A family laundry business that traces its roots back more than a century to a village in Scotland is today scrubbing the glad-rags of the well-to-do in the western San José suburb of Escazú.
The historical treasure trove is Dry Cleaning International, run by Brian Kerr, a popular member of the British ex-pat community.
The business, celebrating its 102nd birthday this year, is a classic example of entrepreneurial longevity.
Kerr’s grandfather, David Kerr, first opened a laundry in what was known as the Old Thornton Mill in the village of Innerwick, east of Edinburgh, near the start of the 20th century.
The business, which added dry cleaning in 1912, has since spanned four generations and opened up shop in another four countries, including its current Latin American home in Costa Rica.
It wasn’t until 1937 when one of David’s sons, Charles, Kerr’s father, moved south that the family firm started its international tour.
“When my father was in his late 20s or early 30s he moved to London to be involved in running the laundry at the Savoy Hotel,” said the 71-year-old Kerr. “Then a little later, he got the opportunity to buy a laundry and cleaners in Hastings (England). The business was a success but it was soon interrupted by army service during World War II.”
After the war, Kerr rejoined his father and mother, Lucy May, in Hastings. Not long after his return, the family – and the business – were on the move again when his father bought a shop in London.
Kerr’s uncles, John and Ronald, became partners after they left the army, forming Kerr Brothers Laundry Ltd.
From there, the brothers branched out across London and opened dry cleaners under various names, including Style Dry Cleaners and St David’s Laundry.
As Kerr grew up, he started to develop a passion for the family art, but not before he, too, spent a stint doing national service.
“After leaving the army I joined the family business and stayed for eight or nine years,” he said. “Then the opportunity came up to buy a laundry in Aldgate in East London.
“So I went down there in 1959 and, as it happens, there was a famous pirate radio station called Caroline FM, so I named the business Caroline Dry Cleaners after it.”
Kerr eventually began selling dry cleaning machinery, a side of his business that involved extensive travel.
During one overseas trip, he met a Canadian who offered him the chance to work as a consultant for his dry cleaning company on the other side of the Atlantic. So in 1971 the blossoming Kerr empire expanded to North America.
Business in Canada was brisk. The company grew until there were 26 branches spread across Ontario and Quebec.
The family stayed for 26 years, but life in general wasn’t always kind, and Kerr eventually grew tired of the economic climate.
“I was growing tired of Canada. I was fed up with the weather and the extortionate taxes,” he said.
In 1994, the Kerr business was on the move again, this time to Costa Rica.
“The climate was good, I could do what I wanted to do business-wise without having to become a citizen, and the cost of living was right,” he said.“My uncle had come over this way, too. He never ever returned, instead going to Brazil when he was done in Chile building the railroads, because there was another branch of the Kerr family who had settled there.”
His move south may have been in search of cheaper operating costs, but Dry Cleaning International caters to Costa Rica’s wealthy upper class.
“The expat community is not my biggest market. About 90 percent of my clients are Costa Rican. Among them is the country’s foreign minister… Clients who come here will bring maybe two or three $4,000 Versace dresses they flew to Miami to buy.”
Meanwhile, the family business looks to have a good future after son Etienne joined Brian in Escazú almost two years ago.
Etienne represents the fourth generation of Kerrs to enter the dry cleaning business, after having set out on his own in Canada.
Kerr said it’s all thanks to his grandfather that the business still lives and breathes today, a testament to the importance of efficiency and innovation to a small business’s longevity.
The original Kerr harnessed water at Thornton Mill to make electricity. In the 1950s, “Old Davey” operated a collection and delivery service by horse and cart because it was cheaper to feed and groom horses than to operate a motor vehicle.
He made his own soda ash and soaps using formulas from the previous century.
“In other words, he was a true Scot: minimize outgoings and maximize return,” said Kerr. “I like to think some of his lessons did not go to waste on my generation.”