer of Unitog Company in Kansas City, Mo.

Well-dressed people, an industry study finds, are perceived as more hard-working and intelligent than those dressed poorly.

In 1992, Cintas Corporation, one of the largest uniform rental firms in the United States, enjoyed $401.5 million in sales. That was up 13.9 percent from 1991, but behind the 18 to 20 percent growth in the 1980s, says David Jeanmougin, senior vice president of finance at the Cincinnati-based company. Cintas provides 1 million uniforms for its 100,000 clients.

Uniform rental firms generally require customers to make three- to five-year contracts. That, analysts say, helps make the industry more recession proof.

In 1990 about 63 percent of all rental uniform wearers were blue-collar workers. But these traditional customers have been shrinking in number. Despite this, the industry has grown by winning customers from other industries, says Ken Koepper, spokesman for the Institute of Industrial Launderers, a trade group in Washington.

"We're seeing more and more people who have never before been in uniforms getting started in uniform programs," Mr. Peterson says. He says companies such as regional telecommunication firms have been renting uniforms to boost their corporate image and for security purposes.

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