UniFirst celebrates 20 years in Owensboro

“Our next 20 years will be even more exciting,” Dave Roberts, general manager of UniFirst Corp.’s Owensboro distribution center, told the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce’s Rooster Booster Breakfast on Thursday morning.

That will be hard to do, since the company’s employment in Owensboro has increased 72.5 percent since it opened 20 years ago.

The chamber joined with the company in celebrating its 20th anniversary in the community at its breakfast meeting at the Owensboro Convention Center.

And later, many chamber members and community leaders headed out to the UniFirst distribution center in MidAmerica Airpark for a 2 p.m. celebration.

Several high-ranking corporate officials flew in from Boston for the event, leaving there at 2:15 a.m. CDT.

Steven Sintros, who became UniFirst’s president and CEO last year, told the Rooster Booster crowd that more than 18 million uniforms are shipped from the Owensboro center each year.

The company specializes in uniform rentals, laundry, maintenance and repairs.

When the 360,000-square-foot distribution center opened in 1998, it employed 258 people.

That’s grown to 445 — making the company Owensboro’s seventh-largest employer, Sintros sad.

Thirty of them have been with the company since the Owensboro center opened on Jan. 5, 1998.

The payroll has grown to between $18 million and $20 million, Roberts said.

UniFirst, he said, has “a strong relationship with the community. Our slogan is ‘We Look Good Together.’ That also describes our relationship with the community.”

Roberts told employees, “I’ve seen marriages between people who met here. I’ve seen us all come together in times of need. We’re hard-working people.”

Matt Croatti, vice president of engineering and distribution for the company his grandfather, Aldo Croatti, started 82 years ago, said he’s looking ahead to 20 more years of growth at the Owensboro distribution center.

Sintros said he first visited the Owensboro center more than 14 years ago, when he joined the company as finance manager.

He said he returns each year for a visit.

Sintros said UniFirst began in a converted Boston horse barn in 1936 with a handful of employees and a few dozen customers.

Today, he said, the company has 14,000 employees who serve 300,000 businesses from 250 facilities in North America and Europe.

UniFirst, Sintros said, now has revenues in excess of $1.6 billion a year — up from $400 million 20 years ago.

Two million people wear uniforms provided by UniFirst each day, he said.

In September 1995, Owensboro officials announced that UniFirst Corp., a Massachusetts company that then had operations in 43 states, Canada and Puerto Rico, would build a distribution center in MidAmerica Airpark that would employ up to 300 people.

It became the first company to select a location in the new industrial park just east of Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport.

Candance Brake, president of the chamber of commerce, said, “Our workforce here is second to none.”

She told the Croatti family, “You took a chance on us 20 years ago, and we’re grateful.”

Judge-Executive Al Mattingly presented Sintros with a gavel and named him an honorary judge-executive, and Mayor Tom Watson gave him a key to the city and proclaimed Thursday “UniFirst Corp. Day” in Owensboro.

By the time the $27 million uniform distribution center opened in July 1998, officials were already talking about employment growing to 400 — from the 258 then on the payroll. But it’s already reached 445.

In 2016, the company announced plans to expand the plant by 40,000-square-feet to the current 360,000 with an investment of $12 million.

By Keith Lawrence Messenger-Inquirer