FOR TWO DECADES Mark Callaghan followed a typical high-tech career path. A third-generation Seattleite, Callaghan graduated from UW in international studies in 1986 and started out in telecommunications at the pioneering McCaw Cellular. Next he cofounded PhotoDisc, a royalty-free photo stock agency subsequently sold to Getty Images. And then this well-groomed family man, the quintessential young high-tech executive, switched to a much less glamorous field: the mom-and-pop business of dry cleaning. Was he crazy?
No, just green. Callaghan is active in his sons’ elementary school, where sustainability is a big part of the curriculum. He’s installed solar heating and hot water in his own home. And when the time came to scope out new business opportunities, Callaghan sought one with long-term prospects that would benefit the planet’s bottom line as well as his own.
Dry cleaning might seem an unlikely choice: 85 percent of cleaners in the United States use the “perc process”—perchloro-ethylene, a highly toxic carcinogen. Others use a petroleum-derived solvent or the somewhat less toxic silicon-based GreenEarth method. Friends in Colorado told Callaghan about Revolution Cleaners, a Denver company that cleans clothes with odorless, nontoxic, reclaimed carbon dioxide pressurized into a liquid. While at PhotoDisc, Callaghan had already seen how a new technology—digital photography—could transform an entire industry. He suspected liquid CO2 might work the same magic on dry cleaning.
Callaghan purchased Blue Sky Cleaners, a small CO2 cleaning chain in the Bay Area. Last September he brought the brand and the technology to his hometown, launching a cleaning plant on Elliott Avenue. Two months later he bought the long-established Four Seasons Cleaners, with two stores, and Blue Sky became one of Seattle’s leading cleaners.
Callaghan gladly tapped into Four Seasons’ production and pressing expertise, and its established pickup and delivery routes. But the first thing he did was shut down its perc-based cleaning plant. Four Seasons’ former owner, Dick Pakko, stayed on as an adviser to Blue Sky, though he admits he didn’t realize how popular the new approach would prove. Now he’s a believer: “Our marketplace is really truly ready for green cleaners,” Pakko says.
And the greening goes beyond the cleaning technology: Blue Sky uses biodegradable plastic bags and nontoxic soaps and spotting chemicals. One of its vans runs on compressed natural gas. “When we put the wrong thing in the dumpster,” Pakko says, “we hear from Mark.”
Not everyone is impressed. Mark Scott, CEO of perc-using Bakker’s Fine Dry Cleaning, says the CO2 process is still experimental and extremely expensive: “It’s not a real effective cleaning method. If [clothing] is clean when it goes in, it’s clean when it comes out.” Callaghan, not surprisingly, disagrees. “It’s very clear that CO2 has been tested,” he says, noting that 3,000 former Four Seasons customers seem satisfied with the results. “The old industry’s going to keep using perc for as long as they can until they are forced to make a change.” He believes other cleaners will eventually switch to CO2 because “you’re finding more and more customers asking for a cleaner process.”
When they switch, Blue Sky will lose its exclusive franchise. But so far green cleaning has been very good to Mark Callaghan, though he’s shelved plans for expanding to other earth-friendly markets such as Portland and Vancouver. “We’re just going to do the best we can in Seattle,” he says. “One shirt at a time.” In an industry that’s off 20 to 25 percent, Blue Sky reports flat sales. These days that’s a healthy growth curve.