Mark Burke, founder of Mister Neat’s Formalwear and Burke Cleaners, stands on a platform overlooking his Loveland warehouse filled with tuxedos.

Burke avoids bad advice, finds perfect fit with formalwear idea 2004 Bravo! Entrepreneur — Loveland

LOVELAND – As the oldest of five children and the possible heir to a dry cleaning business, a young Mark Burke knew one thing; he wanted to get out of his hometown of Davenport, Iowa.

He found his escape and success in Northern Colorado. Burke came to Fort Collins to attend Colorado State University. It was while he was still a senior at the school that he decided to start his own business. He wanted to do something different, something that the area didn’t already have. He decided to open a tuxedo shop.

Burke approached his academic advisor with his vision. His advisor suggested making the business plan a class project. In the end, the class determined that a tuxedo business was destined to fail in the area.

At the time, the population of Larimer County was just shy of 120,000. Fortunately, Burke didn’t heed his classmates’ warnings. He couldn’t because he had already secured the funding and signed a lease with the Fort Collins Foothills Fashion Mall. In 1974, Burke opened his first business, Mister Neat’s Formalwear.

Today, that first store is the only original tenant of the mall still operating under the original ownership. Burke now has 20 stores stretching across the Front Range from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Colorado Springs.

In 1996, Burke purchased dry cleaning equipment to handle the needs of Mister Neat’s. Prior to doing the service in-house, the company’s laundry expense was about $500,000 annually.

“It wasn’t just about saving money, it was about controlling quality,” Burke said.

The quality of dry cleaning was so good that Burke opened up a store in Fort Collins to serve as a pick-up center for the central dry cleaning operations – Burke Cleaners.

There are four Burke Cleaners in Fort Collins and two in Loveland. All of the cleaning is still done at the central operations, but now 80 percent of the cleaning is for customers and only 20 percent is for Mister Neat’s.

Burke will not take all of the credit for his success.

“The word entrepreneurship doesn’t mean that much because no one does it alone,” he said. The key to the success is the management team.”

Nancy Haboush, president of Mister Neat’s, has been with the company since 1988. Keith Longwell, senior vice president has been with the company since 1989. Bret Ellis, the chief financial officer, started with the company in 2000.

Haboush said the reason she has stayed is because of Burke and his work ethic. She said he is not the typical “desk executive.”

“That’s not the kind of leader he is,” she said. “He is still really involved with the company because he is passionate about it.”

She said he visits the stores often and still works with the customers.

“When people find out he’s the CEO, they’re surprised,” she said.

Haboush also said that Burke’s dedication to all of his employees is what keeps the company together.

“He knows every employee in our company by name and what store they work in,” she said. In a company with more than 200 employees, that’s impressive.

Burke holds quarterly company meetings for all full- and part-time employees. These meeting are more like events. They’re held at a Denver hotel and feature a dinner, and what’s best is the employees get paid for being there.

“He’s a good boss,´ said Will Sebra, an employee at the Fort Collins Foothills Mall store. “He knows what he wants and he wants it done that way. It’s good because he knows what he is doing.”

Sebra, a speech communications/Spanish major at Colorado State University, was been employed with Mister Neat’s for three years. He transferred from the Denver store a year ago to attend the university. He said the company is very flexible with his schedule for school.

Burke believes in supporting schools. This year, the company started a scholarship program and gave out $1,000 scholarships to 10 students all across the Front Range. He hopes to increase the amount of scholarships given each year.

The stores are prospering. The combined revenues for 2003 were about $10 million. Burke said he’s not done yet. He said he plans to expand both businesses.

He is looking to build more Burke Cleaners in Fort Collins and Loveland and eventually move into Greeley and Longmont. The company could open as many as 15 more locations in the next couple of years; after that the facility will need to be expanded.

Mister Neat’s might get two more stores in the metro area in the near future. Burke also said he has interest in expanding into Utah in the Salt Lake area and into New Mexico. He estimated this could happen as soon as 2006.

Burke never expected the company would be so big. His constant goal has always only to be the best.

“We don’t rent a tux; we sell an experience,” he said.