Name: Robert Smith
Title: Tribal Chairman of the Pala Band of Mission Indians and co-owner of the Pala Tub
Type of business: Laundromat
How long in business: Since September 2008
Original investment: $150,000
Advice for other business owners: “Do your homework and create a business plan. Talk to other people in similar businesses. If you save up enough money for a down payment, it will help you get loans.”
When Robert Smith’s aunt died, she left him half an acre on the Pala Band of Mission Indians’ reservation in Pala, California. Smith, the tribal chairman who was born and raised on the rez, was surprised by his good fortune. “I didn’t even know she left it to me until the probate was up, so I was kind of happy.”
He decided to open a business on this valuable plot of real estate, something he could build on and eventually pass on to his four daughters. The reservation already had a mini-mart, a gas station, a few eateries and of course, the Pala Casino Spa Resort. What it didn’t have was a Laundromat.
“Most people here had to go out of town to wash their clothes, and the closest Laundromat to us is about 15 miles away in Temecula,” Smith said of his aha! moment. “I thought it would be a good fit.”
Smith, who was a fireman-EMT for 20 years before becoming tribal chairman, had never before owned a business and figured he needed a little guidance. So he attended an entrepreneur’s class in Sacramento taught by the California Indian Manpower Consortium, where he put together a business plan for the reservation’s first and only laundry facility.
With $150,000 of his own savings and a bank loan he received with his business partner Merrill Everett, Smith invested in a 2,400-square-foot modular trailer and equipped it with 40 state-of-the-art washing machines, 20 dryers and vending machines that dispense soap and snacks.
Thus was the Pala Tub born. “They used to call my father Tub because he was a big guy. So I named it after him.”
When the Pala Tub opened its doors, Smith had two part-time employees who helped customers, cleaned machines and ran the fluff-and-fold. “But the economy was so bad, I had to get rid of my staff and the fluff-and-fold service,” he recalled. “Now it’s just me, my wife and my daughter who run it.”
As chairman of the Pala tribe, Smith is a busy man, so he’s glad that this Laundromat practically runs itself. It is open from eight a.m. to six p.m., seven days a week.
“I spend about 10 hours a week there, and some time on the weekends, taking out the trash and resetting the machines,” Smith said. It took him about four years before he turned a profit, which he now mostly put back into the business.
The most rewarding part of running the Pala Tub for Smith is “providing a service that is really needed in the community. I’m also proud to own one of only four businesses on the reservation. And if something happens to me, my wife and daughters will inherit it.”
Spirit of Enterprise is a biweekly series spotlighting Native entrepreneurs.