Give back to the community. These are the words which best describe Peter Kotsiopulos’ philosophy, not only for business, but also for family and volunteer activities.
Liberty Cleaners has come a long way since his grandfather arrived in the United States at Ellis Island in 1903 from Greece and was given “a loaf of bread and a dollar bill.” There are now five stores in Nebraska, which are located in Kearney, Grand Island, Hastings, York and North Platte, plus several rural agents, for a total of 45 employees. According to Kotsiopulos, the keys of success are to be “fair, open and accountable.”
His grandfather and namesake, Peter Kotsiopulos started working in restaurants in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City, and then moved to Omaha with a friend in order to learn the dry cleaning process. After that, they opened their first shop in York.
After serving in the World War I, Kotsiopulos’ grandfather Peter met a Greek fellow who was going to Kearney, so they decided to travel together. He opened the first Liberty Cleaners shop in 1918 in downtown Kearney where The Alley Rose restaurant is currently located.
After finishing college, serving in the Navy, coming back from World War II and finishing graduate school in Boston, George, Pete’s father, bought Liberty Cleaners in 1947 from his father. In his junior year at Kearney State College, Pete switched from majoring in Math and Computer Science to Business Administration. He was eager to go into the family business. Subsequently, he pressed his father on this topic.
However, his father opposed the idea. Pete now sees this as one of the best “gifts” from his father he could have received. George proposed to Pete that he could find a way to expand and diversify the business under the conditions that he first finish his degree.
“It was the best decision he ever made for me,” Pete Kotsiopulos declared.
After accepting this challenge, he did some research. In 1969 his father went with him to the bank to help him get a loan and start this endeavor. He began with men’s formal wear and opened three “Varsity Formal Wear” stores in Kearney, Grand Island and Hastings, then he also went into the uniform and linen supply business in 1971. Later in 1975, he and his father merged the three companies: cleaners, formal wear, linens and uniforms.
In the mid-’80s, Kotsiopulos and his father George established the price of the company and over a 10-year period, he bought his father’s stake in the business allowing his parents to retire.
Liberty Cleaners covered about 25 to 28 counties in South Central Nebraska. They sold the uniform and linen supply to a Lincoln firm in 1997, allowing them to focus on the cleaners and formal wear only. They had stores in Kearney, Hastings, Grand Island and North Platte as well as “agencies” in the rural areas that served as pick up and drop off locations for customers.
These flower shops, grocery stores, service stations and the like were an important part of the business model as it created a way for Liberty Cleaners to serve customers in less populated areas that still had cleaning needs. Partnerships with high-trafficked hubs were beneficial for all involved.
Kotsiopulos took a position with the University of Nebraska in 2005 and that’s when they developed more shareholders and board members in the company including his sister, wife and two daughters. The family kept the management team and that’s how the business has operated for the last 12 years.
AMERICAN FIRST, GREEK SECOND
Both of Kotsiopulos’s grandfathers came from Greece, his paternal grandfather from Goura and maternal grandfather from Kalamata.
“We came to America for a reason. Do not get your heritage and the reason we came mixed up. Your faith, your cooking, your food, your language, your customs, those are very important, but don’t get them ahead of why we came to America,” he explained. “We are American first, Greek second.” Education was very important.
Kotsiopulos first visited Greece in 1992, while his father and sister had been there several times. His cousins sporadically come to the U.S. because of the difficult Greek economic situation.
Being your own boss, even if it might seem obvious, is certainly a good point, but it’s not the only one. You can create your own direction and design, for example. In addition, you have to be a partner with your employees. You need to be “fair, open and accountable,” according to Kotsiopulos.
Dry cleaning plants are known for being very hot and people think that wearing a t-shirt makes you lose 10 pounds a day, but Kotsiopulos and his father believed that “if you can’t walk through our production plant with a coat and tie on, then why would you expect your employees to do that?” All of Liberty Cleaner’s plants are air conditioned. The employees need to be comfortable.
Obviously, the con of being a business owner is that you are responsible for everything, especially if it is a family business. The families of employees depend on the decisions you make. That can be “weighty” at times, he said.
Liberty Cleaners does not partner directly with other local cleaners, but they are always friendly to their competitors. For about the last 55 years they have belonged to a management group that coordinates 10 companies from Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois: they are in “non-competing geographic areas,” and do not seek to do business with one another’s customers.
They meet several times a year, they are in the same business and they send their financial statements to the head in Washington state. Do what you say or “walk the talk”: you may think that you are doing well, but since you get a copy of everybody’s financial statements you can prove yourself in the market and the purpose is that “if you are good in sales and marketing, you share your secrets,” as well as “if you are good with production, efficiency, with security, good with customer services, delivery and every kind of service,” Kotsiopulos said.
The members of this group also receive critiques from the other firms and learn how to switch or improve weaknesses into strengths. Companies choose to take the guidance or leave it. “Really what you’ve done is create an informal and unpaid board of directors and get other opinions from around the country,” Kotsiopulos said.
Kotsiopulos explains that being a minority business certainly had challenges. In downtown Kearney, at the Central Café, the restaurant started by his grandfather, the Ku Klux Klan picketed on a regular basis in the 1920-30s. Kotsiopulos’ grandfather and his friend were picketed by the Ku Klux Klan there.
“It was not just about Black African Americans, it was about any minorities,” he said.
During Kotsiopulos’s tenure as a businessman, he fortunately didn’t see many hardships due to cultural issues. He describes one of his biggest struggles as speaking very little English when going to grade school. He recalls an event that happened when he was at the kindergarten: they used to play a game in which the children had to say the name of objects that the teacher showed them. The teacher showed the group a baking pan, but Kotsiopulos was not able to say the English word for this. He said it in Greek, “Katsaróla.” The teacher took him for being a jokester and it resulted in a mouth full of soap. This was worked out very quickly and he learned English very quickly after starting school.
Men were more aggressive in learning the English language.
“I think my grandmothers knew more than what they let on to be, but they would still read the Greek newspapers. But at the same time they could go to the grocery store and get along,” Kotsiopulos said
Kotsiopulos’ uncle, grandfather and his Greek friend who started the Central Café, joined other members of the Greek community in Central Nebraska and together they built the Greek Orthodox Church located in Grand Island. They attended church every Sunday, regardless of the weather.
“If it was a bad day out, ice and snow, we just leave earlier,” Kotsiopulos said.
The American Hellenic Education and Progressive Association (AHEPA), “promotes the ancient Hellenic ideals of education, philanthropy, civic responsibility, integrity, and family and individual excellence through community service and volunteerism,” according to their website.
This organization started as an after-hours group for the first Greeks who came to America. It helped teach them the English language, how to go to a grocery store, how to count money, just basic necessities to help them manage in America. The organization still exists today, but it is more of a philanthropic and social organization.
“Ten percent of students at the UNK are international students. That totally changed what Kearney is about, not only the campus but the community, too. I’m sure that there are some people who don’t want to have anything to do with it, but generally I think it’s good for the community. We have a Japanese student who’s an intern in our office,” Kotsiopulos said.
Peter Kotsiopulos has certainly made his mark not only as a successful business owner, but as a community leader, through his commitment to education and civic support. He has served on the Nebraska State College Board of Trustees, Mayor’s Council and other organizations.
Those connections made a difference. James B. Milliken, former UNK president from 2004 to 2014, had a philosophy: to put the private sector with higher education.
“That was intriguing and that’s what I did for seven years, ” Kotsiopulos declared.
The aim was to create job opportunities in Nebraska. He connected businesses with students.
“Probably 80 percent of what I did was economic development. I worked with our four campuses, the community colleges, the technology transfer offices and basically get people, ideas and money in the same room and fan the fire to find out how to create jobs. I saw some incredible inventions and changes through that, but my role was to get them together in the same room, close the doors and say how can we use your money, your people, your expertise in creating jobs. I’d do it again,” he said.
Today, Kotsiopulos continues to inspire this type of connectivity and economic growth through his work with the Nebraska University Foundation office.
THIS STORY WAS COMPILED BY STUDENTS FROM THE INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF LANGUAGES AND MEDIA FROM MILAN, ITALY.
Elisabetta graduated in Interpreting and Communication at IULM University in Milan. She chose MICRI because it could give her a lot of opportunities in various fields and because she wanted to know more about the international relations. In the future, she would like to become a journalist.
Federica graduated in Economy of Cultural Heritage at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. She chose IULM University because she wanted to study more about International Relations. She’d like to work for an International PR agency or in a cultural organization.